By Sam Togba Slewion (April 14th 2005)
Philadelphia-4/13/2005: Liberians residing in the United States are intensifying their efforts to ensure their participation in the October general elections in Liberia by casting their votes in America through the Out-of-Country Voting (OCV) process.
The OCV process is not a strange phenomenon, as many Iraqis living in the United States recently participated in a similar process to elect the Iraqi General Assembly. Citizens of other countries, who have benefited from the OCV, include South Africa , Mozambique , Haiti , and Afghanistan .
The Liberian religious and civic community in the United States have launched a massive OCV campaign through a collaborative effort for the over 300,000 Liberians living in the United States to vote for the first time in the United States during the second general elections in Liberia in October since the 14-year old civil war in the country. The first general election, which brought dictator and deposed President Charles Taylor to power, was held in 1996. Mr. Taylor now lives in exile in Nigeria , while Interim President Gyude Bryant is running the country until the general elections are held.
The groups, which have formed a lose coalition to coordinate their efforts, have been holding consultative meetings attended by Liberian community and religious leaders, including the leadership of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), an umbrella organization of Liberians associations in the United States. The Rev. Dr. Napoleon Divine, Pastor of Christ International Baptist Church in Philadelphia, who is spearheading the efforts of the Liberian clergy, said Liberians living in the United States should not be denied their rights to participate in the electoral process because they are living abroad not by choice but circumstances not of their own making.
The Collaboration between the religious and civic groups is a renewed initiative not only to breath fresh air into the OCV campaign, but to boost an effort which began last year by ULAA, but ran into some bureaucratic bottlenecks among policy makers in Liberia, especially the National Elections Commission (NEC). The OCV campaign, prior to the renewed collaborative effort, appeared to have lost steam when the NEC seemed to be the stumbling block to allow Liberians to vote in the United States. A ccording to ULAA’s National President, Arthur Watson, the NEC appears not to have " the will and desire to conduct out-of-country voting for Liberians in the Diaspora.” President Watson made this assessment following a recent meeting he held in Monrovia with Chairman Frances Johnson-Morris and officials of the National Elections Commission. During the meeting Chairman Johnson-Morris cited several reasons why the Commission felt that it was not practical at this time to countenance OCV for Liberians living abroad, particularly in the United States and Europe . She cited the lack of financial and human resources, the apprehension of transparency in the process in the United States and the exclusion of the issue of the OCV from the Comprehensive Peach Accord (CPA) signed among the warring factions during the Liberian peace talk in Ghana .
Countering such arguments, President Watson indicated that many International organizations, including the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and International Organization for Migration (IOM), the group which was responsible for facilitating the OCV for Iraqis, have expressed their willingness to help facilitate the OCV for Liberians once the NEC gives its approval to the process. Mr. Watson indicated also that the Liberian community in the United States has shown a willingness to help to raise $5million dollars to underwrite the cost of the OCV if an opportunity were given them by the Liberian Elections Commision, under Chairman Johnson-Morris’stewardship. The delegation explained that the electoral process could be tailored to ensure transparency by restricting voting to Liberian embassies and missions and conducted by staff of the NEC. The OCV issue could not have been included in the Ghana Peace agreement because the primary concern of delegates to the conference at the time was to prevent further blood shed in the country and not the issue of elections," President Watson averred further.
Meanwhile, the coalition group is determined to concentrate its resources on six strategic areas to drum up support for the OCV campaign, including contacts with the international community and opinion and policy makers in the US Government and Congress; persistent contacts with government functionaries in Liberia and increased collaborative ventures with many Liberian civic and political groups and leaders, including Liberian presidential candidates.
Other strategies of the group will include demonstrations in Liberia and abroad to create awareness for OCV for Liberians, utilization of both the US and Liberian-operated media and legal action, which is the last resort, to convince the Election Commission and the Liberian government of the utility of granting approval for OCV for Liberians in the Diaspora. The group will be holding on-going meetings to effectively advocate its cause.