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November 06, 2011

Liberian Vote on Schedule Despite Killing at Opposition Protest

by Scott Stearns

At least one person is dead in Liberia after fighting between riot police and supporters of an opposition candidate who is boycotting Tuesday's presidential runoff election over allegations of vote fraud. Liberia's government says that poll will go ahead as scheduled.

Liberian riot police stormed the headquarters of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change party, firing tear gas in running battles with stone-throwing supporters of former Justice Minister Winston Tubman.

He is President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's challenger in Tuesday's runoff election, but he wants people to boycott that vote because of what he says was electoral fraud in last month's first round of balloting.

Tubman supporter Omar Keita was at party headquarters when the violence began.

“Our standard-bearer called us to the party headquarters to come and assemble and have a peaceful demonstration right in the compound, without getting out there to create a problem for anybody," said Keita.

Keita says that is when they were attacked by Liberia's Emergency Response Unit, or ERU.

“We were in the compound and we only saw the ERU running on us firing, firing, firing, firing," he said.

United Nations peacekeepers stepped in to separate the sides, pushing back Liberian riot police after they continued to fire tear gas into the compound.

Yazmina Bouziane is a spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Liberia:

"We can confirm one casualty, and the mission deplores the loss of life and calls on all of the parties and supporters, and all Liberians actually, to exercise maximum restraint and not resort to violent acts to ensure that peace is maintained in Liberia," said Bouziane.

Deputy information minister Norris Tweh says Monday's violence will not disrupt the vote.

"The government remains committed to the rule of law, and we will err on the side of the law," said Tweh. "The police and the joint security team of this nation is going to be tough, as it has been.  We will not allow this particular incident to distract us from the process.”

The secretary general of Mr. Tubman's party, Acarous Gray, told a local radio station that party members were assassinated by government forces.  Justice Minister Christina Tah called that "nonsense" because, she said, the Liberian government does not conduct assassinations.

"You know we don't get engaged in clandestine operations or secret killings or torturing our people or putting people in jail unnecessarily," said Tah. "So anyone who is on the airwaves or on the radio trying to tell the public this position is really dangerous to this society.”

Tah said government authorities are investigating reports that some of the shooting came from inside the opposition compound.

With tensions high ahead of only the second nationwide vote since the end of a 14-year civil war, Yazmina Bouziane says the United Nations is here to help.

"All registered voters who have decided to cast their votes, or not, should be able to do so in a democratic way and in a peaceful manner," she said. "That is what the mission's mandate is here in Liberia - to ensure peace and security in order for this process to happen.”

President Sirleaf says the opposition boycott violates the constitution because it deprives Liberians of their right to vote.  Mr. Tubman says Liberians have the right not to vote as an expression of displeasure with the government.

He wants the vote postponed, so officials can investigate his party's claim of tampered ballot boxes and falsified tally sheets.  Election observers from the Carter Center and the Economic Community of West African States say last month's vote was largely free and fair.