Liberia’s Elections

In the end, bizarrely, they made it all look like an anticlimax. Liberia’s recent elections, the milestone of the country’s difficult transition from brutal low-intensity warfare to peace, had been choreographed in advance to fit a well known narrative. The famous football star George Weah, a high school drop-out from a deprived background, was running against urbane Harvard-trained economist and longtime politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The Western media has a traditional fascination for this kind of study in contrast, and it is a foregone conclusion who they would favour: Weah’s rags-to-riches story, a classic American narrative, won the contest from the start. The elections themselves, however, would prove to be different. And when Johnson-Sirleaf won the run-off polls by a handsome margin (60 per cent of the votes), the media quickly magnified Weah’s sour, frantic claims that the polls had been rigged. So the first election of a female President in Sub Saharan Africa – a signal event in itself – became somewhat peevishly qualified.

I first met Johnson-Sirleaf, while an exile in Ivory Coast (she had fled former President Charles Taylor’s despotic rule) in 2001, and met her again a few weeks before the elections. Articulate and energetic, Johnson-Sirleaf is probably Liberia’s most accomplished national figure; and in a region full of sadly effete and colourless leaders, she is bound to stand out, her sex and battered country aside. When we met in Ivory Coast, she was busy coordinating a grassroots women’s group involved in rural development in Liberia. (This group would prove extremely important in mobilizing the tens of thousands of women voters who ensured Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory). She struck me as someone who intensely knew her country, was always thinking about its problems, and therefore knew what was needed to start addressing them – all qualities that would make for a successful leader.

It is probably too early to say, but it seems Liberians made the right choice this time around. In 1997, when Taylor ran after conducting a brutal insurrection, the slogan that catapulted him to power was: ‘He killed my ma. He killed my pa. But I will vote for him!” Weah’s supporters made a variation on this grim rallying point, to good effect, in the first rounds of the polls in October: ‘Did he kill your ma? No. Did he kill your pa? No. Then vote for George Weah!” Weah was the anti-Taylor, the one who could credibly claim not to have been a player in Liberia’s tragic recent past. The first round had a number of ex-militia leaders also running. But when the contest was brought down to Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf, who herself could claim not to have killed no one’s pa or ma, Weah supporters invented another, less inspired line: ‘He know book, he nor no book, but I’ll vote for him!” Liberians, it turned out, knew better than to elect someone who would celebrate the lack of educational accomplishment.

Having spent two weeks in Liberia shortly before the elections, what struck me afterwards wasn’t the cry of foul play by Weah and his supporters; this was almost predictable. What struck me was that the elections were held at all, to say nothing about the high turn-out and the orderly behavior of voters during the polls. One key anxiety before the elections, quite apart from the logistical nightmare of conducting elections in a country a large part of which is largely inaccessible, was over how such an obviously traumatized and militarized people would behave during such a high-octane moment. About half of the registered voters had never voted before, and this was surely Liberia’s first ever transparent elections. Compounding this was the fact that some of the militia leaders who helped ravage the country emerged among the 22 candidates vying to become president. The fact that at the end of the elections the two leading candidates would be people with empathically civilian backgrounds shows how far Liberia has come.

This tiny West African state, like its neighbour Sierra Leone, was a beacon of hope and inspiration to many people of African heritage for much of the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. Writing about the two in 1887, Edward Blyden, the great Pan Africanist, was highly optimistic about the salutary effects the two countries would have on the continent of Africa. “There is no part of West Africa where the openings and opportunities for introducing civilisation and Christianity into this continent are greater than these contiguous states present,” he wrote. “The attractions which they offer to the efforts of the philanthropist and African Colonisationist (in the American sense of that phrase) are not without just grounds…it is not difficult to predict the effects [of these two countries] upon the general interests of civilisation, upon the welfare of the Negro race, and upon the great cause of humanity.”

The ‘great cause of humanity’: the irony is that, at the turn of the 20th century, the two countries would come to represent a great blight on humanity instead. Predatory warfare ravaged the two, and it became all-too-clear that the fortunes of the countries are indeed inextricably linked. This is why Liberia’s elections have been perhaps the most closely watched such event in the region; its ramifications go well beyond its borders.

I spoke to Dr. Amos Sawyer, a former President of Liberia and perhaps the country’s best known intellectual, on the phone shortly after the elections. He was ecstatic. A “great opportunity,” he said, has been opened up by the elections. The elections have “opened up space for civil society, and would bring clarity” to a lot of issues. In Dr. Sawyer’s view, the elections would help bring traction to the peace and reconciliation process that the entire region is engaged in at present, and help to focus attention to serious issues economic development.

One would only hope, given the region’s extremely unhappy recent history, that Dr. Sawyer is right. West Africa, at long last, needs a break.

Lansana Gberie’s book, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, has been published by Hurst and Company London.

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