A View from Election Eve in Liberia: Behind the Scenes of an International Election Observation Mission

The author on Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia struggling to hear a call about logistics from fellow NDI staff while running other Election Day errands (photo credit: Madeline Wilson)

Two former presidents and a former foreign minister sat in a conference room while I searched for a hat. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was the very real start to December 25, 2017, the eve of the Liberian presidential runoff (in addition to being Christmas Day).

On election eve we scheduled a full day of high-level meetings with political parties and other stakeholders for the Liberia international observation mission’s (IOM) leadership, which was comprised of Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, former President of Nigeria; Atifete Jahjaga, former President of Kosovo; Hanna Tetteh, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ghana; and NDI’s Central and West Africa Regional Director, Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh. The NDI team spent eleven months working on the mission, but during the December deployment I learned that excellent planning only takes a program so far; it’s the resilience of the team that makes the difference in the end.

The IOM team worked tirelessly for two months to prepare for the first round deployment to the presidential and legislative elections held on October 10, 2017. For each delegate – and there were about three dozen in each deployment – we went through an invitation process, a visa process and a process for booking flights. I do not know how many dozens of hours were spent making special arrangements with the hotel we contracted. Deployment memos had to be drafted, briefing documents were prepared, and then there were the in-country deployment routes to arrange, drivers to book and guest speakers to enlist. The list goes on.

A moment of both excitement and relief accompanied NDI’s publication of the October delegation’s preliminary statement. Putting together the October observation mission was an incredible feat. Clearly, I did not know what the runoff presidential election would bring. The runoff was set for November 7, but at the last minute – after we had once again prepared to deploy delegates and with some of our staff already on the ground in Liberia – an electoral complaint delayed the election “indefinitely.” We waited for weeks, trapped in a strange lull. By the time the new runoff date of December 26 was finally announced, we had only one week to organize the new delegation, which totaled 36 representatives from 18 countries across Africa, Europe and North America. The math – condensing two months of dedicated preparation for October into just one week – was unfathomable. It was the busiest week of my life, that is, until it was topped by the week I spent in Liberia during the deployment. No single herculean effort ensured the mission’s success. Rather, the team worked day in and day out to complete each small, seemingly mundane step and to tackle the occasional surprise (see the December preliminary statement here).

That brings me back to December 25. The day began with a leadership briefing session by NDI’s Mission Director and analysts. A meeting with the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), the opposition party, was tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. At 9:15 a.m. the IOM team received word from one of the NDI staff: supposedly the CDC might drop by at 9:30 a.m. A morning meeting was not part of our plan.

Five minutes later, I was standing in the lobby wearing an NDI hat that I had unearthed from my suitcase. Hopefully, on the off chance that a CDC representative showed up, they would see the hat and know to check in with me. Just moments later it became clear that the hat was completely unnecessary; they needn’t recognize me, because I immediately recognized them. Presidential candidate George Weah and his running mate, Jewel Howard Taylor, strolled through the front doors, accompanied by their staff and security.

I showed the CDC delegation into the conference room and the transition was seamless. I don’t think the mission leaders had any inkling that behind the scenes, we were scrambling to change our plan. I cringe when thinking about what would have happened if we hadn’t been notified that the CDC was coming early. Thank goodness we could adjust our plan in time.

At the end of the long flight back to D.C. after the election, one of the delegates who was seated near me made a joking comment about how much I had slept on the plane. I took his comment as an affirmation that we had done our job well. Evidently, he did not realize that the staff had worked every waking hour (of which there were countless) every day, for weeks. He did not notice when we had to find new drivers, switch orientation presentations at the last minute or, indeed, find out that the now-President of Liberia was coming by just minutes before he arrived in the NDI briefing room. The IOM team experienced a hectic, sleepless – but incredibly rewarding – deployment; the delegates experienced a well-organized mission. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I said it to my colleagues at the end-of-mission staff meeting in Monrovia on December 29, but I will repeat it again here: all of the potential stressors and unexpected needs we encountered might have derailed a lesser team, but our success is a testament to the absolute dedication of every member of our staff. Working as part of this team was equally as humbling as recognizing that we played a small part in the continued development of democracy in Liberia.