I saw the water cannon first, swiveling skyward as it searched ominously for its target. All around it, rows of riot police were falling into formation, locking their plastic shields together as a wave of protesters surged toward them, chanting and hurling stones.
It was two days before Liberia’s Oct. 10 presidential election, and I’d spent the morning following a group of women’s activists on a protest march through Monrovia. But when I saw the scuffle with the police beginning a few blocks away I immediately shut my notebook mid-interview and sprinted toward it.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to the first person I saw as I approached the riot. He surveyed me a bit pityingly, and suddenly I saw myself from a distance – the breathless foreign journalist eager to observe a bit of headline-grabbing election violence.
“Our police are practicing,” he said, and turned back to watch the show.
And indeed, when I looked again, that much was clear. The “rioters” had dispersed for a water break. A knot of police in full body armor were laughing at a joke I couldn’t hear.
This was not a riot at all, but a dress rehearsal for an event most Liberians are adamant they won’t let happen – a violent election.
On Tuesday, Liberians chose from a raucous field of 20 presidential candidates. With provisional results expected Thursday, the results are still hard to predict. In the lead-up to the vote, however, several seemed to have a fighting chance at making it to a second round in November, which would be triggered if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.
But if Liberians are split on who their next president should be, they have been not at all divided on how the election should be carried out.
“When you know war, you don’t let peace go easily,” Augustine Bolo, a newspaper salesman in a Monrovia neighborhood called – appropriately – Peace Island, told me as he waited in line to vote.
It was a sentiment I saw echoed again and again: on election posters imploring voters “Vote, not fight – Election is not a war;” and in an election-eve speech from the country’s sitting president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who asked her citizens to “go to the polls peacefully” and to “embrace your neighbor, regardless of their political choice.”
For three weeks before the election, a group of women dressed in white shirts that read “PEACE YES!! NEVER AGAIN” and “SUSTAIN THE PEACE” prayed and fasted from dawn to dusk every day under a marquee near the president’s house. They were there under the sharp equatorial sun and through storms where rain seemed to fall in thick, unbroken sheets.
The women, among them activists, faith leaders, and wizened grannies, enjoy an outsized moral authority in Liberia. Many come from the same group of female peace activists credited, in part, with ending Liberia’s brutal civil war in 2003.
Back then, as the death toll from Liberia’s civil war sped toward a quarter million, leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace met with the country’s then-president, Charles Taylor, and cajoled him to attend peace talks with rebel leaders in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Then they surrounded hotels where rebel leaders were staying for a meeting in Freetown, Sierra Leone and convinced them to come too.
And when the men went, they followed.
For eight weeks, the women gathered daily outside the building where negotiations were going on, singing and praying. But as the talks dragged on and violence in Liberia continued, they took a more radical tact. Two hundred women surrounded the building, locking arms. When police tried to disperse them, they threatened to take off their clothes – an act intended to shame the men.
It worked. The demonstrators had put a thumb on the scales. Three weeks later, Taylor resigned.
A few days ago, the leader of that demonstration, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, told me women have not let off the pressure since. She is in regular text-message contact with the leading presidential contenders, she says, reminding them of the responsibility they have to maintain the peace the country’s women fought so hard to achieve a decade and a half ago.
Watching the vote
“We’re not afraid to go in and wage peace,” says Ruth Caesar, a development economist and activist who was among the women gathered in Accra in 2003. On election day, I met her outside a polling station in the Rehab area of Monrovia, where she’d just completed a check of procedures as an election observer. “Nothing much to see,” she said, laughing: just a few people trying to cut the lines.
This election also marks another historic moment in Liberia’s peace-building process. This year, for the first time since the war ended, the election is being carried out entirely by Liberian institutions, without the aid of the United Nations and its peacekeeping forces.
At Peace Island Elementary School, I met a young policewoman named Patience Brown who’d been assigned to watch over the voting there.
Growing up in Monrovia just after the civil war, she explained, she’d seen UN blue helmets patrolling the streets. People trusted them because they were outsiders – local police had earned a reputation during the war as a kind of private security force for the government, mistreating civilians with impunity.
“I was so afraid of the police as a kid because of the stories I heard about how they were,” she says. But as she grew up, she says, she wanted to do something to help keep her country from backsliding again into war. So a year ago, she joined the police force.
“I feel proud of this job,” she says, watching the queue of voters inch forward. “Once people were so afraid of us, but now we are taking charge and proving ourselves.”