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Jimmy Carter's Trip Report: Liberia and Ghana, Oct. 8-15, 2005

LIBERIA: Our earliest visit to Liberia was in 1978, which happened to be the first time an American president went to sub-Sahara Africa. We chose Nigeria and Liberia because Nigeria was and is the largest and most influential African nation and because Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century. Also, at that time, Liberia's President Tolbert was the leader of the Baptist World Alliance. About a year later, Tolbert and 13 of his cabinet members were lined up and assassinated by insurrectionist Samuel Doe.

This was the beginning of an era of extreme violence and corrupt government that has made Liberia one of the most war-torn and poverty stricken nations in the world, despite its rich natural resources in land, timber, and minerals. Except within foreign embassy compounds, there are no buildings that are not heavily damaged or totally destroyed in Monrovia or other urban areas. Fields are largely abandoned, unemployment is astronomical, and the majority of people exist on less than 50 cents per day.

The Carter Center began our remediation efforts in Liberia in 1989, when staff members, Rosalynn, and I made regular visits. Only 5 percent of Liberia, around Monrovia, was protected by peacekeeping forces and governed by an appointed president, while 95 percent of the nation was controlled by Charles Taylor and other warlords.

After several years of work, led by leaders from other West Africa nations, disbandment of armies and substantial disarmament was orchestrated, and a technically fair election was held in 1997, resulting in Taylor's gaining a substantial majority. This was due to his longtime control in the interior and the general belief that conflict would recommence if he was rejected by the voters.

Despite the best efforts of us and others, he turned out to be both corrupt and a despot, not only persecuting his own people but inciting conflict in neighboring countries. We were forced to close our office in Monrovia after about three years because of intimidation and harassment that resulted from our public condemnation of Taylor's regime. International pressures finally removed him from office and forced him into exile in 2003, and he is now under house arrest in Nigeria. Efforts continue to bring him to trial before an international court.

The United Nations and ECOWAS (a coalition of West African States) negotiated a Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2003 that ended civil conflict in Liberia and set the stage for an election on October 11, 2005, designed to choose a president, 30 senators, and 64 representatives. Twenty-two pairs of candidates qualified for president and vice-president, and 718 others competed for the legislative seats. Beginning in March of this year, The Carter Center reestablished its presence in three offices in Liberia and deployed long-term election observers in August.

One of the top candidates for president is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who had been one of the few surviving cabinet officers of the Tolbert administration and was later a senior official of the U.N. Development Program. She ran unsuccessfully for president in 1997. The other leading candidate is George Weah, a famous soccer star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, who seems to have strong support among young Liberians. Others who have nationwide campaign efforts are Charles Brumskine (Senate President Pro Tempore under Taylor), Roland Massaquoi (graduate of Cornell with Ph.D. from LSU, a rice scientist, and former Minister of Agriculture under Taylor), Varney Sherman (close associate of interim government chairman Gyude Bryant), and Winston Tubman (Minister of Justice under Samuel Doe and later a special representative of the U.N. in Somalia).

Although Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf are best known among the international media, several of the others are favorite sons in the hinterlands, and it was uncertain which ones would be on top.

The U.N. has deployed a substantial military and administrative force in Liberia (UNMIL), which has resulted in a relatively peaceful environment conducive to a successful election process. In addition, there are about 400 international observers deployed, including 40 (from 14 nations) representing The Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute. Former President Nicephore Soglo of Benin is co-chairman of our delegation.

We arrived in Liberia Sunday night, 9 October, and were met and briefed by U.S. Ambassador Don Booth. Our observer teams had already completed two days of intensive training and were deployed throughout the country. It is interesting to note that about 10 percent of the polling sites with an equivalent number of voters are officially "inaccessible." This means that no vehicles can reach them, and from one hour to four days of human transport is necessary to deliver voting materials. Other "difficult" places require substantial carrying of supplies through jungles and across streams.

As has been our custom during 60 previous election monitoring missions, we met with our staff, other foreign observers, local and international officials, election commission leaders, candidates, and party officials. In this case, we were especially heartened by the obvious commitment and competence of UNMIL and ECOWAS and their clear determination to maintain a substantial presence until next March, after a new government is established. This major foreign presence is unprecedented in Liberia and is crucial to permanent stability and progress.

A potentially serious last minute election problem was created when the Supreme Court ruled that each person could vote for two senatorial candidates. The National Election Commission had mandated one vote only and was forced to modify instructions, which created voting delays, and the resulting confusion also will lead to possible legal challenges. All legislative seats will be determined by a plurality of voting, so a run-off is only possible for president, where a majority is required.

Hundreds of people began lining up at poll sites soon after midnight, and there were enormous lines of voters by the time polls opened officially at 8 a.m. Rosalynn and I visited 48 polling stations during the day at 15 different sites, all within the Monrovia area, and we found the voters surprisingly patient. There were many women with babies on their backs, some of them having been in line for more than 10 hours before entering the voting booths. Voting procedures were complex, but election officials seemed to be well instructed and meticulous in performing their duties. Reports received from our son Chip (in Buchanan) and other deployed observer teams were similar to our own observations: huge lines, a slow but orderly process, with no violence.

We witnessed the sorting and some counting of ballots in the five polling stations in City Hall, one of the few places blessed, although tardily, with electric lights. (Two battery operated lanterns had been distributed to each election team.) Results in our first site showed that Johnson-Sirleaf and Weah were the leading candidates, neither of them receiving a majority of votes. Later and wider reports showed that Weah was strongest all over the country with a surprisingly small plurality (about 30 percent), and challenged by Johnson-Sirleaf (20 percent) and local favorites, which means that there will be a run-off election on November 8th.

We met several times with other international leaders, and all agree that it is crucial for UNMIL to extend its presence for at least a year after a new administration takes office in January, and for sustained financial support and advice from other sources are required. The abject poverty, deprivation, destruction of property, and the culture of government corruption are all too deeply ingrained to be quickly corrected, even by honest and well-meaning new leaders. I have never seen such a united and determined commitment for the international community to insure that the democratic progress will be sustained.

On Thursday (10/13), our observer teams made their collective reports, and we issued our interim statement at an afternoon press conference (available on our Center's Web site). In addition, I had a series of media interviews and made a visit to NEC headquarters and to the vote tabulation center, where results were trickling in from the 15 county headquarters. We also visited the health ministry and found that Liberia has a substantial sum (about $20 million) being distributed through UNDP from the World Fund for AIDS, TB, and malaria. Others are helping with onchocerciasis, but they have no program for trachoma. They have not distributed any impregnated bed nets, which is a good indication that the available resources are going primarily for salaries and other "administrative" costs.

Summary: Liberia has been devastated by conflict and corruption; the people are determined to improve their own lives; the international community has finally marshaled a concerted effort to be of assistance; a successful election process is in place; unique international monitoring of financial processes will be imposed on the newly elected government; an extended UNMIL presence needs to be authorized by the U.N. Security Council; development assistance is needed for all humanitarian causes from international agencies, nations, and NGOs.

GHANA: We have been concerned about the slow progress in Ghana's eradication of Guinea worm, so I was glad to accept an invitation from President Kufuor to meet with him and his cabinet. The Carter Center has been deeply involved in the country since 1986, primarily with our Global 2000 agriculture projects and dealing with two elections, Guinea worm, and trachoma. The UN furnished us a flight to Accra, and we arrived there at noon on 10/14, greeted by Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater. We drove north about 100 miles to Akosombo, where the president, his cabinet, and about two dozen other advisors were assembled at a retreat to put the final touches on Ghana's annual budget and to establish priorities for the coming year. After I gave the group a report on Liberia's election and discussed matters of common interest, President Kufuor and I had a private meeting in a lodge overlooking a dam that harnesses the largest man-made lake in the world.

Ghana has played a leading role among the West Africa states and is making remarkable economic progress, with a thriving private enterprise system. They have prepared an excellent proposal to meet America's demanding "Millennium Compact" standards, with an emphasis on agriculture. Cape Verde is the only other nation that has qualified for the special trade and other concessions. Although there has been a 57 percent reduction during the past 12 months, there are still more than 2,500 cases of Guinea worm in Ghana. Both the president and minister of health pledged to give special attention to the final stages of eradication.

There is more difference in the quality of life between Monrovia and Accra than between Accra and New York.

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