By Madi Jorbateh
I am in Liberia to observe their third presidential election cycle from 2005 when current Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was first elected as the first female president in Africa. She is not running in this election because she has exhausted her two-term limit. She won the 2005 and 2011 elections. Presidential term in Liberia is six years. The presidential and parliamentary elections are taking place on October 10.
I am representing the West African Election Observers Network (WAEON), which is based in Ghana, and the US-based National Democratic Institute funds the mission.
This presidential election is highly significant and important for Liberia because it marks the first time that a peaceful transfer of power will take place from an incumbent president to a new leader. There are 20 presidential candidates contesting among who are seven major candidates. There are 2, 183, 629 registered voters.
The two leading candidates however are, first the ruling party UP’s candidate Joseph Boakai who is the country’s current vice president. Boakai’s running mate is Emmanuel Nuquay who is also the current speaker of the parliament. They are supported by Pres. Sirleaf.
The second leading candidate is from the biggest opposition party, the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) whose flag bearer is world famous football star George Weah. His running mate is Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, the wife of the notorious warlord and later disgraced dictator Charles Taylor. The two major parties, UP and CDC are hardcore rivals who went to a second round voting in both the 2005 and 2011 elections and they are most likely to face off this time again.
This election comes against a very painful background in Liberia. The country was first of all founded in 1847 as a settlement for freed enslaved Africans from the United States. Since then until 1980, i.e. 133 years, Liberia was ruled exclusively by these freed Africans called Americo-Liberians. They had denied any form of political and economic franchise and participation to the indigenous people they found in Liberia.
The right to vote was eventually granted to indigenous people in 1951 with voting age set at 21 years. This was the year when women were also allowed to vote for the first time. Then again in 1955 voting age was reduced to 18 years but provided that one owns a property. This means therefore the masses of the indigenous population were still unable to vote because of lack of property ownership.
Consequently in 1980, the country witnessed its first coup led by master Sergeant Samuel Doe in protest against the poverty, exclusion and oppression of the indigenous people by the Americo-Liberians. Samuel Doe’s coup was massively welcomed by the masses. In 1985, the government removed the property ownership requirement for voting. In the 1985 election, which was considered fraudulent Samuel Doe won amidst massive violence. With high expectations on his government, Samuel Doe however ended up becoming a huge betrayal as he turned into one of Africa’s most brutal dictators.
The civil war
With intense oppression, corruption and poverty, Liberia then experienced its first civil war that erupted in 1989 led by Charles Taylor. That war raged on until 1996 leading to the killing of over 200, 000 people and over one million Liberians displaced all over the region. In 1990, Charles Taylor’s rebel group, NPFL split into two with the other half led by Prince Johnson who eventually captured and tortured Pres. Samuel Doe to death.
Following ECOWAS intervention, peace finally returned to Liberia in 1997 when Charles Taylor decided to lay down arms to contest elections. After winning that election which was also considered fraudulent, Taylor became another brutal and corrupt dictator who gave his full support to the RUF of Sierra Leone. By 1999, the intensity of his misrule and corruption became so unbearable that a second civil war erupted again led by the LURD rebel group.
This war raged on until 2003 when ECOWAS and UN intervention led to the resignation of Charles Taylor who then went into exile in Nigeria only to be later arrested and detained in the Netherlands. The Special Court for Sierra Leone charged him with various crimes including sexual violence, unlawful killings, looting, abductions and use of child soldiers among others. The court found him guilty on all counts in 2012 and sentenced him to 50 years in prison.
Enter Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Following the ceasefire agreements in 2003, Liberia held its first free and fair elections in 2005 and then again in 2011, all won by the Unity Party of Pres. Sirleaf. After 12 years in power, on October 10 Liberians will go to the polls again to elect a new president.
But what has been life like under Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
For a country that has known only oppression, exploitation and poverty for 170 years of its history, indeed it is remarkable that Liberians continue to have hope and strength to survive. In this past 12 years Johnson Sirleaf led a government that largely followed the rule of law in terms of respecting civil and political rights and also set up a truth and reconciliation commission to unearth human right violations. There is a largely free and open space with a vibrant media and civil society.
There is multipartyism and the incidence of violence has significantly reduced. She must also be commended for respecting the two-term limit as opposed to many other African leaders who change the constitution just to continue to be in power.
That notwithstanding, social and economic rights and wellbeing have been unbearably poor. The level of poverty and deprivation in the country is unacceptable. The provision of basic social services such as water and electricity, education, healthcare and jobs remain woefully poor. The country’s infrastructure especially roads are unbearably bad such that roads are the most urgent need every Liberian complains about. After 12 years, the country can boast of only two major highways from Monrovia to the interior of the country.
The unemployment rate in the country especially among the youth can be visibly felt on the streets of Monrovia. Scores of young men and women can be seen selling everything from coconuts in wheelbarrows to standing idly along streets and shops hoping for something good. The currency, the Liberia Dollar is so weak that the US dollar has become a legal tender all over the country. The services sector and most businesses are foreign owned mainly by Indians, Europeans and Middle Easterners. In a nutshell the economy is in shambles despite the huge efforts citizens make to grow and survive.
In my assessment, the Government of Sirleaf has done very little to maximize the opportunities and resources of this well endowed country to significantly transform lives within these past 12 years. The recent Ebola outbreak was itself a manifestation of the poor health infrastructure and services in the country. One wonders why this government has failed to realize the urgency of the moment to mobilize the full extent of the country’s potentials – human, material and natural resources in order to build a durable society. Over the past 12 years, the incidence of corruption, nepotism and government inefficiency have been rampant!
Sirleaf should have realized that her leadership was to build the foundation of a new Liberia. After years of conflict and oppression, there was urgent need to build the institutions, infrastructure and services that will develop Liberia. The country received huge international goodwill and aid following her election. Through her IMF/World Bank connection she managed to enjoy massive debt relief. Yet at the end of 12 years in power, basic social services and infrastructure are in abysmal state. Meantime public officials enrich themselves with lavish allowances and facilities while the masses languish in poverty.
For example, the country has 73 parliamentarians and 30 senators with each of them receiving a monthly salary of 15 thousand US dollars! In four years, the country spends US$170 million on just 103 lawmakers! Cabinet ministers equally take home nothing less than US$15, 000! On top of these fat salaries, these public officers enjoy heavy incentives such as vehicles, fuel, phone cards, medical benefits and free clearance of goods from all ports of Liberia. This is indeed scandalous!
Thus this election is coming against a huge uncertainty and difficult background. There is little public trust in the politicians. Yet Liberians have lot of hope that they can pull it off. They expect nothing but a free and fair election to produce a new leadership that will bring about real change in the lives of the people. The Liberia situation is indeed symptomatic of the African nightmare. African countries are hugely rich in natural and mineral resources with a willing, energetic and smart population. Yet all over Africa, the masses remain poor, exploited and marginalized thanks to corrupt politicians and weak leaders.
Liberia is a beautiful country. The landscape is amazingly beautiful. The vegetation is lush and green. The land is rich. The people are incredibly nice, warm and hospitable like any other African country. This country has all it takes to become one of the most advanced countries in the world. The issue is, do they have the right politicians and leaders who are visionary, patriotic and honest? This is the fundamental question each and every African country faces.
God bless Liberia!