Mediator flies in as uncertainty shrouds 11 October polls

The top negotiator in Liberia’s peace process, Abdulsalami Abubakar, flew into Monrovia on Wednesday to try to ensure that the country’s first elections since the end of a bitter civil war go ahead as scheduled on 11 October.

The election timetable has been thrown into doubt by a Supreme Court decision last week that three candidates had been unfairly disqualified from running for office.

If the court’s ruling is implemented, election officials say it would mean a delay of at least three weeks as fresh ballots with the new names have to be reprinted and then redistributed across the heavily-forested country where the rainy season is in full force.

The United States, which is supplying election observers and is a major aid donor to the West African nation founded by freed American slaves, vowed that Liberians would be casting their ballots on 11 October.

“The elections definitely are going to go forward on the 11th,” Donald Booth, the US ambassador in Monrovia, told a press conference on Wednesday. “I am confident a way will be found so that elections will go forward… and the rule of law will be respected.”

One of the previously-barred presidential candidates, Cornelius Hunter, has decided not to contest the election.

Diplomats said the other two candidates –- Marcus Jones and Isaac Johnson -- were expected to back down after meeting officials from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the Nigerian capital, Abuja this week.

But on his return to Liberia, Jones declared that he was still in the presidential race.

“In Abuja, we were asked to step aside in the name of peace,” he told IRIN in an interview at his offices in downtown Monrovia. “We told them we would not…. We cannot stab our supporters in the back.”

Jones, a well-known lawyer who has his eye on the presidency, said the Abuja talks had ended in deadlock but that he had suggested mediators come to Monrovia to continue the discussions.

Ahead of Abubakar’s visit, a spokesman for ECOWAS said there was no plan to postpone the elections at the moment.

"The consultations with the stakeholders will be with a view to hold the elections as scheduled," spokesman Sunny Ugoh said.

This month’s presidential and parliamentary elections were designed to be the final chapter in Liberia’s transition to democracy after 14 years of civil war waged by drugged-up youngsters, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and reduced the country’s infrastructure to rubble.

“What Supreme Court ruling?”

While the elections uncertainty is plastered across the front page news, not everyone is aware of the political developments.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said 23-year-old Alex Nah, an unemployed resident in one of the shantytowns on the outskirts of the capital. “I didn’t hear about any Supreme Court decision but if the elections were postponed, it would be bad news.”

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), whose 15,000 troops are providing security and electoral support, said it was forging ahead with preparations for an 11 October ballot but noted that there were ongoing consultations between ECOWAS and certain individuals.

The ranks of international election observers are swelling in the capital, local police teams have already started to deploy to remote areas, and ballot papers are already on their way to rural districts.

Frances Johnson-Morris, the head of Liberia’s election commission, has said the poll should go ahead as scheduled.

“October 11 stands. Election day is just a week away,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “If there were any suggestion that the elections should be postponed, I am sure we would have gotten some indication by now.”

“We are talking about 1.3 million voters versus a few persons. The nation is more important than a few persons,” she said.

But Jones was insistent on Wednesday that there should be an additional month of campaigning.

“An extra month is advantageous for everyone,” he said, with national assembly candidate Johnson nodding in agreement at his side. “It lands us in the dry season, which will give all the candidates chance to get to impassable zones.”

Jones said he did not rule out the possibility of filing a legal complaint to have the whole elections process halted, if the Supreme Court ruling were ignored.