What can America learn from Liberia in managing electoral disputes and transitions?

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For many years Liberians have looked to America for both foreign aid and its political culture. The crucial role played by America in the establishment of the country in the early 1800s have made observers dub the country ‘America’s stepchild’. The country has almost certainly copied every form of modern institution and constitutional culture from America.  To be sure, its founding constitution was first drafted at Harvard University in 1847.

Since then, Liberia’s political party system, government institutions, and laws continue to follow traditions in the United States. The two countries therefore have many similarities which offer opportunities to draw lessons from each other in times of crisis. In addition to regular democratic elections and transitions of power, both countries have experienced grotesque assassinations of some of their leaders and have gone through prolonged civil wars out of which they managed transitional processes that set their countries back on the democratic rail. (Liberia transitioned from civil at the beginning of this century while America did in the 19th century).

But in peace time, Liberia has never experienced what the US experienced on January 6, 2021 – a violent protest that ransacked the US Congress and disrupted a constitutional process of confirming the election of a leader. By seeking to violently overturn the outcome of a hotly contested presidential election, the rioters—who support the defeated and outgoing president—also undermined several core principles of individual rights guaranteed in a democracy, including freedom of speech and expression. In Liberia, as in America, it is quite common or normal for politicians to object to election results that do not go their way. For instance, the last three presidential elections in Liberia were hotly contested and losing candidates and parties did not easily accept the outcomes. But cases of post-election disputes in Liberia in the last two decades have never been at the damaging scale seen in other countries, and never extended to the disruption and desecration of the public institutions through which democracy functions as it happened in America very recently.

Transitions in Liberia

Despite having fragile institutions – from political parties, to the electoral commission and the courts – political actors always commit to an orderly transition. Among the many stress tests Liberia’s democracy has undergone in the last two decades, the 2017-2018 transition stands out as the most remarkable. And this is where America must look for more lessons in charting a path out of its current ill-fated experience. The results of the first round of the 2017 election in Liberia was rejected by the ruling Unity Party which fielded the sitting vice president as its flagbearer. The runoff was held after more than two months of court battles. In the end the opposition won the presidential election. This was the first time a ruling party had lost election in Liberia in 70 years. The acceptance of the outcome by the sitting vice president paved the way for a very seamless presidential transition in January 2018. Furthermore, the public acceptance of the results by the defeated party was crucial in establishing the legitimacy of the incoming government and sustaining public confidence in the electoral process.

In 2011 the opposition Congress for Democratic Change initially boycotted the run-off presidential election, but finally accepted its outcome after a credible negotiated settlement was reached. Such a settlement was crucial for the stability and legitimacy of the government. Had the opposition and the ruling party not submitted to such a settlement mediated by respected citizens and cultural leaders, the implications would have been disastrous for the country. In this case, the party leaders put the country before their ambitions.

The challenges for the United States

Like Liberia before, the United States has just come out of a hotly contested election and by many standards, the country has sunk into a crisis of democratic backsliding occasioned by the refusal of a sitting president to accept the outcome of a presidential election which he soundly lost; his rejection of rulings upholding the results by federal and state level courts; and mobilization of his supporters to disrupt Congress on 6 January. By these events, the credibility and integrity of American institutions in all branches of government were attacked, and despite their consistency and apparent resilience in pushing through, the events have severely dented America’s democratic credentials.

In repairing these damages and in rebuilding public trust and confidence in its democracy, particularly when it comes to managing transitions, America must now turn to Liberia, the proverbial stepchild, to learn some lessons. 

The first lesson is that politicians must commit to rule-order transitions in a democracy. Despite having relatively weaker institutions – from parties, to the electoral commission, and the courts – political actors in Liberia continue to demonstrate commitment to a rule-order transition. Parties that object to election results do stage peaceful demonstrations, file complaints before the Supreme Court and exhaust all possible avenues of getting a fair outcome. By doing this, they make their supporters learn and accept that the best way out – and perhaps the only way – is the rule of law whose arbiters are the respective national institutions. Electoral grievances, therefore, cannot be settled in the streets, but through the national institutions. 

Liberians have also made use of alternative mechanisms to address electoral grievances and other forms of political disputes. National institutions themselves have facilitated these alternative mechanisms. How they do this brings us to the second lesson. National institutions like the electoral commission do collaborate with social-cultural and religious organizations and senior citizens to organize independent and credible committees to mediate political crises. The focus of mediation is usually to facilitate political dialogue, reduce strain on national institutions like courts and impress on politicians to eschew violence and inflammatory rhetoric. Several senior citizens in the US including former presidents and former secretaries of defence made public statements calling on parties and candidates to accept the outcome of the November election and commit to a peaceful transition. Despite their individual public standings, they could not make much impact to avoid the chaotic event of January 6 since they mostly acted individually and not through a publicly endorsed mediation committee. Committees of such, pioneered in West Africa during the Liberian civil war, have mediated crises in several countries and are becoming fashionable as credible support to democratic institutions in Africa.

Learning the lessons

Thus, after nearly two decades of stable and progressive democratic culture, manifested by peaceful and seamless presidential transitions, Liberia’s reliance on both institutional mechanisms and negotiated political settlements that facilitate the transformation of electoral and political crises into opportunities for reform and inclusive politics, are important lessons in democratic resilience. Many other countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone have used similar mechanisms in the past. They might be similarly useful to America.

Ibrahim Nyei is a PhD scholar in politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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