By Nathan N. Mulbah
In June 2006, the President of the Republic of Liberia, Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, nominated seven Liberians to serve as Board of Commissioners of the current National Elections Commission (NEC). These sons and daughters of mother Liberia were scrutinized and vetted by the Senate standing committee on Elections and Autonomous Agencies.
After the vetting exercise and public hearing, the seven personalities were subsequently confirmed by the Senate and appointed by the President.
Those appointed were: James M. Fromayan -Chairman; Elizabeth J. Nelson -Co-Chairman; David S. Menyongai; Ansumanah Kromah; Jeanette Ebba-Davidson and Della I.K. Reeves.
These seven commissioners inherited a dysfunctional Election Management Body (EMB) that the electorate has practically lost interest in. The task of winning public confidence in the Commission was Herculean and uphill as the material resources for running the Commission were in short supplied. Moreover, structurally, the Commission was in dire need of evolving a system and building the institution in such a manner that befits an EMB that the electorate can have explicit confidence in.
The 2005 elections, which were basically the harbinger to the institutionalization of true democratic elections in Liberia, were conducted with heavy input from international partners. The institutional infrastructures were virtually non-existence. There were no office spaces in the 15 political subdivisions of the country least to talk about adequate staff and or warehouses. During the 2005 elections, cargo containers were used as warehouses whilst makeshift public and rented private structures were used as office spaces across the country. To salvage the EMB from such a bizarre position to a more respectable and acceptable stature, it required the wit, prowess and intelligence of a committed bench.
In the aftermath of the 2005 poll, the Fromayan Bench embarked on an ambitious electoral reform project. It started with a lesson learned conference which culminated in the publication of a 2006-2011 Strategic Plan.
The workshop that led to the formulation of the Strategic Plan essentially addressed ten thematic areas I. Legal Framework Overview; II. Logistics; III. Civic Voter/Education; IV. Staff Capacity Building; V. Political Party and Candidate Relations; VI. Voter Registration and Constituency Re-demarcation; VII. Preparations for By-election, Municipal and Chieftaincy Elections; VIII. Public Information / Media and Information Technology; IX. Budgeting and Donor Coordination and X. Institutional Structural Arrangement.
The results from this workshop which are reflected in the Strategic Plan 2006-2011, to a large extent, served as the road map for the Commission preparation in the lead up to the widely publicized 2011 Presidential and Legislative Elections.
Legal Frame Work
Owing to the ambiguity of some elections related constitutional provisions and in some instances, the lack of legal provisions for certain election related activities, the Commission put in vogue programs aimed at the actualization of the appropriate legal framework.
The legal framework for the conduct of elections in Liberia is rooted in the 1986 Constitution of Liberia and spelt out in the below listed laws, regulations and guidelines as developed and or reworked under the guidance of the Fromayan Bench: I. The New Elections Law of 1986; II. The Electoral Reform Law of 2004; III. The Voter Registration Regulations of 2010; IV. Guideline on the Determination of Objections; V. Regulation on the Removal of Under-aged Voters from the Registration Roll; VI. Resolution on the Reinstating the Under-aged Voters Who have been Excluded from the Voter Rolls; VII. Guidelines Relating to the Registration of Political Parties and Independent Candidates; VII. Guidelines Establishing Electoral Districts In Liberia; IX. County Threshold for the Establishment of Electoral District and Referendum Regulations.
Staff Capacity Building
Dear to the heart of the Fromayan Bench was the development of an EMB whose staff are conversant and abreast of new trends evolving in the conduct of elections in keeping with international best practice.
Towards this end, scores of employees, from different departments, were privileged to have attended different strands of electoral training either abroad or in Liberia.
Many personnel at the NEC benefited from electoral training in Building Resources in Democracy Governance and Elections (BRIDGE). As a matter of fact, from time to time, staffs were selected to understudy other electoral jurisdictions either by observing their electioneering process or by just studying the way other electoral systems work.
This level of exposures have essentially boosted NEC staff capacity to an extent that the Commission was able to conduct the 2011 Presidential and Legislative elections with minimum help from international partners.
Moreover, some staffs were sent outside Liberia to study courses in elections management at the graduate and post graduate level. These staffs have returned to beef up the human resource capacity of the Commission.
Decentralization of NEC Activities
In the past, the entire activities surrounding the conduct of elections in Liberia, were centralized. But with the advent of the Fromayan Bench, activities of the Commission have virtually been decentralized.
The decentralization of the NEC activities is reflected in the conduct of elections and tallying of results, field activities including magistrate offices, electoral warehouses and election magisterial staff configuration.
Before the coming of the Fromayan Bench, it was common to see poll workers trucking ballot papers to a central point in the Capital City (Monrovia) to be counted and results announced in a manner reminiscence of a 15 century electoral system. But today, with the introduction of Information Technology Communication, using VSAT and other elections Information Technology modules and software plus trained electoral staff, results are tallied in every electoral districts, pasted in the open for all to see and then ferried to Headquarters Data Center for analysis and subsequent announcement by the Board of Commissioners through the Chairman.
Now, the new phenomena in the conduct of by-election is to completely localize the process by holding all elections related work in the district or county the by-election is being conducted.
Perhaps, standing tall on the achievement list of the James M. Fromayan Bench is that, under this Bench, a new state of the art super-structure modern Headquarters was constructed in Sinkor, Monrovia.
The building was constructed with funding from the United States Government and people. The structure was erected by a Liberian construction firm (LRDC). The cost of construction is estimated at 3.5 million United States dollars.
Unequivocally though, the construction of the new NEC Headquarters has substantially cut down on the colossal amount of money bankrolled by the National Government as rental for the building that the NEC used as its previous headquarters. The last time I checked, the Liberian Government was putting on the table a whopping sum of US$77,000.00 as annual rental for the NEC old office.
Added to the new Headquarters, built with funding from the United Sates Government, the Fromayan Bench hired the service of a Chinese construction company to construct a spacious electoral warehouse and a modern conference room with self-contained offices at the NEC National Headquarters.
It will interest you to know that prior to the 2005 polls, the National Elections Commission presence was never felt in the leeward counties. But by 2005, with help from international partners, the Commission hired some makeshift offices for the NEC 19 Elections Magistrates and their staffs spread across the 15 political sub-divisions of the country.
In the same streak, international partners procured cargo containers to be used as election warehouses. These containers were used to store sensitive and non-sensitive elections materials. But with time, these containers gradually got damaged and became of no use owing to rapid oxidation.
Being a bench keen on ameliorating the NEC at all strata, the Commission embarked on a project to build offices and warehouses in all the 19 magisterial areas. Today, as we write, there are spacious offices and warehouses in every NEC Magisterial areas. These were built with subvention bankrolled by the Government of Liberia. Thanks to the Fromayan Bench for its sagacity and commitment to sound election management. The NEC is probably the only Commission or agency of government that have got this level of representation across the country.
Additionally, the Commission recruited County Elections Coordinators, Officers and other clerical staff in the magisterial areas to assist the Elections Magistrates in the effectuation of their duties. During peak electoral seasons, legal Hearing Officers, who are law school graduates are recruited to serve in the hearing of complaint emanating from the field. They are essentially the first line of administrative adjudication.
Regular Public Consultation (s)
Public consultations on every step of electoral related activities across the country were probably the strengths of the Fromayan Bench.
Local and traditional leaders, market women, youth groups, religious groups, civil society organizations, international and local partners, political parties as well as all stakeholders were regularly consulted by the NEC in all of its activities. Be they development of legal framework or rolling out civic voters’ education intervention, the NEC consulted all stakeholders.
In fact, to ensure political parties involvement in the electoral process, the Inter Party Collaborative Committee (IPCC) forum was established. This platform is used to allow political parties have a say in every decision that is reached by the Commission when it comes to elections related matters.
The public consultations plus the IPCC forum, certainly gave ownership of the electoral process to the hoi-polloi.
Finally, in view of this analysis, it is a fait-accompli that the National Elections Commission under the leadership of James M. Fromayan laid a concrete foundation on which Liberia’s emerging democracy is being constructed via regular conduct of credible elections. It is hoped that this current generation and posterity will maintain and sustain the enviable strives the Fromayan Bench has chalked. We doff our hats to that bench for this enviable legacy.