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Liberian Muslims Allege Disenfranchisement

Stephen S. Binda and Robbie Corey-Boulet

BONG COUNTY, Liberia , Oct 6 2011 (IPS) - It seems all of Liberia is paying close attention to the campaign for the Oct. 11 presidential and legislative elections. But Sekou Camara is one exception.

That is because when Camara, a member of Liberia’s Mandingo Muslim ethnic group, went to register to vote back in January, officials with the National Elections Commission (NEC) accused him of being Guinean based on the spelling of his surname. Liberians typically spell the name “Kamara”.

“Immediately when I completed spelling my name they told me that I was from Guinea since in fact my last name begins with ‘C’ and the Liberian Kamara begins with ‘K’,” Camara, who lives in central Liberia’s Bong County, recalled recently.

Though he lived in Guinea for part of Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil conflict, which ended in 2003, he said he never became naturalised there and thus retains his Liberian citizenship. “I am a Liberian and not a citizen of Guinea,” he said.

The Electoral Reform Law of 2004 empowered officials in this West African country to take measures to facilitate the registration of voters who were displaced by the war. However, the language of the law indicates that these measures were limited to the 2005 elections.

Under the 2010 voter registration regulations, Liberian voters can present an array of documents, including a passport, a birth certificate or an old voter card, when registering. If these documents are unavailable, alternate steps include enlisting the sworn testimony of two other registered voters or a Liberian traditional leader.

In Ganta, a city in Nimba County in north Liberia, directly across from the Guinean border, Mohammed Karnay, a 29-year-old Mandingo, had an experience similar to Camara’s. He said that when he went to register, NEC officials became suspicious of his speech. Mandingoes often do not speak Liberian English (English peppered with Liberian slang that is sometimes indiscernible to English speakers), preferring to communicate in their tribal dialect, Mandingo.

“They told me to bring along my documents or someone to identify me as a Liberian citizen,” Karnay said. “I was unable to bring in my documents due to the fact they were all destroyed during the war. So I brought in my uncle, Lassana Karnay, who came and told them that I was a Liberian citizen born in Lofa County. Yet still they denied me.”

An untold number of Mandingo Muslims in Liberia were barred from registering to vote on dubious grounds this year, according to Korkesi Jabateh, the Muslim youth leader in Nimba County. “Many of our citizens were denied during the process,” Jabateh said. He acknowledged, though, that coming up with numerical estimates was difficult – in part because rejected voters did not always report their cases.

In an August report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) called on officials to address such allegations. “The government and NEC should engage with Muslim leaders to defuse tensions that erupted when some persons with Muslim names were not allowed to register on grounds that they were Mandingoes and thus not Liberian,” the report said. “The Muslim community, particularly the youth, is increasingly bitter over this recurrent ‘institutionalised’ discrimination against it.”

But NEC officials say the registration process went smoothly, and that they frequently caught non- Liberians trying to register to vote. “I am aware that there are certain parts of Liberia, certain border areas, that are considered to be problem areas for voter registration,” said Samuel Cole, NEC’s director of civic and voter education. “During voter registration, people who were not Liberians in some cases crossed over to register.”

He added that NEC’s screening practices “did not target any particular tribe.”

“As far as I know, there is not a particular tribe that will say they have been marginalised,” he said.

Cole said he did not believe that NEC would act on the ICG’s recommendation to reach out to Mandingoes. “I try as much as possible to take ethnicity out of voter registration,” he said. “In terms of voter registration, I do not want to target a particular ethnic group.”

In Saniquellie, the capital of Nimba, NEC magistrate Princeton Monmia said his staff had an especially difficult time registering Mandingo voters because Mandingoes from Liberia are quite similar to Mandingoes from Guinea, and vice versa. By contrast, he said, the ethnic groups of Gios and Manos who live in Liberia are different from their counterparts in Guinea – in large part because they speak Liberian English.

“We have Mandingoes in Liberia. We have Mandingoes in Guinea,” Monmia said. “If we want to register Mandingoes we have to make sure.”

Monmia said NEC officials worked with immigration officials to ensure that Mandingoes attempting to register had not crossed the border from other countries.

The NEC magistrate said that he had no Mandingoes on staff at the time of voter registration, which complicated screening efforts. “I do not speak any Mandingo,” he said.

If Mandingoes did not have documentation proving they were born in Liberia, they were asked to bring in relatives, friends or neighbours who could vouch for them, he said. If they were born in another county and could not bring anyone to testify on their behalf, they were interviewed by immigration officials.

Monmia said the questions immigration officials asked would-be voters were not standardised, but rather varied from case to case. “We can use all means to elicit facts,” he said.

In the end, he said, those involved in voter registration did their job “perfectly”.

“Those people who were denied, they were not Liberians,” he said. “They were denied because they could not answer questions that people asked them.”

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