By Okon Ekpenyong
Over the September 14-17, 2023 weekend, many Liberian Americans attended the 49th General Assembly of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas in Philadelphia. However, what was supposed to be a joyful celebration focused on celebrating the highs and finding solutions to the lows ended in chaos and the cancellation of the Union General Elections.
The General Assembly is usually one of the largest Liberian-Ameficans gatherings in the country, and Liberian Associations of Pennsylvania was this year’s host. “A Stronger Union in Diversity” was the theme for this year’s conference, echoing the profound idea that unity thrives in the face of diversity.
During the general assembly, the members discuss and debate the current issues, challenges, and opportunities. Depending on the given year, this gathering also serves as a platform for democratic processes, allowing delegates or members to shape their organization’s destiny by holding elections and electing its future leaders.
Since 1974, the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas has been the largest coalition of Liberian community organizations abroad.
However, in this year’s gathering, a dispute over the voting process led to an unfortunate outcome. It resulted in delegates from Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia almost being left out voting. Tensions grew and eventually led to the cancellation of the election.
J Shiwoh Kamara, the President of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), released a statement within 48 hours, expressing his deep regret for having to postpone the 2023 General Elections.
“Several factors contributed to the leadership’s decision, including unexpected irregularities in its voter list, contract expirations from its electronic voting company, and safety concerns for the delegates,” said President Kamara.
The delegates from Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia had come to the assembly hoping to find a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute. However, despite the union executives’ attempts to come to an amicable agreement, the election quickly grew heated. As a result, the incumbent decided to call off the election to ensure the safety of all involved.
The Iowa delegation, the majority of whom reside in the Des Moines area, spoke loudly in frustration, especially after driving 18 hours to attend the 49th General Assembly. Additionally, the chapters of Georgia and Ohio expressed opposition to the unfortunate turn of events. They stated that the outburst had been a long time coming because, too often, the voice of the delegations disappears in thin air, so it was only a matter of time before this occurred.
In an admission of total responsibility, the organization regrets the embarrassment and inconvenience caused to hundreds of Liberians on Saturday. “ULAA remains open and committed to working with all concerned parties and chapters aimed at resolving these issues in the coming days,” said the president.
President Kamara, the incumbent, ran three times before finally winning the last term, but his re-election campaign took a surprising turn, ending without election victories or losses. Also running for re-election for Northern Regional VP was the Executive Director of the Liberian living in Columbus, Alphy Tangor.
“The decision to cancel the election was due to delegate issues affecting both sides of the campaigns,” said a union member. Those who were also running for the Secretary-General, National Financial Secretary, National Treasurer, and Eastern and Southern roles missed their opportunity to breathe after a long campaign run. Georgia and Iowa were the other two chapters involved in this situation. Each official serves a two-year term.
The president called off the election because the company responsible for the vote count could not stay past their time. As a result of the back-and-forth issues, the organizers of the voting machines offered to do a paper ballot for the ULAA. However, this option was also not well received by all delegates because the tension was already high.
“The reason we could not have an election is that chapter leaders decided to manipulate the delegation list from Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio,” said a member of the ULAA advocate.
This gathering is also a way for Liberians to share ideas and experiences, as well as develop networks and connections that can create positive change. It is an invaluable space to discuss the issues affecting Liberians in the diaspora and beyond and to develop actionable solutions to those issues.
As of this time, an estimated 200,000 Liberians reside in the United States, making them the largest group of African immigrants in the country.
The influx of Liberian refugees has contributed to the growth of the Liberian community in the United States since the 17th and 19th centuries.
It is for this reason that the union promises to maintain the Liberian diaspora as a vibrant community, with Liberians living across the country, with the largest concentrations found in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Texas, and other states.
Many contribute to the development of their home country through remittances, investments, and philanthropy. The Liberian diaspora has also established a strong presence in Philadelphia, Columbus, Los Angeles, and other major cities in the United States.
Executive Director of LICI Alpha Tongor, who also serves as the Northern Regional Vice President of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, was among the Ohio chapter members in Philly this past weekend. The Northern region comprises Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. These are the chapters currently comparison of the Northern Region.
Mr. Tongor has been diligently working to establish and strengthen the Union in the Northern Region. He has been successful in unifying the chapters in the region and has recently launched a fundraising campaign to support the Union’s activities. Mr. Tongor’s hard work and dedication have earned him the respect of his peers, making him a likely candidate for a leadership position at the national level.
The delegates argued that the current system needs reform as it is not democratic and makes it difficult for new leaders to make a meaningful impact. They argued that the current system creates an environment of stagnation and allows the same leaders to remain in power. Furthermore, they argued that this system enables leaders to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the organization without the proper input from the delegates.
The General Assembly election was at Victory Fellowship International in Philly, and on Friday night during the Presidential debate, the delegates knew that the Saturday election would be highly competitive. The four-day event usually features various activities, including keynote speeches from prominent Liberian Americans, a gala dinner, the election of its next president and other leaders, and much more.
Initially, business sessions were scheduled as part of the assembly agenda; however, the election disputes became the focus of the entire assembly at Victory Harvest International. Saturday evening concluded with a dinner ball at which several community leaders received awards for outstanding contributions to enriching the Liberian communities nationwide.
Because of Saturday’s outcome, most of those from Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio, as well as other chapters, did not attend the dinner ball on Saturday and Sunday’s farewell cookout.
Before the General Assembly, the host chapter, Liberian Associations of Pennsylvania, released a statement saying how excited they were to host the event. “We eagerly look forward to welcoming all of us with open arms, and It’s a chance to strengthen bonds, share experiences, and celebrate our rich Liberian heritage.”
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