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Visit to Liberia

By Jimmy Carter

I returned to Liberia about two weeks after my previous visit, this time accompanied by Rosalynn. Of an original population of 2.4 million, there have been 200,000 deaths, 600,000 refugees, and 800,000 displaced persons now living in camps near Monrovia. Despite this, we found that 751,000 people had registered to vote. Earlier this year, UNOMIL and ECOMOG forces completed a successful disarmament of warring factions and were maintaining almost perfect order, while the Nigerians and other ECOWAS leaders orchestrated and implemented the electoral process we were there to observe.

When we arrived on July 17, however, two days before the election, there were still many unanswered questions regarding the cooperation we might have in doing a quick count on election night, how the Election Commission would receive and process ballots, and how a large number of newly created and relocated voting sites would be accommodated on election day.

We met with our Carter Center group who remained in the Monrovia area and learned how others had already been deployed into 11 of the 13 counties. Some had to drive six hours or more to remote regions in northern Liberia, while others were flown by helicopter to areas in the south and east that had no passable roads. We were not able to deploy observers in the extreme southeastern corner in Grand Kru and Maryland counties, where less than 4 percent of the voters were located.

We made arrangements with the European Union delegation to contribute to our quick count vote, giving us a total of 86 sites. Then we went to meet privately with Ambassador Kalomoh, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General. He agreed to share information with me on the UN quick count based on results from 158 UN polling sites. We agreed that none of us would reveal our collective information to the public, but would share it with the Election Commission and the Nigerians, the present leaders of the West African states.

I then went to ECOMOG headquarters for a private meeting with General Malu, and had a completely successful session. He and his 10,000 troops were firmly in charge of security, and three soldiers were present in each of the 1,960 or so polling sites. He helped us in every way to move around with security, and was responsible for the expeditious transfer of voting boxes, ballots, and tabulation sheets to Robertsfield (the now bombed out and deserted Monrovia airport) for safekeeping as they came in and then to Election Commission headquarters in Monrovia. We agreed to exchange the election results with each other, and to include Nigeria's Foreign Minister Ikimi.

Former President Soglo of Benin joined our delegation at this time for a productive meeting with the Election Commission. We urged them to collect voting results as expeditiously as possible, to announce preliminary returns as they were received, to simplify the tabulation documents, and to require initials or signatures. We learned later that they issued instructions accordingly.

We held a press conference to explain the purpose of our mission and invited Ambassador Speekenbrink of the European Union and OAU delegation leader Ambassador Paul Rupia of Tanzania to join us. There was a large contingent of international press in Liberia, including CNN, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, and about a dozen others.

Our next meeting was with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Unity Party candidate. She was critical of Charles Taylor, stating that she would not accept his victory or serve in any way in a government if he should be elected. Under our questioning about accepting the results of an honest election, she only became more vehement.

We were joined by Senator Paul Simon and his wife Jeanne, as we went to see Charles Taylor, NPP candidate. He seemed to be quite confident of victory but stated his willingness to accept whatever results might come. We then visited candidates Alhaji Kromah and Cletus Wortorson, both of whom had many complaints about the election commission, ECOMOG, and the superior resources of the NPP party.

July 19, Election Day
We were out early and witnessed by far the longest lines and most patient people we have ever seen. Many had slept at the polling sites and been lined up as early as 2 a.m., and it seemed that almost all the registered voters were there when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Since there was only one place to be marked on the ballot, voting went quite rapidly, with 1 to 1-1/2 minutes required per person. The voters were mostly illiterate, with many of them having trouble holding a pencil and then needing instruction on how to make two lines cross. Polling officials were patient, the ECOMOG soldiers at each site were impartial and helpful, and there was a large number of Liberian observers present from each political party. We and all our other volunteers felt that the citizens were grateful for this help in making their own choice and for our presence.

Rosalynn and I personally checked 31 polling places during the day and found a logjam at only one. This was at the Chicken Soup Factory site near Monrovia, where three voting tables were crammed into a very small room. When I met General Malu, he promised to help arrange the tables to expedite the process. We went back there at 4:30 p.m. to see the last votes cast and votes counted. It was a slow, tedious, meticulous procedure, almost like a religious ceremony. At this location, Taylor received more than 60 percent. There was no evidence of intimidation, impatience, or disorderly conduct in any of the regions, and almost all the polls closed as scheduled at 4 p.m.

It was obvious that the Election Commission was approaching the collection of election returns in a very slow and confused manner. During the night, our partial quick count, mostly around Monrovia, showed that Taylor was winning a clear victory, with about 62 percent of the votes cast. Since the fighting in their home communities had displaced many of these people, it seemed likely that he would be more popular in the hinterland.

During the evening I met with Nigerian Foreign Minister Ikimi, who had just come from another meeting in Abidjan with key players in the Sierra Leone dispute. He expressed a firm commitment to the process of dialogue (another meeting with "coup plotters" is scheduled for next Friday, July 25), then an increasingly tight economic embargo, with any military action to be ordered only as a final resort. The key question at this stage of the dispute is whether the revolutionaries will agree to permit the elected president Kabbah to return to Freetown. The Nigerians are very proud of their leadership in Liberia, hope to emulate this success in Sierra Leone, and want to improve relations with the United States and other Western nations.

July 20
No one was at the election headquarters at 9:30 a.m., and they had only received returns from 93 of the 1,960 polling stations. At the UN headquarters we learned that their quick count, including more returns from the rural areas, was giving Taylor about 75 percent. Seats in parliament will be allocated on the same ratio, based only on this first round of voting. I was hoping there would be a much stronger legislative opposition, no matter who might win the final run-off for president.

This was Sunday, and we went to a beautiful service at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, and former Liberian interim president Amos Sawyer came in to sit with us. We both made brief statements during the service.

In the afternoon I had a private meeting with Taylor and received his commitment to bring key opposition leaders, including Roosevelt Johnson, into his government; to establish a strong and independent human rights group; to welcome an American military mission; to re-strict the size of Liberia's armed forces and police; to cooperate fully with ECOMOG during the next six months; to reassure both Liberians and foreigners in his public statements and refrain from giving foreign businessmen unfair advantages; and to become "a Mandela, not a Mobutu." He was very eager to work closely with the United States. We were all pleased that he had not claimed victory, but was deferring to the Election Commission rules that only they would announce results.

We found Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be more moderate than before, somewhat reconciled to her defeat (although not admitting it), and determined to lead the "civilian political parties" in opposition if Taylor should be elected.

Back at the Election Commission about 4:30 p.m. we found that they had tabulated 223 returns (12 percent) and planned to make their first announcement at 6:30 p.m. We asked that their second one be at 11:00 a.m. the next day, and they agreed, so that our joint press conference scheduled at noon could confirm their data.

Chip Carter drove in from Voinjama, and Jason Carter came in by helicopter from Greenville, the last of our 40 observers to return. They were all excited, filled with stories of adventures, and reporting a uniformly excellent election process.

If final election returns confirm our projections, Charles Taylor is scheduled to be inaugurated on August 2. We have known him for six years. Although known as a brutal war lord, he is shrewd, competent, a good politician, and is eager to be accepted as legitimate and responsible by the international community and especially by the United States.

Liberia's needs are too desperate to place the new government on probation for several months before committing humanitarian assistance to the destitute and now hopeful people. Charles Taylor must be held strictly accountable for protecting human rights in the broadest sense, for proper accountability in the handling of aid funds, and in dealing with the private sector. Knowing that he has won an overwhelming victory, he has shown remarkable restraint in not making any public announcements (as of Monday noon when we left Monrovia).

One specific thing that would be most helpful is an early announcement of reestablishing a large Peace Corps in Liberia, perhaps using some of those already trained to go into the two Congos. The country needs schools, garden seeds and other minimal assistance for family farming operations, and help with rural roads and communications. There are already an impressive number of houses being erected by individual families, with pole frames, woven sides, and thatched roofs. These should be adequate in the rural areas.

July 21
Today we had our first heavy rain. I sent a report to President Clinton and Secretary Albright, we had our final press conference, Chip and Jason decided to remain with the small Carter Center delegation to attend the inauguration, and we went to Robertsfield to leave for Abidjan, Paris, Frankfurt, and Beijing. Only about 1,100 out of 1,800 ballot boxes had arrived at Robertsfield, but ECOMOG officers reported that large numbers were en route by truck and helicopter.

Needless to say, The Carter Center is very determined to continue our long-standing involvement with this country and will welcome any possibility of cooperation with official agencies.

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