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Liberian Voters Still Divided By Conflict


Charles Taylor
Voter registration in Liberia is under way for the first presidential election since former President Charles Taylor fled the country, ending a 14-year civil war. In the north, in Bong County, which saw some of the fiercest fighting between rebels and Taylor loyalists, choices over who to support in the October polls still divide the population.

Election worker Joel Mort arrives at the outskirts of Gbarnga after a day spent registering voters in the bush. Today was an easy day, he says. He only had to walk two hours each way.

In Bong County, with its lack of passable roads, Liberia's voter registration process is being done one village at a time. But despite its remoteness, it has one of the highest turnouts in the country. Mr. Mort says its been busy.

"People are registering. People are coming gradually. You know, when these things start, people take their own time. Gradually people are responding to the registration. For the first day, we registered, for me, I registered 600," Mr. Mort said.

For a decade, Gbarnga was the scene of recurring battles between a half dozen or so armed groups. Local residents were caught in the crossfire. Homes and businesses were burned until almost nothing and no one remained.

Nearly two years after the departure of former President Charles Taylor and the end of the 14-year conflict, many of Gbarnga's residents have come home, and traffic has returned to the city's main street. Many here are hopeful that elections to choose a new president and legislative assembly scheduled for October will finally put the war behind them.

Much of the animosity that fueled Liberia's civil war remains here. Imam Ahamadu Swaray's mosque is still marked by bullet holes. Many of its windows are broken. It is Gbarnga's only remaining mosque. Four others were burned during the war, and Imam Swaray says the city's Muslims still face harassment from other residents.

Imam Swaray, who heads Gbarnga's Muslim community, says he already knows who he will vote for, the former leader of the rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, Sekou Conneh.

"Sekou Conneh. I pray to God for Sekou Conneh to be the leader for this country, if God makes it. We want for him to be the leader for this country. Because he was the one that liberated this country from the bad people," he said.

Mr. Conneh, who formed his movement in the refugee camps in neighboring Guinea, announced his plans to run for the presidency, saying he had been convinced to do so by dissatisfied members of his rebel army.

Imam Swaray says he thinks Mr. Conneh will help protect Liberia's Muslim Malinke population, which suffered greatly when former rebel leader, Charles Taylor, was in power.

But vestiges of Mr. Taylor's own movement are also vying for votes in Bong County, once a stronghold of support when the former leader was heading a guerilla campaign against then President Samuel Doe during the 1990s.

Mr. Taylor's National Patriotic Party, known as the NPP, is putting forward two presidential candidates in Bong County.

The campaign manager for one of the NPP candidates, who was recently a defense witness for Charles Taylor at the special war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, George S. Mulbah, says his party is counting on support in Bong County.

"The NPP was organized in Bong County during the period of former President Charles Taylor. And most of the key citizens of the country are members of the National Patriotic Party and the party still commands significant influence in that county," Mr. Mulbah said.

The director of the Monrovia-based Center for Democratic Empowerment, Ezekiel Pajibo, says he does not expect October's poll to be perfect, but it should be a step towards rebuilding Liberia. That is something he says cannot be done by those that waged the war.

"During the last election in 1997, one of Mr. Taylor's slogans was "We destroyed it, we can fix it." And the evidence does not prove that," Mr. Pajibo said. "I do not believe we can have any warlord becoming president in this country that will inspire members of the diaspora to return."

The registration of voters began last month and will continue into early June. After the first week, Liberia's National Elections Commission reported that nearly a fifth of Liberians eligible to vote had registered.

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