Joyclyn Wea with New Narratives
MONROVIA, Liberia—With less than three months until vital presidential and legislative elections, Liberia’s political parties have defied their own commitments to fill 30 percent of their candidate ranks with women.
Women made up just 153 (15 percent) of the 1,030 aspirants who registered as candidates according to the provisional list released by the National Elections Commission last week. There is a very real chance that Liberia’s legislature, at 11 percent, already had the third lowest proportion of women in Africa, could drop even further.
“It’s appalling,” said Atty. Facia Harris, Executive Coordinator of Paramount Young Women Initiative, a CSO that has campaigned for more women’s representation in the Legislature. “It’s discouraging and disheartening to see how women continue to work and give their expertise in their areas in these political institutions, yet their contributions are not recognized as equal contributions as men are making.”
Atty. Facia Harris is an advocate for a 30 percent gender quota. Credit: Harris.
Liberia, which produced Africa’s first elected woman president in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has one of the world’s lowest rates of women representation in parliament according to World Bank data. Among Africa’s democracies, only Benin and Nigeria have lower representation. Women’s rights advocates fear that with so few women running, women’s 11 percent hold on the parliament looks set to fall even further changing Liberia from being a beacon for women around the world to a global shame.
Liberian advocates have campaigned for more women in the legislature citing overwhelming evidence that greater representation leads to better economic and democratic outcomes and improvement in the lives of women and children. Women’s advocates won a major victory in February 2022 when the legislature amended the elections law to say political parties should “endeavor to ensure” there was no less than 30 percent of either gender on their candidate listings.
But the law did not enforce compliance so advocates pushed for the May signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in which 25 parties committed that no less than 30 percent of their candidates would be women. In the end, just one party – the Liberian Transformation Party – met the quota.
Of the major political parties the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) led by presidential candidate Alexander Cummings – a coalition of the Alternative National Congress and a breakaway faction of the Liberty Party – came the closest with women accounting for 16 of its 59 candidates, or 27 percent.
Just 12 of the 82 candidates of President George Weah’s party, the Coalition for Democratic Change, were women, just under 15 percent. This comes despite the president’s repeated claims to be a champion of women.
“It’s a sad situation. What we see from the actions of political parties is that they are not very interested in women’s eligibility,” said Harris.
The parties who spoke to New Republic/New Narratives all claimed to try to attract women candidates but said the problem was getting women to come forward.
“You cannot force somebody to do something that they don’t have much interest in,” said Fatu K. Swaray, Chairperson of the National Women’s League of the CDC. “The truth is, they weren’t ready. It is a 50/50 thing. The men are not just going to put it on a silver platter and say come and take it. We should use Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as our role model and fight for what we want. If we just sit as women and think the men are going to give it to us like that, it not going to work, it is not possible.”
The Liberia People’s Party, whose standard bearer, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, who has pledged a 50/50 gender representation under his presidency, also failed to honor its commitment to the MOU reaching only 18 percent.
“We made efforts,” says Weah Karpeh, Secretary General for Press and Public Affairs of the party. “We did go out speaking to women, encouraging women to come on board, to the extent we prohibited primaries and fee charges for running on the party’s ticket. But again, you can take the goat to the waterside, but you cannot force it to drink.”
Fees were an issue for the women aspirants, according to activists. Some of the parties, including the former ruling Unity Party, demanded high fees from the women. The Unity Party made an effort to overcome that according to Cornelia Krauh Togba, National Vice Chair for Inter-Party Relations of the Unity Party.
“We provided a discount of 20 percent,” said Togba. “So, where male candidates were paying $US750, we got the executive committee to also agree that the females will pay $600. Despite all of those efforts, we still were not able to get as many females as we wanted to on the Unity Party ticket.”
The CDC’s Swaray also claimed her party offered to pay the registration fees of the women to the party’s primary committee.
The CPP did not honor appointments for an interview on the matter.
But the Liberia Transformation Party, which was the only political party to meet the 30 percent target nominating 40 female aspirants and 60 male aspirants, said the parties were just not trying hard enough.
Abraham Tiaquicyl, National Chairman, Liberia Transformation Party (LTP).
“What we did was not to put men against them and to relax fees that people are paying to register to be on a party ticket and also did not carry out primaries, we do your interview when we find out that we can work with you, we allow you,” said Abraham Tiaquicyl, the party’s national chairman.
He said the party, which is not fielding presidential and vice-presidential candidates, believes Liberia will be better with more women’s leadership. “Women most of the time find it difficult to be more corrupt. When women lead, there’s always a possibility of peace in a nation and accountability.”
The LTP’s decision to preclude men from running against some women candidates prompted a backlash from some other parties.
Cornelia Krauh-Togba, National Vice Chair for Inter-Party Relations of the Unity Party.
“In a democratic organization, there has to be competition,” says Cornelia Togba, who herself vying for a seat in District # 13, Montserrado County. “There have to be elections, and you cannot just handpick people for certain positions. In as much as you push for women’s political participation, you also have to maintain the tenets of democracy, which requires competition and competence.”
Activists, including Harris, called on the NEC to enforce the MOU. But NEC spokesman Henry Flomo said there is no mechanism to enforce an MOU. “If these political parties committed themselves then, you have to trust that they will do that,” he said. “The NEC does not have any reason to doubt that these political parties cannot do it, because they voluntarily committed themselves so, I don’t see any reason why we should doubt them.”
Augustine Tamba, Head of Secretariat of LEON. Credit: R. Joyclyn Wea
Augustine Tamba, head of secretariat of the Liberia Elections Observation Network which comprises several accountability organizations, agreed the NEC has no role in enforcing the agreement.
“The political parties are not obligated by any law,” said Tamba. “And the NEC cannot reject any political parties’ list.”
But he shared women’s advocates’ disappointment with outcome.
“The efforts that we put into the process and the anticipation we had it is a bit frustrating for us at the moment,” said Tamba. “It is a bit disappointing that, as a country, we have not been able to take proactive actions in terms of ensuring that some of the problems we have years back, are resolved. We are still going into this crisis with nearly the same problem in terms of not changing our law for female representation.”
Advocates say the outcome shows there is a need to enshrine the 30 percent quota into an enforceable law.
“Enacting gender quotas is a critical step in addressing the historically low presence of women in politics and fostering equal participation,” said Christian Wayon, Advocacy Officer of Medica-Liberia, a women’s rights CSO that’s also advocating for gender quota. Women are “better positioned to champion women’s issues in the legislature than women themselves.”
Advocates are now working hard to ensure as many of the women candidates as possible are elected in October.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.