Libera holds its breath for a new era
Liberia is on the cusp of its first post-civil war democratic transition as provisional results show that football legend, George Weah has defeated his opponent, current vice president Joseph Boakai, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down after two terms in office. Liberia has battled with a variety of challenges from civil wars to a deadly outbreak of Ebola thus the promise of new leadership and a free and fair democratic transition is vital to keeping the nation on its upward trajectory.
General elections were held on 10 October 2017 and although Weah secured more votes than Boakai, he failed to secure an outright majority, therefore necessitating a run off between the two leading candidates. The runoff was scheduled for November 2017 but due to allegations of fraud and consequent litigation, the run off was held on 26 December 2017.
Given Liberia’s troubled past, progression to the point of holding what seemed to be free and fair elections is remarkable. Combined with this is the fact the outgoing President Johnson Sirleaf, the first African female head of state, is leaving office in accordance with the 1986 Liberian Constitution which imposes presidential term limits. As seen in Burundi, Uganda, Cameroon, Gabon, and Chad, to name but a few, the amendment of constitutions to remove term limits is a commonly used tool by leaders who seek to hold office at all costs. Johnson Sirleaf’s term officially ends on 15 January 2018 and her willingness to bow out gracefully bodes well for democracy in Liberia.
Prior to the democratic election of Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia experienced two brutal civil wars that, combined, claimed the lives of an estimated 250 000 people. The first civil war lasted from 1989 to 1997 whilst the second is recorded as having started in 1999 and continued until 2003.
Post-civil war Liberia was in dire need of good governance, economic support, the rebuilding institutions and the promotion of justice and accountability.
Despite there being significant improvements under Johnson Sirleaf’s watch other issues remained. Rampant and systematic corruption, inter-tribal and inter-ethnic tension, poverty, and unemployment constitute a part of the obstacles the nation is facing today.
To add to the panoply of challenges, the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak heavily burdened an already fragile system and resulted in the deaths of 11 207 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. According to the United Nations World Health Organisation, roughly 43 percent of that 11 207 were deaths in Liberia.
Civil wars and Ebola were preceded by 9 years of authoritarian rule by Samuel Doe, who took power in a violent coup d état in 1980 and is attributed with sowing the seeds of ethnic tension in Liberia. Doe overthrew the descendants of the freed black American slaves (later known as Americo-Liberians) who came from the United States to settle in Liberia 1847. However, Doe lost power in a similarly violent manner to Charles Taylor in 1989.
The history of Liberia is unfortunately one of violence, military rule, oppression and pervasive corruption.
Despite the history of violence and the grave difficulties faced by the nation, the 2017 elections have thus far been peaceful and the democratic process itself (regardless of the who the victor is), has provided a sense of renewed hope for many Liberians.
Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) representative Weah, named the FIFA Player of the Year in 1995 and winner of the Ballon d’Or that same year, is no stranger to politics. The 51-year-old ran against Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, losing to her in the second round. His party’s core values include transparency and social justice. Having come from a poor background himself, he seeks to lift his nation and its people out of the cycle of poverty.
His opponent, 73-year-old Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party (UP), has served as vice president since 2006 and previously held the post of Minister of Agriculture. Although he was believed to be the more experienced candidate, Weah’s fresh dynamism has added to his popularity.
As usual, both candidates are not without controversy. Weah has the support of former president Charles Taylor who was convicted by the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone and is currently serving a 50-year sentence. Weah’s running mate also happens to be Taylor’s ex-wife Senator Jewel Howard Taylor. There are questions as to whether Charles Taylor will be “pulling strings” from his prison cell.
Boakai has been part of the same Liberian government that has frequently been characterised as corrupt.
The road to a stable, conflict-free and democratic Liberia has been greatly impaired since its 1980 liberation from the Americo-Liberian oligarchy, hopefully this violence free election will build public confidence in electoral processes and be the first of many post-war peaceful transitions.
** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper