The best tribute Liberians can pay to Amos Sawyer is to have peaceful and credible elections in 2023

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

The lifework and contributions of Professor Amos C. Sawyer — who passed away on February 16, 2022— to Liberian public life remain alive and flourishing. However, he left behind numerous unfinished businesses, such as his ambitious campaign to establish a culture of good governance and credible electoral politics in Liberia and Africa. His view of public citizenship was about constructive and peaceful engagement, integrity, participation and collective action for the common good.

As Liberia goes to election in October 2023, it is now clear that Sawyer’s adroit diplomatic skills in working with people from all backgrounds, regardless of social class, ethnicity and political party, are missing; and his pacifying voice that mediated rival political factions and helped to generate consensus and calm tensions is loudly silent. Therefore, as we observe his 78th birth anniversary today, June 15, 2023, it is important that we reflect on his contributions to electoral democracy in Liberia and Africa, and honor his legacy by conducting peaceful and credible elections at all time.

The 2023 elections in Liberia will be the first without Amos C. Sawyer playing a leading role, since he helped achieve universal adult suffrage for all Liberians about four decades ago. After the abrupt cancellation of the Monrovia mayoral election of 1979 during which, as a candidate for mayor of Monrovia, he started the campaign for voting rights for all, he participated in other elections mainly as supporter of leading candidates or a peace mediator between competing candidates and parties.

His remarkable contributions to the ‘third wave of democratization’ in Africa which began in the 1990s were in supporting governance reform to improve service delivery, establishing and strengthening independent institutions for credible and transparent elections, and leading election observation missions across Africa.

In Liberia, he worked on projects to reform the electoral and governance institutions, such as the National Elections Commission (NEC), the courts, and security forces; and facilitated processes of inter-party dialogues among the leading political parties. Most of these were done when he headed the Governance Commission of Liberia between 2007 and 2017.

In many other African countries, he led election observation missions (EOM) of the African Union and ECOWAS and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. During those missions he helped mediate very contentious elections and averted electoral violence in many places; but three remarkable cases stood out among his numerous missions: Guinea Bissau (2014), Togo (2015), and Sierra Leone (2018).

Guinea Bissau and Togo were deeply polarized and on the precipice of destructive electoral violence when Professor Sawyer led the ECOWAS EOM in those countries in 2014 and 2015 respectively. In Guinea Bissau there was a high risk of a military takeover immediately after the vote, and reports of the head of the electoral commission being abducted by soldiers further heightened fear of a potential coup d’état that could derail the country’s transition to democracy.  Along with President John Mahama of Ghana, who was deployed by the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, Professor Sawyer led efforts to bring the parties, including army generals, together and facilitated a successful outcome. They negotiated a ‘soft-landing’ for the generals who felt insecure with a new civilian leadership. They built consensus that produced the political settlement that is holding the politics of Guinea Bissau together today, albeit the increased state of fragility.

During the Togo presidential election of 2015, the main opposition party rejected some of the rules and procedures for counting and transmitting results ahead of the vote — they accused the electoral commission of partiality and lacking independence.  The main contention was around the adoption of a new technology for transmission of results, which the opposition claimed was vulnerable to hacking and manipulation by the ruling party. Their initial plan to boycott the election two days to the poll would have derailed the entire process and likely lead to widespread violence, particularly in the capital of Lomé, where the opposition seemed popular.

As tension heightened in Lomé, Professor Sawyer requested the direct intervention of the ECOWAS Authority; and in response, they deployed President Alhassan Ouattara (Ivory Coast) and President John Mahama to support Sawyer in the mediation efforts. Professor Sawyer and these two leaders were joined by several heads of mission who successfully engaged the Togolese political parties and helped rebuild confidence in the electoral process. The outcome was a successful election and a commitment to reform the constitution and the electoral commission after the 2015 election.

Similarly in Sierra Leone, in 2018, opposition parties had entered the election with great doubt over the credibility of the process, and had threatened to reject the outcome unless several conditions were met before the vote. Here again, Sawyer’s mission which was eventually extended, and with a new mandate, facilitated a peaceful outcome — in which the opposition slightly won.

In Guinea Bissau and Togo, Sawyer sought the support of sitting presidents from the ECOWAS Authority to escalate the situations to their level as they required the Authority’s direct intervention. He also wanted members of the Authority to fully appreciate the extent of the crises so that they may be encouraged to support reforms in regional treaties and protocols, and adopt progressive protocols in support of democratic development, such as the proposal for a regional protocol on presidential term-limit (one of the issues raised in Togo) which was on the ECOWAS agenda at the time.

Furthermore, he was also promoting a principle of direct engagement by African regional organizations in crisis situations in member states. He was essentially advocating for a departure from the longstanding  principle of non-interference to a principle of non-indifference among regional organizations. Therefore, by having members of the Authority present in these countries, he hoped they would begin to take direct actions to avert political crises.

In Liberia, Professor Sawyer’s contributions to public life, particularly in democratic development and the building of a culture of public citizenship after the civil war, are immeasurable. His efforts to avert electoral violence in Liberia and build confidence in Liberia’s electoral processes produced remarkable results. However, his Farmington River Declaration of 2017 stands out and will continue to live long after him.

In 2016, as Chairman of the Governance Commission, he initiated discussions among political leaders and other stakeholders on the need for a peaceful and credible election in 2017. That election marked a major transition in modern Liberian history — the first time a democratically-elected president would be turning over power to another democratically-elected president in 73 years. In addition to the dialogues, he led efforts to strengthen the NEC and facilitated engagements between the NEC and other national institutions whose functions relate to the election — such as the courts, on electoral dispute resolution; and the security forces, on protection and security of the electoral environment. The significance of the 2017 election made the Governance Commission to focus its 2016 Annual Governance Report on “The Liberian Electoral System”, a report that analyzed the electoral environment and the web of intuitions and their respective roles in the electoral process.

In the Farmington River Declaration of 2017, the parties pledged to commit to peaceful and non-violent campaigns during the election, and to contribute to a credible electoral process. Despite the contentious nature of that election, the political parties and their leaders largely abided by the commitments.

In October 2023 Liberia will be holding general and presidential elections in line with its Constitution, and there will be no Amos Sawyer to convene meetings of the parties, organize policy dialogues around thematic issues in the election or commission studies to identify and understand contentious issues around the elections. The Governance Commission, once a convening authority and independent public institution is now nearly dysfunctional and run by politicians who have openly declared their sides in the election. Therefore, the Commission no longer has the independence, prestige, respect, and credibility it once relied on to be an independent convener and facilitator of high-level mediation efforts in the country.

Indeed, Amos Sawyer’s passing created a huge lacuna in Liberian public discourse and political life, and as former Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathan put it, his death took away the ‘lone voice in the wilderness for good governance’. One year after his passing, Liberian politicians are preparing for another election. Though civil society organizations and faith-based groups are working harder to ensure the process is peaceful and credible, some politicians are issuing vile threats against each other, attacking religious centers where their opponents worship, and inciting ethnic tensions, thereby heightening angst and fear of violence.

As a means of calming these tensions, the NEC, international organizations and Liberians civil society organizations have brought back the Farmington River Declaration. This is what Amos Sawyer would do if he were around today. He eschewed violence and condemned fraud and treachery in politics.  Fortunately, the parties and presidential candidates have signed on to the Farmington River Declaration of 2023 — committing themselves to peaceful, credible and non-violent elections.

That the Farmington River Declaration continues to be the reference document for peaceful electoral politics in Liberia is a testament to the enduring legacy of Sawyer’s ideas and contributions to Liberian democracy. However, the best tribute to pay to him in this year would be to live up to the terms of the declaration and to organize transparent, credible and peaceful elections in 2023.

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is Director and Senior Fellow at the Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research

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