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Liberia's election: changing the picture?

About the authors
Charlie Devereux is a freelance journalist and photographer. He was a member of the openDemocracy editorial team from August to December 2005
Tim A Hetherington was born in Liverpool, UK, in 1970. He started photography in 1996, and was a member of Network Photographers from 2000-2004. His interest lies in creating diverse forms of photographic communication from long-term projects, and his experiments have ranged from digital projections at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, to fly-poster exhibitions in Lagos. Recent projects include "Healing Sport" (1999-2002), "Blind Link Project" (2000-), and "Liberia" (2003-). He is a recipient of numerous awards including a Fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (2001), a Hasselblad grant (2002), and two World Press Photo prizes (1999 + 2001). In 2003, he worked as a cameraman, and was involved in making five films for UK and US TV. He received an award from International Documentary Association (IDA) for his work on "Liberia: An Uncivil War" (2004), and the film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA). For the last five years, he has worked consistently in West Africa, where he also teaches for the British Council.

Charlie Devereux: The Liberian elections were held yesterday for the first time in eight years. So far, it all seems to be about George Weah and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. How close is it going to be?

Tim Hetherington: The polls closed late last night and the counting started pretty much straight away. Everybody who was registered and turned up at the right polling station was allowed to vote. A few results are trickling out here and there, and already they show George and Ellen – as expected – neck and neck, with George just ahead. The third runner, Charles Bromskin, is a lawyer and he’s been leading a very quiet and determined campaign. I think you’ll see him come out controlling probably between 8–10% of the vote in Liberia and if it goes to a second round, he’s going to be very important.


George Weah, former footballer, now presidential candidate with the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005

A close fourth is the National Patriotic Party (NPP) which is led by Dr. Masakoy. This is Charles Taylor’s old party, and I don’t think that Masakoy is necessarily the strongest leader that the NPP has had. In terms of a rudder Masakoy isn’t really it, but just the fact that the NPP will probably pull in between 5-6% of the vote means that they will also act as great weight in the run-off. They will not go to Ellen’s side as they bear a massive grudge against her, especially her role in Taylor’s government. They will definitely swing behind George Weah. If the NPP goes with Weah, most probably Bronskin will go with Ellen, and that will divide up the vote in the run off.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the Liberians have their own approach to the elections, and the overwhelming feeling is that they are cautious. They have been through so many hard times, and they’ve been at this point before. During the 1997 elections they had Nigerian Ecomog forces, peacekeepers, election monitors and the whole of the international community watching.

The result of that election was that Charles Taylor won with 70% of the vote. He was popular because people believed that he really would bring the war to an end and fix the country. That didn’t happen, and so here they are again eight years later, and quite reticent. They’re very happy to have this opportunity, but you don’t see on their faces the overwhelming jubilation that press reports sometimes give out. These are people who’ve gone to the polls, very mindful of what happened in 1997. They really know that this time is crucial and they are surrounded by stronger apparatus, with a more robust UN force and a great deal of interest from the American embassy.


A supporter of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party with a portrait of presidential candidate George Weah painted on his back. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


A brother of presidential candidate George Weah shows a family photo of him as a young football player for the Invincible Eleven team. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


Presidential candidate Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson greets supporters at an election rally in the Antoinette Tubman stadium © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005

Charlie Devereux: You obviously spent a long time with George Weah in the run up to the elections. What’s your personal impression of him?

Tim Hetherington: George Weah is just massive here, and the equivalent of nobody. He is the Queen, David Beckham, the Pope and a number of other large scale celebrities rolled into one. He is regarded as a “true son” of Liberia. George is not just a football star; the west, particularly Britain, put that label on him as an easy way to connect with him as an idea. Liberians will never forget the things that he’s done – from giving money to refugees in Cote D’Ivoire when Liberia was falling apart, to keeping the Lonestar football team together. So in that way I have a huge amount of respect for him. Obviously he’s in new waters now, and the political waters of Liberia are very murky and deep.

The big unknown question is whether George will be able to do the job. You’ll get a lot of diverse opinions on this. George isn’t tainted by the history of Liberia, unlike Ellen, who is still blamed by a lot of people for her role in Charles Taylor’s government. But she soon saw the error of her ways – she realised that Taylor’s government was corrupt and that he was an egomaniac.

“I’m very interested by the relationship of power within Liberian society. How is power divided up between those who control it, and those who are caught up in its sway? The aim of my work is to create a dynamic that intertwines the personal histories of Liberians with the quest for power that has broken this country.” – Tim Hetherington

But George doesn’t have any of these implications, and to many of the young people – who are partly apathetic towards the political process because of what’s happened in the last fourteen years and the way that they have been used and abused within that process – he is a real possibility. This is hugely reflected in the demographics of last week’s big campaign rallies. George is calling upon the young vote. There were young people there – men and women – but they definitely came from one section of society – those who feel disenfranchised.

The actual level of discussion of key political and economic issues has been a little disappointing. The main emphasis has really been on how to draw a line under the war and lead a way forward to democratic institutions. Who should create these institutions and who can make them work?

In many ways it’s been a discussion of personalities, and you can see this most clearly in the debate on “GMAP”. “GMAP” is an economic plan that was fostered onto the national transitional government just a couple of weeks ago, and it allows the international community to shadow the ministries of the next administration and make sure there are no financial irregularities happening.

George is signed up fully to GMAP, but Ellen is doubtful; she feels that it’s wrong that the international community should have this veto on what happens in Liberian affairs. Ellen is more ready for discussion, and she definitely puts out a more coherent manifesto of political and economic issues, whereas George has been going on a platform of “vote for me, I’ll make Liberia a better and more inclusive place”.


Irish peacekeeping soldiers from UNMIL, the United Nations Mission in Liberia, give voluntary language classes at a school on Bushrod Island. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


A billboard urging people to vote for the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party candidates George Weah and J. Rudolph Johnson. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005

Charlie Devereux: Are you optimistic about the future? Are these elections going to work?

Tim Hetherington: Whether the elections work and what happens in the future could be two very different things. It’s very hard for the international community and especially the west to decide to put a date on Liberia and say, “right we’re going to have elections and this will start the democratic process that will turn everything around”. It’s obviously a great media story to have it like that. It’s a simple story but the Liberians aren’t as simple as that. There are certain cycles here, which have been happening in West Africa particularly since the end of colonialism.

Also, I wouldn’t say that people are tired of war in this country. There are a lot of young people with a lot of energy left, and there are plenty of arms floating around the sub-regions. One thing to emphasise is that the process of demobilisation, reintegration, and rehabilitation of ex-combatants that the UN has used elsewhere won’t work in Liberia. The small arms proliferation is huge around West Africa and if these young people find that there is financial gain to be made from fighting in other wars they will come back to Liberia, ready to serve some warlord. We will see in the next two years or so what will happen. The danger is getting a president who doesn’t deliver promises, and what are the chances of that happening? How soon will the young people be tempted to go back into the bush and fight a guerrilla war?


An official holds up a light to enable voters to cast their ballots in elections for a new president, the senate and the house of representatives. Voting was extended after dark after a huge turnout meant that some polling stations could not enable all voters to cast their ballots within the original 8am - 6pm timeframe. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


A woman casts her vote in elections for a new president, the senate and the house of representatives © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


Officials begin to count the votes after polls closed in elections for a new president, the senate and the house of representatives. © Tim A. Hetherington / Panos Pictures 2005


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