A Cautious Step Forward

The first domestically run election in Liberia since the bloody civil war attempts to turn the page on a troubled past

An elderly man casts his vote in Bomi County, Liberia, on 11 October 2011 during the first domestically-run presidential election in the country since the Civil War that ended in 2003. {{name}}
01 November, 2011

FORMER LIBERIAN PRESIDENT Samuel Doe was removed from office in much the same way he removed his predecessor. In 1980, Doe’s men carried out a coup against President William Tolbert, a member of the Americo-Liberian ruling class, reportedly disemboweling him in his bed. In 1990, less than one year into a 14-year civil conflict that laid waste to Liberia’s population, economy, infrastructure and institutions, rebels captured Doe and tortured him to death. That operation was overseen by Prince Johnson, a former ally of Charles Taylor who had split off to form his own faction. In footage that can still be purchased on the streets of downtown Monrovia, Johnson is seen drinking Budweiser as young fighters slice off the president’s ear.

This year, a much-changed Prince Johnson—Senator Prince Johnson, in fact—ran for president in an election held on 11 October. Preliminary results show him running in third behind incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Winston Tubman, a former ambassador who is the candidate for the leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). If Johnson-Sirleaf failed to secure more than 50 percent of votes cast in the first round—figures released on October 15 showed her with 45 percent—a runoff was due to be held in early November.

“There are so many things that Senator Johnson wants to bring about,” Johnson told me a few weeks before the vote at his Monrovia compound, in a large palaver hut crawling with aides, bodyguards and journalists. He wore a beige plaid suit jacket and a bright red fez-style hat, having long ago abandoned his wartime fatigues, and as we spoke he fielded a steady stream of calls on his cell phone; a multi-day campaign swing outside the capital was scheduled to begin later that day. He said he wanted to free Liberia from foreign powers looking “to re-colonise us.” He wanted to decentralise the government, lessening the authority of what he termed “an imperialist presidency.” He wanted to combat “rampant” corruption. And he compared his trajectory from soldier to statesman to that of Charles de Gaulle. “It’s not phenomenal,” he insisted. “It’s not a new thing.”

The durability of Johnson’s commitment to good governance is debatable, especially in light of his statements during the campaign. He accused Johnson-Sirleaf of being Americo-Liberian, a descendant of the freed slaves who landed in Liberia in 1822 and ruled it until Tolbert’s downfall, seizing power and resources at the expense of the majority indigenous population (Johnson-Sirleaf is part German and part Gola and Kru, two indigenous tribes). Such statements from the former warlord tapped into the very tensions that fueled the country’s extended turmoil. And then there were several curious offhand remarks. In our interview, for instance, he suggested that Charles Taylor, who served as president from 1997 to 2003 and is now on trial at The Hague for his alleged role in Sierra Leone’s civil war, could potentially serve as foreign affairs adviser in a Prince Johnson administration.

In some ways, his patchy transformation matches his country’s. During two wars that lasted from 1989 to 2003, more than 250,000 Liberians died, many at the hands of drug-addled, wig-wearing, cross-dressing child soldiers who by their very appearance made Liberia synonymous with anarchy. But in the past six years, the administration of Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state who was named a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize just days before the election, has earned plaudits for maintaining order, heightening security, prioritising human rights and collaborating effectively with foreign donors and firms, the latter of whom have been drawn by the prospect of oil and iron ore deposits; ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker, announced its first iron ore shipment from Liberia in September.

This progress aside, Johnson-Sirleaf’s first term has been marred by a number of scandals—many related to official corruption. Though the president’s personal involvement has not been alleged, her response to the problem has at times been clumsy. In March, she opted not to renew the appointment of John Morlu, the widely respected auditor general who produced more than 40 reports in four years. Her chosen replacement was soon accused of including phony education credentials on his curriculum vitae. His nomination was withdrawn in late September.

Perhaps more concerning, though, is the political elites’ lingering penchant for inflammatory rhetoric. Prince Johnson’s candidacy was widely viewed as a long shot, but the most alarming remarks in the weeks before the vote did not come from him. Rather, the CDC raised far more eyebrows in making clear its intention to contest the election on its own terms: party leaders vowed to announce independent results rather than wait for official government tallies, and they also refused to sign a memorandum of understanding with the national police intended to ensure a peaceful vote, branding it a “booby trap”. In September, at a campaign rally in the northern city of Ganta, George Weah, the vice presidential candidate and former football star, personally ordered a journalist to delete photos of a man who had been struck by a CDC campaign vehicle and was lying unconscious on the road. The journalist complied after Weah threatened to get his “men” involved.

I met Tubman, the CDC’s presidential candidate, later that month at a campaign stop in Zwedru, in eastern Liberia. Local party officials had organised a welcome rally, but he and Weah were on the road late into the night, so we talked in the dining area of their hotel after they arrived. Tubman told me that the Liberians who had gathered on the side of the road to cheer on the candidates were more concerned about getting jobs and better infrastructure than anything else. Civil liberties, he said, were not “the priority”. “I believe in civil liberty and will do everything to promote that,” he said. “But what we will foremost do for them is make the country more livable, give them more hope, give them more comfort, more opportunities, more health care, better roads.” Just a few hours earlier, CDC security men had reportedly beaten two journalists who tried to overtake the campaign convoy.

Back in 2005, Weah was the CDC’s presidential candidate, and he led all contestants after the first round. Johnson-Sirleaf received the second-highest number of votes, and then came back to win the run-off by nearly 20 percent. Although the results were affirmed by the African Union and other international observers, the CDC cried fraud, with Weah threatening to prevent Johnson-Sirleaf’s inauguration. “I am the elected president of Liberia, not Ellen Sirleaf,” Weah said in a radio interview at the time. “They stole my victory.” His supporters rioted and clashed with police, though Weah eventually allowed the inauguration to go forward (without accepting defeat). When I asked Tubman whether the CDC would accept a negative result this year, he responded: “I don’t think we’re going to lose. And if they say we have lost we’ll have to look at the evidence very carefully.”

It takes two-and-a-half hours by bumpy road to get from Zwedru to a village called Tuzon, the birthplace of Samuel Doe. In one of the village’s mud-brick and thatch-roof homes lives a man who knows firsthand the perils of election-related violence. Bleblocoula Sylvain, a 28-year-old resident of neighbouring Ivory Coast, lost eight members of his family in a March raid that was part of the conflict stemming from a disputed election in that country last year. The conflict led to 3,000 deaths as well as widespread rape, enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians.

Sylvain and his wife and children have spent the last eight months in Tuzon, where he receives humanitarian handouts and earns some money from light agricultural work. He knows the border region is far from safe. In mid-September, some 23 people reportedly died in two Ivory Coast villages during a cross-border raid believed to have been carried out by Ivorians now hiding in Liberia. But Sylvain prefers to stay in Tuzon rather than return home, where he questions the new government’s ability to maintain peace. In a testament to the severity of the violence he’s already witnessed, he said he would remain in Liberia even if the forthcoming election spurs a separate conflict. “If there is any tension in Liberia and we see the citizens running, we will follow them,” he said. “But we will not be brave and go back to Ivory Coast.”

Analysts point to the Ivory Coast conflict as a recent example of the havoc a political power struggle can bring, but most Liberians don’t need any reminders. While Sylvain remains fearful of a trip back to his home country, Liberians are concerned about a different type of journey. They want to avoid a return to the past. Standing outside a polling center on the morning of election day, Emmanuel Kollimealyne, 40, said he believed his country could manage that. A volunteer officer with the Community Watch Forum of Liberia, Kollimealyne had been to four polling stations by mid-morning, and he said the process at all of them had been orderly. “I think I’m convinced now that since the conduct of the campaign was peaceful, the election will be peaceful,” he said. “In Liberia we are more mature now.”