Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Top Rumors of Liberia's Elections, So Far

Monrovia is so unique in many ways, one of which has been particularly pronounced this fall: constant waves of rumor and intrigue. America may have its cable chattering classes and plugged-in pundits, but this town is all tongue-wagging and tale-trading, which can give legs to some incredulous whoppers.

Since the start of the campaign season, the Monrovia rumor mill has been churning out such frequent, fantastical tales and apocryphal episodes that this town makes a rural boarding school look like a scientific review board.

Quite aside from theories involving the Nobel-prize committee rigging Liberia's elections, or any story having to do with Prince Johnson, here is a review of some of the biggest eyebrow-raisers to sweep this city since mid-September, with some follow-up, where possible, of what real and factual events might have fueled the collective imagination.

1A. A member of President Sirleaf's personal security was killed (by UN forces, other bodyguards, burglars, a lover, a rival, or himself) while attempting to:

a. assassinate the President while she was campaigning in Bong or Nimba County

b. help ambush her convoy in Bong or Nimba County

c. planning either (a) or (b) as part of the President's guard detail or advance security crew.

d. leaping in front of the President and taking a bullet for her during (a) or (b)

1B. A member of President Sirleaf's personal security died from a gunshot while:

a. fighting with his girlfriend

b. fighting over a girl

c. cleaning or toying with his gun

d. taking a bath or shower

e. falling under random attack by burglars

f. committing suicide

DATE OF RUMOR: September 24-26 and onwards

STATUS: REMAINS UNCLEAR. The only confirmed portion of this is that George WIlliams, a member of the President's special security service, died of a gunshot wound in Ganta. The extraordinary, early version of this rumor, that the President herself was shot at but only survived due to a bullet-proof vest and/or the intervention of Mr. WIlliams or another member of her security and/or UNMIL guard(s), seems to be totally untrue. Just what happened remains the subject of speculation, as timing (and location deep inside Prince Johnson's home turf) of such an individual's death from a bullet raises plenty of suspicions and details of the investigation have been little-broadcast and drowned out by later election coverage.

2. At the voting booth on election day, George Weah's vote was immediately invalidated by officials because Weah foolishly:

a. used too much ink to mark his thumb-print on the ballot, causing his ballot card to drip with ink, bleeding through the other side and causing potential invalidation of other votes in the sealed ballot box with so much gooey ink

b. dipped his finger in ink before he had voted, therefore technically being counted as having already voted even though he had yet to cast his ballot.

DATE: Story started around 12-14 October, the days after the election.

STATUS: UNTRUE. Although this tale sounds like a perfectly entertaining episode of the tired, never-ending myth, oh-that-Weah-is-just-a-dumb-jock, in fact pretty much the opposite happened in reality: Weah had taken took the opportunity of casting his valid vote to point out the shortcomings and potential pitfalls of the ink-dipping system in front of the media. The first clue that this story was off was that its not clear that poll station staff would have any authority to invalidate anyone's vote at the moment of casting the ballot.

3. Both a Unity Party District Office, and the CDC-Friendly Love FM Radio Station in Sinkor suffered fire damage within a 48 period, due to:

a. A crazed rebel mob sweeping from one end of town to the other in the middle of the night.

b. Factions of Political Parties looking to incite fear and chaos

c. The owners or the political parties themselves, trying to reposition themselves as victims of violence and chaos.

d. Looters/Apolitical Hooligans

DATE: Early Saturday, October 15th for UP office; The night of October 16/17 for Love FM Radio Station.

STATUS: CAUSE OF BOTH FIRES UNKNOWN, despite the arrest of suspects. Other than the fact that both structures suffered fire, it is unclear which of the above reasons is or are true. We can, thankfully, eliminate (a) of course, which was the apocalyptic version of choice in the early hours of Saturday when word first spread that a UP office was ablaze.

4. Ballots were stuffed and/or tampered with

DATE: 12 October onwards

STATUS: UNVERIFIED. Despite supporting photographic evidence, no independent body has confirmed these claims, which were put forth by the CDC. International monitors have largely praised the poll.

The photographs themselves have been questioned, as it seems incredible that an illegal operation to stuff or tamper with ballots under cover of night would welcome flash photography. Paradoxically, the report failed to gain widespread credibility seemingly because of its supporting photographic evidence, which was even shown on Al Jazeera for at least one news cycle.

5. The CDC Candidate, Winston Tubman, was rushed to the UN hospital with high-blood pressure, nearly having a coronary incident due to the sudden news that Prince Johnson was endorsing Sirleaf in the Second Round. Tubman was later flown to Ghana for treatment, even though this was masked as a campaign-related journey to consult with other West African politicians.

STATUS: MOSTLY TRUE, except for some important details. The early, theatrical rumor of Friday, that Tubman swooned with a near heart-attack because of the PYJ news, was easy to dismiss-- how would anyone know the cognitive trigger that causes another person's cardiac episode?

All the same, this is perhaps the most annoying and endless rumor episode, because (1) it was denied but was true at the time, and was otherwise handled poorly in terms of media and public relations by the Tubman/CDC camp (2) there is a big difference between, on the one hand, getting malaria or some other common ailment in Liberia and going to see a physician, who happens to work at a hospital, and on the other hand being rushed to the hospital with a serious condition which requires airlifting for treatment in another country.

With its outright denials of what was days later confirmed to be true, and otherwise lack of timely messaging on the situation, the story stayed way out in front of the CDC, to the point of open speculation in the press and social media that Tubman would withdraw from the run-off, and George Weah would move to the the top of the ticket in the second round.

5A. A major coalition of leading opposition parties, including the CDC is withdrawing from the elections.

5B. The CDC is withdrawing from/boycotting the run-off.

DATE: The coalition withdrawal was announced on 15 October, with threatened boycott by CDC being a constant refrain from then until the present.

STATUS: ???? As to the first part, News of a coalition withdrawal was true, even up to having put the declaration in writing, except a few days later the CDC and other small parties continued to be in.

Despite constant, strenuous, and confusingly contrary claims, the status of the second part is unclear, with daily reports that the CDC is serious, including a recent announcement of an official withdrawal--although its Presidential candidate Winston Tubman is publicly complaining that he wasn't consulted. Standing in a poll is sort of a binary position of either being in or not, but in this case, there is no point speculating on the ultimate outcome, despite official pronouncements. Only November 8th will tell whether the CDC is in fact part of the run-off.

6. National Elections Commission Chairman James Fromayan is being fired or is resigning, because:

a. it is the demand of the opposition due to fraud (see for example #4 and #5A/B above)

b. he mistakenly sent a letter to the CDC mixing up their results and misstating that they had the most votes in the first round

c. it is the behest of President Sirleaf and the Unity Party, to take the fall and undermine complaints about the close connections between NEC and the UP.

d. A combination of b and c.

DATE: Howling over NEC impartiality transformed into calls for Fromayan's resignation after the sloppy letter was circulated on 27 October. First broadcast of word of Fromayan's resignation came on the afternoon of 28 October, apparently on True FM, but no official announcement came until the afternoon of Sunday, 30 October.

STATUS: TRUE. Confirmed about 48 hours after it was everyone's lips, including talk radio in Monrovia, and the Chairman claimed the backwards-letter was not reason enough to resign, and the NEC's public information chief was sacked. Remarkably, the reasons stated in Fromayan's quote are basically all the above. His removal undermines the CDC's cries of injustice, and makes President Sirleaf look decisive and democratic. It is uncommonly frank anywhere to admit to falling on a sword for the sake of a patron, but especially for this town.

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