Liberia’s elections: striving for peace

Katharine Houreld
10 November 2005

In his oversized red basketball shirt, Joseph Lincoln could be any teenager from any American city on his way to a game. But instead of hoping for a victory for the Lakers or the Celtics, the 23-year-old student is quietly praying for a peaceful election in his home country of Liberia.

Seven years ago, his mother and grandfather were burned alive during fourteen years of vicious civil war. His father had already been killed.

Also in openDemocracy on Liberia’s election:

Katherine Houreld, “A Taste of Freedom” (September 2005)

Tim Hetherington, “Liberia’s Election : changing the picture? (October 2005)

Katherine Houreld, “I am woman, hear my roar” (October 2005)

On 8 November, the day of the second and decisive round in Liberia’s presidential elections, Lincoln was one of the first in line to vote, hoping for a peaceful transfer of power in the west African country where voters used to chant, “he kill my ma, he kill my pa, I vote for him.”

“Without peace we cannot survive,” he said. “I stayed in Monrovia during the war. There was no place safe to go, no food to eat. We need a good leader who will bring peace.”

With nearly two-thirds of the vote counted for the second round of the presidential race, banker Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has taken 56.4% per cent of the vote and former world footballer of the year George Weah 43.6%. Weah’s campaign manager, Jacob Kabakole, has alleged widespread cheating “that could significantly impact” the results of the elections, although a formal complaint has yet to be filed. Weah, a former Chelsea and AC Milan player, informed assembled reporters that ballot boxes had been stuffed as hundreds of youths chanted “No Weah, no peace” outside his party headquarters but has yet to lodge a formal complaint.

After rumours that his supporters were planning a march, two large armoured-personnel carriers were parked outside the National Electoral Commission. Weah’s party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), had already prematurely claimed victory. Three days before the second-round vote, they insisted the CDC had received 62% of the vote in the first round of elections on 11 October. (Under Liberian law, a second round of elections was necessary after none of the twenty-two presidential candidates secured more than 50% of the vote.) After polls closed for the second round, the head of the National Elections Commission, Frances Johnson-Morris, said she “would not hesitate” to withdraw the CDC’s accreditation if it continued to issue such statements.

Supporters insist that Weah’s failure to finish high school and lack of political experience is an asset. Previous politicians are blamed for dragging Liberians into a brutal fourteen-year civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. “The educated ones, they fool us, take our money and carry it to a different land,” said Joseph Yramar, a 28-year-old businessman. “George Weah give himself to the Liberian people, no blood is on his hands,” he added. But supporters of Weah’s rival, Sirleaf, insist that the antics of his campaign team and his lack of political experience prove that she is the only candidate who can win the trust of the international community.

“For so long we have been denied our fundamental freedom and rights by so called leaders. They came and rule us like servants imposing their will. We need to cherish this moment and make sure that our children grow up in a Liberia where they will be afforded the opportunity to exercise their freedom to speak, associate and celebrate within the confines of the law.

November Nov. 8, 2005 will go a long way in our history. On this day, Liberians braved the weather and selected their leaders freely and fairly... A new journey has begun in Liberia and it began on this date. History will be made on this day not only for Liberia, but Africa as a whole. May the Lord bless Liberia.”

(Reverend M Manyango, “November 8, 2005: A Day to Be Remembered”, FrontPage Africa, 9 November 2005)

“George’s…administration would be a disaster. He just came from the football field, he has no political foundation at all,” said the Reverend Thomas Zenah Paye. “Ellen has a good knowledge of the conflict in this country and she knows the key players. She also has the international experience.”

A bloody history

Sirleaf would be Africa’s first female president if she won, ruling a country where billboards implore: “Don’t Rape Women – they might have AIDS”. The feisty grandmother is no stranger to violence herself. She has twice been imprisoned for criticising a previous regime.

Liberia’s citizens still remember the roadblocks made of skulls and human intestines, but hope that their new government will finally bring peace and development to a country where schoolgirls are often forced to sell sex to fund their education. Hydroelectric turbines were sabotaged by rebels and there has been no running water or electricity since the beginning of the conflict.

A 2003 peace agreement incorporated many of the former warlords into an interim government and pushed Charles Taylor into exile. He has since been indicted by a UN-backed special court for seventeen counts of crimes against humanity, but hopes of bringing him to justice receded after many of his main allies were elected to public office. They include his wife Jewel Howard-Taylor; former son-in-law Edwin Snowe; and Adolphus “General Peanut Butter” Dolo.

A report issued by the International Coalition for Justice earlier this year concluded that Taylor still had $210 million in assets hidden away, nearly three times the country’s annual budget.

Howard-Taylor, who won a senatorial seat with one of the largest margins in the country, is supporting Sirleaf’s campaign after the politician pledged not to have a war crimes tribunal, saying it would “add to the division”. Weah, meanwhile, is content to leave the question of justice – and extraditing Taylor from exile in Nigeria – “to the will of the Liberian people.”

Some may find that more acceptable than others. “He make our country no good, people die from the gunshot,” said one ex-fighter, who asked not to be named. A big scar slices across his thigh, the legacy of many years spent as a child soldier after pro-Taylor forces abducted him from his family.

“[When I first] used to hold a gun it used to be dragging on the ground,” he recalled. “He [Taylor] should go to prison.” But with both candidates reluctant to take on the Taylor machine, his victims may have to wait for justice a little longer.

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