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Fraud-Free Elections in Liberia in Reach

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in USA TODAY, July 16, 1997.

There is no African nation whose history is more closely bound to that of America than Liberia. Few people have suffered more or, at this moment, face more unprecedented opportunities for the alleviation of their suffering than do Liberians. Having just returned from there, I believe there is now hope for successful, though not perfect, free elections. This is a positive step in a journey toward a better life for all Liberians.

On Saturday, monitors from The Carter Center, the European Union, the United Nations and Friends of Liberia will watch as Liberians elect a president and 90 members of parliament. Thirteen candidates seek the presidency, including three former faction leaders who have complied with disarmament requirements and pledged to abide by the results of the elections.

Elections are a long time in coming. Created by freed American slaves in the early 1800s, the Liberian government took its name from liberty and named its capital city Monrovia for a U.S. president but failed to grant either equal treatment or freedom to the native tribes of the interior.

In 1980, a dissident group headed by Army Sgt. Samuel Doe ended 150 years of Americo-Liberian autocratic rule when he overthrew the government and publicly executed most of the top officials. After 10 years of his despotic rule, a revolutionary group occupied most of the nation, and Doe was tortured and publicly dismembered. Since then, several warring groups have struggled for power.

At the request of Liberian faction leaders and the presidents of west African nations, The Carter Center has joined them during the past six years in seeking a cease-fire, disarmament of warring troops and internationally supervised elections. Despite these efforts, violent confrontations among power-hungry faction leaders have continued. The population of 2.6 million has been reduced to 1.5 million in recent years, with 200,000 casualties, 670,000 forced into exile and 800,000 others displaced from their homes and living in camps near Monrovia.

Today, with the influence of an African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) led by Nigerians, a fragile peace prevails: 32,000 weapons of the warring factions have been confiscated and arrangements for elections have been made.

There are, however, significant problems to overcome in the electoral process. The election commission is underfunded and working with an exceedingly short deadline; one of the presidential candidates has superior resources and access to his own media; transportation is difficult during the current rainy season; and the threat of violence remains.

In addition, Monrovia is physically destroyed and overpopulated with displaced persons. The most vivid measure of the poverty and suffering is that, within 50 miles of Monrovia, none of us ever saw an animal of any kind, except for one dead cat that was being offered for sale.

Still, there are signs of hope. There is amazing commercial activity in the city, and the people are in good spirits. One hundred and twenty-six thousand refugees have returned during the past two months, joining others who are determined to resettle and begin putting their lives back together.

There is a good chance for an imperfect but adequate election, the only alternative to continuing violence. Despite transportation difficulties, registration materials have been delivered to 1,564 voting sites. I observed long lines of citizens registering to vote. ECOMOG troops will assist election officials and stay for at least six months to preserve order and train a minimal national army and police force. No disarmed faction can challenge ECOMOG, and the large number of international observers will be able to detect any significant fraud. It is likely that the winner will be inaugurated peacefully.

The realization of these goals will demonstrate vividly the ability of leaders in Africa, or anywhere, to resolve a complex crisis in their midst. If ECOMOG remains neutral and election observers continue to work in harmony, there is much cause for optimism. But perhaps most important and uncertain of all is whether the international community will be generous in supporting this troubled nation's effort to come back to life.

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