Liberia: Taylor Seeks Re-Election, Despite Growing Opposition

By Abdullah Dukuly
Published January 30th 2003 in Inter Press Service

MONROVIA - Defying the growing opposition to his leadership, President Charles Taylor, who is under UN and U.S. travel restrictions, is seeking a second four-year term of office this year.

To win the election, Taylor has vowed to enforce the residency clause of the Liberian constitution, disqualifying candidates who have not resided in the war-torn country for 10 years. All serious candidates have fled the country when Taylor assumed power in 1997.

Liberia, founded by a group of freed slaves in 1847, holds general elections on Oct 14.

But political analysts wonder whether the residency clause will affect anybody since no potential candidate has stayed away for consecutive 10 years.

In order to stop anybody from contesting, you must be able to show that Mr. X left Liberia all by himself, did not care to return, had his happy good lucky life abroad, and all of a sudden he hears election year is coming. Then he bounces back on the scene to say he wants to lead the nation when we were here suffering and eating cassava (manioc),'' says Marcus Jones, a law professor.

Civil groups and Western diplomats have described the electoral exercise as inadequate.

The U.S. embassy in Monrovia says the necessary conditions for election do not exist to permit free and fair polls. The United States wants the government to seek UN assistance. ''The United Nations has excellent capability and experience in playing a key role in the upcoming election across-the-board,'' says John W. Blaney, the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.

Blaney says ''The American government is worried at the prospects of severely limiting candidates desirous of contesting the presidency''.

Some exiled politicians, who fled the country in 1997, are returning home.

Another contentious political debate is the Liberian population. The country has not had a census for 20 years because of the continuing war that has displaced thousands of people and killed more than 160,000 others. Towns and villages have also been destroyed - in one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars rooted in a scramble for power and wealth.

The 1984 pre-war census put the number of people in Liberia at 2.5 million. The absence of a latest data on the country's population distribution pattern has prompted ruling party officials to claim that Liberia now has 5 million people.

This unsubstantiated figure has raised eyebrows. ''How did we become 5 million when we've been fighting a war, hundreds of thousands of people have died and we're still fighting, killing one another and many people have left the country?'' queries Jones, who is also the president of the National Bar Association of Liberia.

So, he insists, a census is a must if Liberia is to have a credible election''.

The election is expected to resolve the long-running political squabble that has dogged Liberia for decades. The dispute resulted to a war, triggered by former warlord Charles Taylor against the regime of slain dictator Samuel Doe. Taylor's Libyan-trained guerrillas invaded Liberia from neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire in December 1989.

The war initially partitioned the country, with Taylor running an administration in central Liberia as opposed to a sub-regional creation of an interim government in the capital Monrovia.

The de facto division of the country into different administrations with separate economic zones and two separate local currencies with varying exchange rates aggravated an already difficult and complex hardship, with shortages of foreign currency and closure of some banks.

To accommodate all potential candidates, the 16-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which brokered peace in Liberia, designed a system of proportional representation contrary to the old voting code introduced at independence in 1847, bringing the entire country under a single electoral district.

Thirteen political parties contested the 1997 election that was seen as the only alternative to ending the war. Taylor's NPP won the poll with a large margin.

Now four years after the election, the condition that necessitated the 1997 election still persists. A new rebel group is fighting the government in the north and insecurity mounts across the country, making the nation-wide census and civic education impossible.

The Elections Commission hopes to rely on the credibility of voters' registration process for the October elections, says chairperson Paul Guah.

Guah has pleaded with the international community to provide funds for the election. Out of a proposed budget of 11 million U.S. dollars for the elections, president Taylor's cash-starved government has provided 8.3 million U.S. dollars. The development programmes of the country, still without running water and electricity, are at standstill as international aid to the government -- also under arms and economic sanctions -- is far-fetched owing to its worsening rights records.

Taylor and his officials are facing travel restrictions by the UN and the United States for their alleged engagement in gun-running and diamond smuggling with rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone, fuelling the war in that country.