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August 03, 2011

Liberia Prepares for Voting Amid Security Concerns, Refugee Crisis

by Scott Stearns

Liberia's electoral commission is working to safeguard voting along the border with Ivory Coast, where hundreds of mercenaries from the recent Ivorian political crisis are under arrest and thousands of Ivorian refugees are stretching Liberian social services.

Liberia has two big votes in the next few months, a constitutional referendum and a presidential election.  With campaigning for both contests well under way, Liberia's electoral commission is working to ensure that voting in areas near the Ivorian border will not be disrupted by instability stemming from the Ivorian political crisis.

"Firstly, when we look at the Ivorian refugees, our primary concern will be one of security concern in terms of mercenaries coming over with the hopes of threatening the process," said James Fromayan who chairs Liberia's electoral commission.

Several hundred mercenaries who fought for former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo are now in Liberian internment camps where they are visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  Norra Kero is the ICRC's communication delegate for Liberia.

"We registered them, and we have given them some assistance in terms of food and blankets, and now in the internment camp we are still visiting them and sharing our findings with the authorities," said Kero.

Liberian federal prosecutor Allisious Allison says Ivorians who entered Liberia with weapons were offered the chance to return home, but when they said they would rather go to the Liberian border county of Grand Geddeh, the government decided to keep them locked up, at least until after the election.

"They do not want to go back to Ivory Coast, but instead they want to go to Grand Geddeh," said Allison.  "So you can see the situation.  Our security information that we are getting from around here, it is not healthy for those people to go that route."

The Liberia director for the peace-building group International Alert, Jackson Speare, says the presence of more than 150,000 Ivorian refugees has already changed the electoral dynamic in Liberian border communities.

"You have a lot of people joining an already-fluid situation," Speare noted.  "People can begin to disrupt different campaigning and other things.  People can begin to threaten people.  Crime rates can begin to increase, which will influence the movement of people in the region.  You have that quantity of persons coming in, you know what is going to happen in terms of the cost of living.  So it will influence everything.  It could also influence the elections."

Eddie Jarwolo heads Liberia's National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections.  He says Liberian security forces are overwhelmed by the Ivorian refugees.

"Our immigration system is poor," said Jarwolo.  "Our security network is very poor.  Some of the guys who cross could be combatants from Ivory Coast who come in and we don't have the time to scrutinize the guys.  In terms of election violence, they could easily be mobilized to get involved in the process.  This is a challenge for us."

Voter registration closed before most of the refugees arrived.  So electoral commission chairman Fromayan says he is less concerned about illegal voters than he is with maintaining security around polling stations and safeguarding the results.