The United States is warning of an imminent visa ban on politicians inciting the public in Liberia, seeking to slow down hate speech ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.
Liberians are scheduled to go to the polls on October 10 to vote for president and lawmakers.
And the US State Department said on Wednesday that anyone who participates in acts that undermines democracy in the West African nation will be slammed with visa restriction.
Incumbent President George Weah, a football legend, is seeking re-election for a second and final six-year term. He faces 19 challengers, among them former vice president Joseph Boakai.
The race is seen as largely between Weah and Boakai, however.
The more than 2.4 million registered Liberian voters will also select law makers for both houses of representatives – Parliament and Senate.
The campaigns have been relatively violent free so far, but they have been characterized by inflammatory comments that have raised fears of violence.
"The US new visa policy announced on Wednesday is meant to prevent any act that seeks to undermine the democratic process," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.
“Under this policy, the United States will pursue visa restrictions for those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Liberia, including through manipulation or rigging of the electoral process; use of violence to prevent people from exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly; use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views; or engagement in any other activity designed to improperly influence the outcome of an election,” he said.
“Persons who undermine democracy in Liberia—including in the lead-up to, during, and following Liberia’s 2023 elections—may be found ineligible for US visas under this policy,” it added.
According to the US Secretary of State, the visa restriction policy isn’t directed at either the Liberian people or the Government, rather, it is meant for specific individuals found wanting for their role in any undemocratic action. It also noted that certain family members of individuals listed for sanctions under the policy may also be subject to these restrictions.
The elections will the fourth since Liberia emerged from its 14 years of civil war in 2003. It will be the first to be exclusively managed by Liberians since the UN Mission departed the country in 2018.
According to data released by the National Elections Commission (Nec), 73 members of parliament and 15 senators, out of the country's 30 senators, are up for election from among 46 registered political parties and independent candidates.
President Weah, 56, first came to power in 2018. He is contesting with Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor as his running mate.
Mrs Howard-Taylor is the ex-wife of former president Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year prison term for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.
The two who are running under the ticket of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party boast of their record maintaining the peace and ensuring freedom of expression, as well as for macro-economic stability and the restoration of confidence in the national education system during their first term. But the opposition say life has in fact become worse under Weah’s watch, claiming that he failed to fulfil any of his 2017 campaign promises.
From the word go, there have been accusations of plot to rig the polls, mainly coming from supporters of the main opposition Unity Party of Mr Boakai. The veteran politician who is making is second attempt against Weah has himself reportedly threatened the “end Liberia” if the elections were rigged, with one of his allies, former warlord Prince Johnson promising a “people’s power” akin to the Arab Spring.
Among others, the opposition is also concerned about the delayed publication of the final voter register.
But head of Nec Davidetta Browne Lansanah on Tuesday debunked allegations of rigging, promising to conduct “free, fair and transparent elections”.
Mrs Lansanah also warned political parties to desist from making false accusations against the Nec.
The political leaders ahead of the polls signed a peace pact called the “Farmington River Declaration,” committing themselves to upholding the peace before, during and after the elections.
Nonetheless, the rhetoric have raised eyebrows both locally and international.
The US, Liberia’s former colonial master and its major development partner, has been among the most outspoken against the threats.
“The decision to impose visa restrictions reflects the commitment of the United States to support Liberians’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law,” Blinken said in his statement on Wednesday.