My earliest recollection of Liberia was the 1990 capture, torture and execution of its first native president Samuel Doe by rebel leader Prince Yormie Johnson. The grotesque episode; which was captured on video, showed Johnson presiding over the torture of Doe as he was maimed one extremity at a time. Prince Johnson later fled to Nigeria where he lived in exile until after the second civil war. Charles Taylor who led the rebel forces against Doe and succeeded him as president was also granted asylum in Nigeria following his resignation in 2003. Beyond accepting their exiled warlords as part of negotiated armistice, Nigeria has been a close ally and played a significant role in bringing peace and stability to Liberia and the greater Mano River Basin when the international community was slow to respond.
As Liberians head to the polls today to decide who will succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, there is tremendous excitement and hope for renewed energy and new possibilities. There is also understandably some concern among Liberians and the global community given the violent history of Liberia, so it is incumbent on all stakeholders, particularly those who have invested blood and treasure to pay close attention to these elections and see to it that the elections and the transition go as smoothly as possible.
After a decade as Africa’s first elected female head of state, President Sirleaf, who shepherded the country through post-conflict recovery and the devastating Ebola crisis is termed-out and will relinquish the presidency. Liberians are spoilt for choice, and with 20 candidates running to replace her; the elections are likely to go to a runoff like the two before it.
The frontrunner is the incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai (UP), who is saddled with the task of defending the current administration’s record, which President Sirleaf concedes, didn’t do enough to combat corruption or address reconciliation. He is up against some perennial heavy hitters as well as some fresh faces. His primary challenger is former FIFA World Footballer of the year and sitting Liberian Senator George Weah (CDC) who narrowly lost in a run-off with Sirleaf in 2005 after securing the most votes in the first round of voting. He ran as vice president in 2011 and stayed active in the political arena, eventually winning one of the most coveted senate seats in the country in a 2014 by-election, representing the most populous county in the country – Montserrado. He is certainly better prepared, and more experienced, and is expected to mount a formidable opposition.
Complicating things is his choice for running mate – Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of incarcerated former president Charles Taylor. This has fueled concerns that Taylor who is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes, is influencing the campaign. Oh, there’s also reformed warlord turned Senator Prince Yormie Johnson (MDR); who is hoping to expand his support base beyond his home county and improve on his 2011 showing where he placed an impressive third.
The sleeper candidate is Liberty Party’s Counsellor Charles Brumskine, who is running as the anti-corruption candidate, and is hoping that like President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria the fourth time is the charm. The 66-year-old former leader of the Senate fondly known as the “integrity general” is running on a platform he has dubbed the 4 Rs: Reconciliation, Reform, Recovery, and Rebuilding. Once the frontrunner in the 2005 elections, he is hoping his name recognition will propel him into the run off, where it is widely assumed the opposition will unite against the incumbent.
The dark-horse candidate is Alternative National Congress’ (ANC) candidate Alexander Cummings, who despite only recently moving back to the country has worked his way into the conversation thanks to his “talk and do” reputation and an appetite for change. The ex-Coca Cola Executive who has no political experience is relying heavily on his business bonafides, and his own funds to propel him to the coveted spot in the run off, although most polls deem that rather ambitious.
In a field of very impressive candidates, notable is Liberia Restoration Party’s (LRP) Macdella Cooper, who is the only hope of following Africa’s first female president with another, and is running as the hope and reform candidate. However, things shake out, the second round of voting will be critical, as coalitions are likely to determine the ultimate outcome.
Today’s elections will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another. As President Sirleaf said in her final speech to the UN General Assembly last month, at stake in these elections is the “irreversible course that Liberia has embarked upon to consolidate its young, post-conflict democracy”. It all comes against the backdrop of her two terms in office, which have been punctuated, by peace and stability, initial economic growth which reached 8.7% in 2013, then the corruption and nepotism allegations, persistent unemployment, the poor handling of the Ebola crisis and the ensuing economic decline, the Liberian resilience and the continued recovery.
While Vice President Boakai has tried to make the elections about building on the foundation his predecessor laid, the opposition has made it a referendum on what they characterize as her failed policies. Using her own admission of areas where her administration fell short as an indictment on him and a reason to change course.
Counsellor Brumskine is more generous in his assessment of what these elections are about. He asserts that today’s elections are both about the future of Liberia and the transition from vicious conflict to stability and development. He gives President Sirleaf some credit for repositioning Liberia within the community of nations given the fact that she inherited a pariah state. But highlights the fact that despite Liberia being a resource rich, youthful dynamic and vibrant country, 8 out of 10 of its citizens still live in poverty (on less than $1.25 per day). He blames these problems on successive generations of leaders who have failed to transform the country’s endowments into a peaceful and prosperous life for most of its people. After an election season marked by candidates jostling for moral purity, asserting authority on the economy, and promising everything but the kitchen sink, today’s elections comes down to the need for continued peace and stability and the economy. A victory for VP Boakai would mean the country’s appetite for peace and stability weighed more heavily while a strong showing or surprise win for Mr. Cummings would send a strong message of frustration with the status quo.
Why Nigeria should care
Although it seems like an eternity ago, Liberia is only one administration removed from the most recent civil war that decimated its population and infrastructure. Today’s elections will be the first true test of its fragile democracy — one the World community led by Nigeria spent blood and treasure to secure. As the de-facto leader of the ECOWAS region, it is incumbent upon Nigerians to pay close attention and help ensure that the elections and the transition are free and fair because as history has shown, instability in Liberia has the potential to exacerbate the regional and global refugee problem and contribute to instability in neighboring countries.