Votes were counted by lantern light in many polling stations throughout postconflict Liberia during the 2005 election witnessed by Jimmy Carter (left) and others from The Carter Center.
Votes were counted by lantern light in many polling stations throughout postconflict Liberia during the 2005 election witnessed by Jimmy Carter (left) and others from The Carter Center. Deborah Hakes
Nigeria is the most populous and perhaps the most influential nation in Africa, but also the most disappointing in adopting democracy and controlling government corruption.
Olusegun Obasanjo was a contemporary of mine as president, having become the leader of Nigeria as a general and then deciding to relinquish political authority to a popularly elected successor. It was because of my friendship with Obasanjo that I decided to visit his country and Liberia in 1978, the first trip by a U.S. president to sub-Saharan Africa. After he and I left office, we worked together to help resolve some of the challenges faced by other African nations. Later, under the regime of a despotic military dictator, Sani Abacha, Obasanjo was imprisoned because of his public condemnation of the regime's corruption and human rights abuses. I went to see Abacha and convinced him to permit Obasanjo to return to his farm home, where he was kept under house arrest. He was subsequently detained again and remained under arrest until after the death of Abacha, in June 1998.
We at The Carter Center were pleased to be asked to participate as observers of Nigeria's national elections in 1999, the first to be held in the country in sixteen years. I was also glad when Obasanjo decided to seek the presidency, but I was determined to remain neutral between him and the other candidate, Olu Falae, a graduate of Yale University and former finance minister. I visited Nigeria in January to meet with the Independent National Electoral Commission, acting head of state General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the two prominent candidates, chairmen of the political parties, and other leaders. We considered this one of the most important elections to be held that year, because of the size and influence of Nigeria on the African continent and because of the need to end the history of military rule, imposed during twenty-eight of the thirty-eight years of national independence.
The Center formed an alliance with the National Democratic Institute and invited the former Niger president Mahamane Ousmane and U.S. General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and future secretary of state), to be my co-chairs. There were sixty-six people from ten nations in our delegation, and our teams were sent to their assigned locations in states where problems had been detected and their presence would be most beneficial.
The day before the election, Rosalynn, the Center's democracy program director Charles Costello, and I flew to Port Harcourt for meetings with representatives of the Niger Delta community. We knew that the region was a tinderbox. Although we found all representatives, including those of the militant Ijaw youth, to be searching for a peaceful resolution of their grievances against the oil companies and the government, no one expressed confidence in the current series of elections or the ability of elected local or state officials to address their needs. These intelligent young leaders quietly declared that their more influential elders had not been permitted to register and that, in any case, it was fruitless to vote because election officials were bribed to report results without regard to how ballots were cast. I urged them to give the process a chance to succeed and to work with the elected officials who would be taking office on May 29.
Unfortunately, on Election Day we found that the predictions of the Ijaw young people were accurate in many states. Rosalynn and I observed election reports of high turnout when very few people actually voted and many instances of ballot-box stuffing, with stacks of ballots removed from the boxes in sequential order and all marked with the same fingerprint. Few people seemed to have been voting in Bayelsa State, for instance, where there were 497,333 people registered. The reported returns were that a total of 610,032 ballots were counted, overwhelmingly for General Obasanjo. All of our observers saw instances of false and inflated tally sheets being substituted for the original ones, along with many technical errors, such as failure to use indelible ink, late arrival of ballots, and absence of voting secrecy.
My assessment was that state governors, many of them former army generals, had decided that their fellow officer Obasanjo should be elected and had taken actions to ensure his victory. The final claim was that he received 62.6 percent of the votes. I issued the following statement on behalf of The Carter Center:
There was a wide disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results that have been reported from several states. Regrettably, therefore, it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the presidential election.
We met with the defeated candidate Olu Falae and urged him to reject violence and present his proof of fraud to the electoral commission and the federal courts. He did so, and his claims were rejected. There were serious demonstrations, with at least fourteen people killed in protest over the conduct of the election.
We retained our presence in Nigeria to continue a wide range of projects, including agricultural improvement and efforts to eradicate Guinea worm and to deal with schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and trachoma. We presumed that the election processes would be dramatically improved before the next national contests, in 2003. As that time approached, however, it became obvious that few reforms had been introduced, and we refused an invitation to participate as observers. Obasanjo captured 61.8 percent of the votes in another fraudulent election, condemned by the European Union, the National Democratic Institute, and other international monitoring teams. In the sharply divided and disgruntled Niger Delta area, his party won almost 100 percent of the reported votes.
As the time for elections approached once more, in 2007, President Obasanjo sought to have the constitution amended to permit him a third term, but a surprisingly independent National Assembly refused to ratify the change. Umaru Yar'Adua, a relatively unknown Muslim governor of a remote northern state, was elected as his successor. Tragically for the Nigerian people and as a terrible example for other countries on the troubled continent, this third fraudulent election was also condemned by both local and international observers.
There are some encouraging signs in this great nation. After the longest period of civilian rule in the country's history, it is unlikely that the citizens would accept a return to military rule in Nigeria. This opens the way for President Yar'Adua to address overdue electoral and other reforms to make Nigeria a more credible and effective democracy.
The Carter Center will encourage this process by offering our services if a political decision is made to develop acceptable laws and procedures that can offer honest elections and, of course, we will continue our health and agriculture work among the people of Nigeria.
Among all African nations, Liberia has the closest ties to the United States. A brief history will explain why The Carter Center has spent so much time and effort in this nation on the coast of West Africa.
In 1822, freed slaves and their descendants began moving to Liberia to establish a republic. They spoke English, brought a knowledge of the government they had left behind, and referred to themselves as Americans. They considered themselves superior to the natives and refused to be integrated into African society. In 1847 the settlers, congregated along the Atlantic coast, declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia and formed a government that they dominated. The main coastal cities were Monrovia and Buchanan, named for American presidents. The national flag was similar to the Stars and Stripes, but with only one star.
There was mistrust and hostility between the "Americans" and the natives in the interior, and a sharp distinction in their economic status. There was a huge "sale" of land in 1926 to the American-owned Firestone Plantation (for ten cents an acre), to be used for the production of rubber. Not incidentally, the president of Liberia acquired 25,000 acres that were planted and tended by Firestone for his personal benefit.
My earliest visit to Liberia was in 1978, while I was president. I chose it because of its history and because Liberia's president, William R. Tolbert, was the leader of the Baptist World Alliance, representing all the Baptists in the world. Two years later, in 1980, Tolbert and thirteen other top government leaders were assassinated by an insurrectionist sergeant, Samuel Doe. (Doe was the first Liberian head of state who was not a member of the Americo-Liberian elite.)
There was an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1985, and Doe's troops responded by killing more than two thousand civilians and jailing more than a hundred opposing politicians, including a woman leader, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. A civil war followed, and five years later Doe was ousted, killed, and mutilated. An interim government was established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which actually controlled only about 5 percent of the nation, a small area around the capital city of Monrovia. The rest of the country was dominated by various warlords, notably Charles Taylor.
This is when The Carter Center became involved, and our peace fellow Dayle Powell, Rosalynn, and I made several visits to Monrovia and into the interior, trying to promote peace that could nurture a democratic government. We visited one of the operating rubber plantations, and I was angry to see how the indigenous Liberians had been robbed of their lands and were still being treated almost as slaves. They lived in dormitories without windows and were forbidden to dig a hole in the ground. I published a poem about my observations, which aroused intense indignation from Firestone executives in America:
WHY WE GET CHEAPER TIRES FROM LIBERIA
The miles of rubber trees bend from the sea.
Each of the million acres cost a dime
nearly two Liberian lives ago.
has poured like sap from trees, almost free,
from men coerced to work by poverty
and leaders who had sold the people's fields.
The plantation kiln's pink bricks
made the homes of overseeing whites
a corporation's pride.
Walls of the same polite bricks divide
the workers' tiny stalls
like cells in honeycombs;
no windows breach the walls,
no pipes or wires bring drink or light
to natives who can never claim
this place as theirs
by digging in the ground.
No churches can be built,
no privy holes or even graves
dug in the rolling hills
for those milking Firestone's trees who die
from mamba and mosquito bites.
I asked the owners why.
The cost of land, they said, was high.
With pressure from the military arm of ECOWAS and to fulfill their political ambitions, the warlords were finally induced to turn in their weapons and disband their armies in order to qualify as candidates for the presidency. We examined a pile of 35,000 confiscated pistols, rifles, submachine guns, howitzers, and other guns (later dumped into the sea), and monitored the election in 1997. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was a strong candidate, but Charles Taylor prevailed in a technically honest and fair process, because he claimed to have governed his portion of the interior well and because people feared that fighting would resume if he lost.
We were prepared to help the new government, but despite the best efforts of our Center and others, the corrupt and despotic president persecuted his own people and incited conflict in neighboring countries. We decided to close our office in Monrovia after about three years because of human rights abuse, intimidation, and an environment that precluded discussion of government policies. Another rebellion began in 1999 and persisted for four years, bringing to more than 200,000 the number of people killed in the civil wars.
Finally, under great international pressure, Taylor abdicated and left for Nigeria, and The Carter Center joined the United Nations and others in helping with another Liberian election in 2005. Former president Nicéphore Soglo of Benin joined me as co-chairman of our delegation, and the democracy experts David Carroll, Tom Crick, and Ashley Barr coordinated our efforts. More than 10 percent of the polling sites with an equivalent percentage of voters were officially deemed "difficult" or "inaccessible." No vehicles could reach them. It took hours and sometimes days to deliver voting materials by foot, horseback, or boat.
On Election Day, hundreds of people began lining up at polling sites soon after midnight, and there were enormous lines when polls opened officially at 8:00 A.M. Rosalynn and I visited forty-eight polling stations, all within the Monrovia area. The voters were surprisingly patient. There were many women with babies on their backs, some having been in line for more than ten hours before entering the voting booths. Election procedures were complex, but officials seemed to be well instructed and meticulous in performing their duties.
The results led to a runoff between Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the polling favorite, a famous soccer player named George Weah. By a substantial majority, the people chose Johnson-Sirleaf as their new leader, a Harvard-trained economist and the first woman president to be elected in Africa.
Liberia is one of the most war-torn and poverty-stricken nations in the world, despite its rich natural resources in land, timber, and minerals. We have spent many days and nights in Monrovia. Except within foreign embassy compounds, all buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Fields are abandoned, there is astronomical unemployment, and most Liberians exist on less than fifty cents per day. When we visited Accra, Ghana, recently, Rosalynn said, "There is more difference in the quality of life between Monrovia and Accra than between Accra and New York."
The Carter Center is now working closely with Liberia's new president, and she has asked us to concentrate on substantive improvements in her nation's local and regional judicial processes. We hope to help establish a system that deals with strange and controversial subjects: whether there will be punishment for rape, whether husbands have the legal right to beat their wives and children, whether women can own property, whether witchcraft is a crime, and the legality of trial by ordeal.
Copyright © 2007 by Jimmy Carter