Liberia's election closes chapter of history – but for voters, past is present

A decade after the end of a brutal civil war, one democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is about to willingly step aside for another – something that has not happened in most Liberians' lifetimes. 

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
Suporters of Alexander Cummings, presidential candidate of the Alternative National Congress (ANC), attend a meeting during their party's presidential campaign rally at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 07, 2017.

It was the biggest party in town, in more ways than one.

On a recent afternoon in the run-up to Liberia’s Oct. 10 presidential election, supporters of the country’s ruling Unity Party spilled out onto the streets outside its low-slung green headquarters, their fists full of party handouts. Somewhere deep in the crowd, someone had strapped a giant speaker to the back of a pickup truck, and cranked the volume up to full.

“You nah bring Taylor here uh,” the crowd sang in Liberian English, hoisting drinks and banners skyward. “You nah bring Taylor back here.”

The “Taylor” in question was Charles Taylor, the one-time warlord and president of Liberia now serving 50 years in a British prison for crimes against humanity. And the message of the song was clear – voters wanted nothing to do with him.

That would be a neat ending to a tragic story – a war-scarred nation ready to close the book on its violent past and look to the future.

And indeed, when Liberians head to the polls Tuesday, it will by all accounts mark a chapter break in the country’s volatile history. A decade after the end of a brutal civil war, one democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is about to willingly step aside for another – something that has never before happened in the lifetime of most of the population.

History presses down hard on Liberia and its politics. The trauma of 10 years of civil war still smarts – but now lies beneath a dozen years of attempts at rebuilding and reconciliation under President Sirleaf, which have brought new, fresher frustrations. With no clear roadmap for the next era of Liberian democracy, many voters are looking backward for clues about how to forge the path ahead – and digging into candidates' histories just as much as the country's.

Heavy past, heavy present

“At least under Taylor people ate well – it’s our current leaders who have really failed us,” says Anthony Wilson, a security guard queueing to enter a rally on the opposite side of town, this one for the opposition party Coalition for Democratic Change.

His sentiment echoes one shared by many here: the past was heavy, they say, but so is the present. War may be gone, but Liberia remains among the world’s poorest countries. Just 2 percent of people here have access to electricity. Only half can read.

But there is one place that post-war Liberia has thrived – peaceful elections. It has held two so far since the end of the civil war, both won by “Ma Ellen,” as Sirleaf is known. And this year is shaping up to be a third.

“This campaign so far has been stable because Liberians want it to be stable,” says Dan Saryee, a political analyst and the former director of the Liberia Democracy Institute. This, he notes, in spite of the fact that “we have so many of the social factors” – poverty, unemployment, corruption – “that in other places have triggered crisis.”  

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
Supporters of former soccer player and presidential candidate of Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) George Weah attend a presidential campaign rally at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 6.

But the political back-and-forth on Mr. Taylor’s legacy also shows how the country’s violent history still shadows its young democracy.

Few of the 20 presidential hopefuls – indeed few Liberians generally – emerged unscarred from the two civil wars that dragged across the 1990s and left the country in ruins. One of those candidates, Prince Johnson, is the warlord who in 1990 infamously sipped a beer as he oversaw the killing of then-president Samuel Doe – which helped set off the civil war. Several others, meanwhile, had intimate professional and personal connections to the infamous Mr. Taylor. A leading vice-presidential candidate, Jewel Howard Taylor, is actually his ex-wife.

“Charles Taylor is still a powerful card to play,” says Ibrahim Al-Bakri Nyei, a PhD candidate in political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a Liberian political analyst. “There’s nostalgia there in part because so many people have been disaffected by the [Sirleaf] regime.”

To many, indeed, Sirleaf represents another era of Liberia’s history that they cannot forget – its century-long domination by the descendants of the former American slaves who founded Liberia in the mid-1800s. Though Sirleaf herself isn’t Americo-Liberian, as that group is known, she grew up within that community, going on to become a Harvard-educated World Bank technocrat with a smooth, almost southern American accent.

But under her watch, Liberia’s economy stagnated and corruption often flourished. Many Liberians came to feel she was no different than many politicians who came before her – rich and self-interested, coldly oblivious to the struggles of the common people.

“Under her we have suffered a lot, but in her life she has never suffered,” says Nancy Matthew, who sells fish at a stall in downtown Monrovia. Instead, Ms. Matthew says, she plans to vote for George Weah, a former soccer star who was once named world player of the year by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association).

Sizing up the candidates

Mr. Weah, now bookish and fatherly-looking in his middle age, grew up in a shack settlement in the capital, a background that has earned him significant street credit among the masses of unemployed Liberian youth.

“The opposition says George Weah doesn’t know how to read and write well, but maybe we’ve given too many chances to people who know how to read and write,” shouted one of his supporters at a recent rally, to a whooping cheer of assent.

In Liberia, like much of Africa, many political parties share wobbly and broadly similar policy platforms, so the personal histories of candidates like Weah loom particularly large for voters, many of whom make their choice without the aid of established party loyalties. They also make their choices without much help from political slogans. A selection of this year’s offerings, all from different candidates, include “hope is alive,” “hope for change,” “changing is coming,” and “hold on, change is coming.”

That has left many to size up their candidate the way one might a first date, a kind of gut-check reaction to the stories they tell about themselves.

Weah, for example, has not introduced a single bill since being elected to Liberia’s senate in 2015. But to his crowd, he is a benevolent philanthropist whose hands are clean of Liberia’s often corrupt politics.

“I have never promised Liberians and then failed them,” he said to a roaring crowd of more than 10,000 at his final rally in Monrovia, so packed that some young men hung from the stadium’s rafters to get a glimpse of their idol. He was nearly drowned out by chants of “Weah! Weah!”

'Generational change' ahead?

Then there is the Unity Party’s Joseph Boakai, the current vice president. In supporters’ eyes, he is politically pious – a man who for two terms toiled loyally behind a million-watt president with a larger-than-life international presence.

“From the day he started in government, he has never shown bad character or been involved in scandal,” says Kumba Kpetu, who says she has voted in every election since all Liberian women won the right to vote in 1955.

But that same president has now declined to actively endorse her deputy, has not campaigned for him, and told reporters in a recent interview that she thought it was time for “generational change” in Liberian politics. (“Sleepy Boakai,” as he’s been branded, is 72.)

“She doesn’t owe me an explanation,” he said in a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor and others. “She hasn’t told anyone that I’m a failure.”

Faint praise, perhaps, but in the shifting sands of Liberian politics, analysts say Mr. Boakai may also benefit from his distance from the increasingly unpopular Sirleaf.

As the election approaches, however, there is little way to gauge the support each candidate enjoys – save by the glut of political rallies that fill downtown Monrovia like sprawling block parties, at times heavier on the party than the political. Weah and Boakai held them, as did Alexander Cummings – a former Coca-Cola executive and rapidly rising political star – and Charles Brumskine, a lawyer and former president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate who was once a close Taylor confidante.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday – a likely scenario – the top two contenders will go to a runoff in early November. And then the party will begin all over again.

Tecee Boley contributed reporting.

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