Elections Commission needs US$ 12 million for 2005 polls

Liberia needs donors to help it find more than US$12 million so it can conduct elections in October 2005 and return to democracy after a long and bitter civil war, the head of the National Elections Commission said on Friday.

"We require 12.4 million dollars to conduct the elections and because of the financial constraints this government faces, we have sent out appeals to donor countries to fund the elections," Frances Johnson-Morris told a press conference in the capital Monrovia.

"One-third of the election budget would be under-written by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL)... and there are prospects that some of our international partners will fund the process," she added, but gave no further details.

The West African nation's civil war ended last August when former president Charles Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria, forced out by a wave of rebel attacks and mounting international pressure.

Gyude Bryant was appointed head of a transitional government to lead Liberia to elections in October 2005.

But nobody knows the number of Liberians entitled to vote. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the 1989-2003 war, over 350,0000 more fled to seek refuge abroad and another half a million were displaced within the country.

The last proper census was carried out in 1984 and showed a population of 2.5 million although international aid organisations estimate Liberia's current population at around three million.

Last month Johnson-Morris, a former judge and human rights activist, said Liberia did not have the time or the resources to carry out a new census before the 2005 elections but that a well-conducted voter registration campaign would be a good alternative.

On Friday, the electoral commission head stressed that the repatriation of refugees and the resettlement of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) were essential to this voter registration process going smoothly.

"Internally displaced persons need to return home before the end of the year. In order for us to do our voter registration and demarcate constituencies, people need to go back to their original counties. Refugees also need to be repatriated so that they can come and participate in the electoral process," she told reporters.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) plans to start repatriating some 300,000 Liberian refugees from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria in October but this week warned they had a US$ 23 million funding shortfall and plans could be threatened.

In any case, they have said they only expect to bring home 100,000 refugees by the end of this year and that repatriation will most likely run until the end of 2006.

And no date has been announced for the resettlement of some 300,000 IDPs, still sheltering in 23 camps around the country.

The head of the electoral commission did not specify when voter registration would kick off, but a commission official told IRIN afterwards that it might happen in the first quarter of 2005.

Johnson-Morris, who served as Liberia's Chief Justice in the interim administration which organised the 1997 elections that brought Taylor to power, said she was still consulting with political parties to determine the form the 2005 elections would take.

Proportional representation system was used during the 1997 elections to determine the make-up of political parties in the National Assembly while the president was elected in a separate first-past-the-post vote.