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Questions Surround Liberia's October Election

  • Nico Colombant

As the October 11 post-war election approaches in Liberia, questions are being asked about who will be able to vote and who has been allowed to run. One interrogation concerns the front-runner, former soccer star George Weah and whether he is a French citizen. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our West Africa bureau in Abidjan.

The website from the French soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain, says that in July 1993, Mr. Weah obtained French nationality so he could play on the field alongside three Brazilians.

French soccer rules, like elsewhere, limit the number of foreigners allowed to play at the same time for one team.

French diplomats in West Africa told journalists that Mr. Weah approached them this year to revoke his French citizenship, but nothing has been made official about whether Mr. Weah was ever or is still a French citizen.

A U.S.-based Liberian cyber-activist, George Fahnbulleh, has looked closely into the matter.

"If it is found out two years from now, Mr. Weah was a French citizen, if it is found out four years from now, that Mr. Weah was once a French citizen, even if Mr. Weah is elected, those are grounds for impeachment because he did not meet legal qualifications and he would have become president through fraud," he said.

Mr. Fahnbulleh says the Liberian constitution indicates dual nationality is not allowed.

Because of this, he says, if Mr. Weah was at one point a French citizen, he would have legally lost his Liberian citizenship and he should naturalize himself to become a Liberian again. In that case, he should have been excluded from the vote, he says, because only natural-born Liberians are allowed to be candidates.

Mr. Fahnbulleh says the problem could resurface.

"There is no statute of limitations on our capacity or the ability of the Liberian people to enforce their constitutional rights. So if his French citizenship is ever established it disqualifies him from ever having the capacity to have run for president and that would be grounds for impeachment," he said.

Mr. Weah has been unavailable for repeated VOA requests for interviews.

The election commission has said evidence brought forward by those complaining about Mr. Weah's candidacy did not prove he had dual nationality.

At the time, Mr. Weah said he felt vindicated, and that those disputing his right to run did not know what they were talking about.

In the streets of Monrovia, where Mr. Weah is very popular, the issue of his possible French nationality has gotten little attention.

London-based researcher for Global Insight Chris Melville, says issues of identity do not seem to concern most Liberians as much as they used to.

"The interesting thing about the current campaign is that a lot of the identity issues, issues over ethnicity and nationality and the role the Americo-Liberian elite and sort of foreign intervention in Liberia seem to have dissipated somewhat," he said. "And I certainly do not think that Weah's French citizenship, if indeed he ever fully assumed that, will present problems. I do not think it will seriously undermine his legitimacy at a later date."

But Mr. Fahnbulleh says it is not an issue of identity, but of respecting the rule of law and Liberia's constitution.

Other grievances concern who will be able to vote.

The economically powerful Lebanese community will not, even for those born in Liberia, since they cannot themselves become Liberian citizens.

The ban on their citizenship dates back to the mid-19th century when it was decided only blacks could become citizens in Liberia. The West African nation was specifically founded for freed black slaves.

Liberians living abroad will also not be allowed to vote.

But they play an important economic role, according to U.S.-based Liberian Bodioh Siapoe.

"It is unfortunate, we tried through the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas to get Liberians abroad to vote," he said. "There is a large quantity of Liberians who are in this country, about 400,000 to 450,000 people who would have loved to vote and this sub-segment of the Liberian population is the one that really continues to grow the economy of this country. Two years ago, according to Western Union, Liberians were able to send a little over $200 million to their relatives in Liberia because the government of Liberia cannot provide jobs for the people who are there and that's unfortunate."

There are also worries about internally displace people, of which there are an estimated 200,000, and their ability to vote. The election commission decided this week to allow them to vote in the presidential election even if they have not returned to their counties of origin where they are registered.

The IDPs as they are known have been threatening to burn their voting cards if their voting is not facilitated.

But the new decision will not allow them to vote in the parliamentary election unless they manage to return to their home counties.

London-based analyst, Chris Melville, does not believe the displaced people will be disruptive.

"It seems unlikely that they will be a disruptive element to the election as such," he said. "However their possible disenfranchisement could well undermine the legitimacy of the results, although I suspect that most of the international arbiters will probably accept that this is an inevitable consequence of holding elections only two years after the end of a 15-year civil war."

An estimated 1.3 million registered voters will be asked to choose from more than 20 candidates for the presidency, and from more than 700 for Liberia's two chambers of congress.

Mr. Melville believes that despite all the potential problems, the vote should be the best Liberia can hope for.

"What we should get from this current electoral process is a government that more accurately reflects the people's wishes," he said. "It should be relatively fair. The U.N. mission in Liberia will ensure security and reduce the level of intimidation that so impacts African elections elsewhere."

Another factor could impact who gets to vote, though. Liberian officials have warned that torrential rains and mud-drenched roads could prevent thousands from voting if this year's unusually rainy weather does not clear up.

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