In landmark elections slated for Oct. 10, Liberians will vote in the country’s third postwar presidential and legislative races. Incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first female president — is ineligible to run because of constitutionally mandated term limits. So January 2018 will mark the first time in recent memory that a democratically elected Liberian president will hand power to a similarly elected head of state.
A nation of 4.5 million people, Liberia is a sliver of a country in West Africa “founded” in 1847 by black migrants from the United States, the Caribbean and the Congo River basin. Clashes between these settlers and the 16 ethnic groups already occupying the territory spiraled Liberia into more than a century of political upheavals.
A complex electoral history
As a country of many firsts, Liberia is in Guinness World Records as administering the most-rigged election — in 1927. Africa’s first black republic, Liberia has also been described as the continent’s first one-party state. Elections in the 19th and 20th centuries were more like selections — largely engineered and manipulated by the political elite.
Sirleaf’s three predecessors came to power through a brutal counterinsurgency (Charles Taylor), a coup (Samuel Kanyon Doe) and political succession following a sitting president’s death (William Tolbert). Taylor ended up in prison; Doe and Tolbert were brutally assassinated.
After a devastating 14-year armed conflict ended in 2003 with Taylor being granted political asylum in Nigeria, Liberia began to slowly transcend countries in Africa with longer histories of democratic consolidation. In a remarkable break from the past, Liberia in 2005 became the first African country to elect a woman — Sirleaf — as head of state with no one party securing a majority in the presidential, House of Representatives or Senate races.
Sirleaf’s 12-year presidency praised — and condemned
Sirleaf, a banker and development specialist of international repute, secured a second, six-year term in 2011 during a controversial runoff boycotted by the opposition. The presidential race was accompanied by legislative elections that ushered in unprecedented victories for smaller parties and independent candidates.
Sirleaf inherited a shell of a country, but critics accuse her of not doing enough to fully resuscitate Liberia. Although her claim to fame has been reforming Liberia’s security institutions, forging a fragile peace, obtaining debit relief of over $4 billion and rehabilitating infrastructure such as feeder roads, she has failed to stabilize Liberia’s recession-prone economy, fight corruption, improve education outcomes or deliver high-quality health care.
My research on the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak revealed that Sirleaf’s neglect of Liberia’s health system before the epidemic undermined her ability to govern during the crisis.
Will Liberians vote for continuity or change?
The elections next week are perhaps the country’s most hotly contested since the advent of multiparty elections in the 1980s. In what has been called a referendum on Sirleaf’s two terms, these elections include more than 1,000 candidates representing 26 political parties, with 20 candidates vying to replace the president.
If the 2014 senatorial elections are anything to go by, voters may likely opt for change by ejecting House incumbents who failed to deliver on their campaign promises. After a 2011 referendum, candidates running in 2017 for seats in the House must secure a simple majority to win.
A presidential contender, however, will need an absolute majority of 50 percent plus one to win outright — making a runoff inevitable.
A crowded field and high financial stakes
A 2012 law stipulates that political parties, coalitions or alliances that come in first, second and third in the presidential race will receive $2 million, $1 million and $500,000 annually, respectively, from the national budget. Critics have argued that in a country where more than 50 percent of the population lives in abject poverty, such budgetary allocations are excessive. Some Liberians, though not all, see the presidency as a gateway for amassing wealth, power and prestige.
Technocrats, bankers and entrepreneurs have entered the crowded field of predominantly male presidential candidates, although their chances are relatively slim. The dearth of female candidates is reflective of the diminishing number of women in high public office on Sirleaf’s watch, due in some part to the rejection of a gender-equity-in-politics bill proposed by female lawmakers in 2010. In previous research, I have documented how Sirleaf’s socioeconomic and political positioning of women has both challenged and enhanced patriarchal norms in Liberia.
With no viable female presidential contender in sight, all indicators point to essentially a three-man race. Sirleaf’s “pseudo-incumbent” vice president, Joseph Boakai, is likely to go head-to-head with opposition candidates George Weah (a soccer player-turned-senator who entered a political coalition with Charles Taylor’s ex-wife, Sen. Jewel Howard-Taylor) and Charles Brumskine, a lawyer and former president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate.
Though unlikely to win, new political aspirants such as former Coca-Cola chief executive Alexander Cummings, former Central Bank governor J. Mills Jones, and serial entrepreneur and former Taylor loyalist Benoni Urey have forced more-established candidates such as Boakai, Brumskine and Weah to enter into meaningful political alliances to court undecided voters.
During a presidential debate in August sponsored by a coalition of Liberian civil society activists, the four candidates who turned up were questioned about how they would maintain Liberia’s precarious peace; reduce poverty; revitalize an economy plagued by recurrent budget deficits; implement the highly politicized Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations; mitigate gender-based violence; and eliminate corruption.
Although party platforms tended to cohere, purported front-runners like Boakai and Brumskine were seemingly outperformed by newcomer Cummings. The euphoria of Cummings’s policy prescriptions and grass-roots organizing may present a challenge for Brumskine — who found himself in fourth place in the 2011 election, behind warlord-turned-politician Prince Johnson. Whether Cummings is a spoiler for Brumskine, Liberians are unlikely to elect a political novice.
Buoyed by Sirleaf’s controversial statement that Liberia needs generational change — an apparent jab at her septuagenarian vice president — Weah remains the populist favorite, particularly among disaffected youths. However, Weah’s conspicuous absence from two consecutive debates in August and September has called into question whether his nonappearances will hurt his chances of making it to the runoff ballot.
In the two elections preceding her victories, Sirleaf did not win an absolute majority in the first round. This is an indication that Liberian voters are far from political pushovers.
Whether the presidential and House races are characterized by continuity or change, Liberians are likely to vote for candidates with real or perceived track records in delivering public goods.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book Gbagba. Follow her on Twitter at @RobtelNeajai.