One principal challenge that faces any war torn country in building peace, addressing reconciliation, developing democracy and democratic principles is the understanding that these cannot be achieved on quick impact projects but instead lies in the commitment and capacity of the leaders that will emerge to bring together the various stakeholders to undertake long term programs in order to address the mistrust and suspicions that had existed between and amongst the people.
Liberia after almost fourteen years of war held elections in October 2005 and a run-off Presidential election in November of the same year that has been praised around the world as one of the most free and fair elections ever in the Africa Continent. The National Elections Commission of Liberia (NEC) has emerged as one of the most trusted institutions in the country with the commitment to develop and implement participatory democracy in the elections process. The NEC is determined to bridge the gap not only in the communication flow from top to bottom and vice versa but also in giving the population the opportunity to make their voices heard and to fully participate and exercise their democratic rights.
This is evident in the NEC and IFES’ collaboration in taking advantage of the inter-election period to undertake various capacity building programs in the continued development of the professional skills of their technical and professional staff in elections administration. For example, the NEC has enthusiastically embraced the Bridge curriculum as a tool for professional and organizational development. Bridge training has become regular events, and since June 2007, the NEC has conducted five courses in two phases to include approximately one half of the Commission’s permanent staff.
Further, Bridge is proving to be a useful tool for the NEC in the process of advocating for its independence during the reform process. The NEC is a structurally independent Electoral Management Body (EMB) with a permanent technical and professional staff. However, its funding has traditionally been disbursed monthly by the Ministry of Finance. It has been a concern within the Commission that this allocation process not only causes inefficiencies in its ongoing activities due to funding delays, but also leaves the door open for an influence of the Executive on the electoral administration.
With the goal of bolstering their financial independence, the NEC invited key electoral stakeholders to a conference in the port city of Buchanan. Participants came from the major political parties, the media, civil society, youth groups, the government, and the legislature. The three day agenda focused on the issue of electoral financing. The event also served as a venue for discussion of poignant electoral issues in the current context of Liberia, including the ongoing boundary harmonization process, upcoming local elections, public political financing, electoral system and constitutional reform. The Commission and IFES decided to use the content of the Bridge curriculum for the electoral stakeholders’ conference, in order to ensure that they would benefit from the technical nature of the curriculum, as well as from the interactive methodology that the Commission has come to expect from Bridge.
Using the Bridge curriculum with Stakeholders presented some particularities; one that the participants selection became a more politically sensitive process. When the EMB is involved, it is important to be unbiased and inclusive with the participant group. With no less than seventeen registered political parties in Liberia, not to mention the media, the legislature, the Government, the youth and civil society, it was difficult to keep the group small without excluding key stakeholders or breaking the stakeholders into multiple groups. With all EMB activities, it is critically important to be inclusive and impartial.
Given the large number of participants, the facilitation team selected activities from the Introduction, Planning and Management Modules that were scalable to a large group. Though difficult at times the format worked well, particularly at breaking down tensions between groups. Groups that were antagonistic at the onset became understanding towards the end. Feed back was overwhelmingly positive.
The event was also linked to a media campaign that allowed the representatives of the parties, media, and civil society to communicate their feelings about the conference and what they gained from the three day event on various radio programs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the event was effective in moving the message out to the people. “IFES?,” said one attendant when we stopped for petrol before departure from Buchanan, “yes, this NEC, we want it independent fearlessly.
Almami Cyllah is Country Director for IFES in Liberia; Skye Christensen is Program Coordinator and Electoral Cycle Specialist for IFES’ Africa Programs.
IFES Programs in Liberia are made possible with the generous support of USAID.