A taste of freedom

Katharine Houreld
14 September 2005

Out by Monrovia’s crumbling airport is a ramshackle settlement known by the Liberian people as “smell-no-taste”. Older people still remember the time when American soldiers were stationed here during World War II, tantalising hungry locals with the smell of their rations cooking.

More than 50 years later, the people are still hungry, there is still no electricity, but there is a different smell in the air. After decades of brutal dictatorships punctuated by even more brutal civil wars, Liberia is about to hold elections.

There are 22 candidates running for president on October 11, including Roland Massaquoi, seen as a protégé of disgraced ex-president Charles Taylor, former rebel leader Sekou Conneh, and two lawyers – American-educated Charles Brumskine, and corporate high-flier Varney Sherman, who is close to the transitional government. The current leader, Gyude Bryant, is disqualified from standing under the terms of a peace deal struck two years ago that pushed Charles Taylor into exile.

Yet in a crowded field of candidates, the two faces most frequently seen peering from cracked taxi windows and plastered onto walls are those of George Weah, a former world footballer who played for Chelsea and AC Milan, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated ex-World Bank official and political veteran. If elected, 70-year-old Johnson-Sirleaf would be Africa’s first female president.

A descendant of the original freed American slaves who founded the country over 150 years ago, Sirleaf is the candidate favoured by the middle classes. By contrast, Weah’s supporters are mostly made up of the younger, poorer citizens, who feel alienated and forgotten by the political elites. His poor childhood in the Monrovia slums and lack of formal education strike a chord with them – “You know book, you no know book, I vote for you!” went the chants at a recent rally.

With roughly half the country’s registered voters under 30, 38-year-old Weah can count on the youth vote. At the formal launch of his campaign last month, he promised a crowd of 7,000 cheering supporters:

“I have a dream to call you Monrovia city. I have a dream to educate your children. I have a dream to make you all like George Manneh Weah. When I came from the ghetto they said I would never make it. They told me it was impossible. I say this because you are in my shoes.”

However, his lack of political experience and university education has been seized on by other candidates. “This is not the time for someone to learn on the job,” Johnson-Sirleaf insisted in an interview at her party headquarters. While Weah’s speeches are eloquent in identifying the problems facing Liberia, only Sirleaf is clearly articulating a solution – pruning a bloated civil service, labour-intensive infrastructure repairs, and a representative of the international community to be given co-signing powers in the Central Bank of Liberia in an effort to force accountability.

Sirleaf, who supported Taylor in the early years of his presidency but later ran against him, acknowledges that Weah has a record untainted by corruption but says his inexperience meant, “you have to look at those around him, and that’s where the questions come, because you see a lot of shady characters.”

Mike McGovern, the West Africa director of the International Crisis Group, echoes this warning:

“Every single candidate in these elections is surrounded by people who want to enrich themselves. There’s definitely room for caution, real caution, in his [Weah’s] case and all the other candidates … Personality is often emphasised in politics but what Liberia needs is widespread institutional reform in the security forces, judiciary and economy.”

Donors have so far pledged $520m, but are refusing to disburse any of that through the government unless they accept a comprehensive package of reforms.

Whoever wins October’s contest, the next head of state can hardly do worse than his or her predecessors. Former president Charles Taylor is in exile in Nigeria after the special court indicted him for war crimes, which included backing militias who lopped off the limbs of civilians. Taylor wrested power from Samuel Doe, who was filmed being tortured to death. Doe disemboweled his predecessor, William Tolbert, during an army coup. Weah’s own family house was burned down in 1996 and his family attacked after he apparently angered former President Taylor, and Johnson-Sirleaf was twice imprisoned during the Doe regime.

In the capital, Monrovia, bulletholes still pockmark the national assembly, a reminder of the civil war, when heavily armed children and teenagers – often high on drugs and dressed in wigs and dresses – battled each other in the streets. At least a quarter of a million died. Now funding shortfalls are holding up the disarmament programme, and there are reports of recruitment for cross-border militia movements in the north of the country.

The country is currently patrolled by 15,000 UN soldiers, the world’s largest peacekeeping force.

Yet in a country which has not seen elections since 1997, which has seen its national budget fall from $500m to $80m in 25 years, and with an unemployment rate of 85%, these elections have been surprisingly peaceful.

Houses are being repaired and refugees are coming home. The international community is feeling upbeat. Democracy seems close – so close the Liberians can nearly taste it.

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