A Victory for Democracy in Liberia
Samir Bhattacharya

In a knife-edge election, Joseph Boakai made a stunning comeback and is set to become Liberia’s new leader. With 50.9 percent of the vote, the 78-year-old leader, a former vice president, saw a close victory over his main rival, incumbent Weah, who received 49.1 percent.[1] This is the first time since the early 1900s that an incumbent Liberian president has served only one term and not been reelected.[2] And as President George Weah conceded after the result announcement, it also marks a peaceful transfer of power in a region embroiled in multiple military coups in recent years. The swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for January.

About Liberia

Located in West Africa, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. Although formed in the 1800s by freed American and Caribbean slaves, the majority of its people are native Africans, with only five per cent descended from the slaves.[3] The majority of Liberia’s official institutions were established in accordance with American customs from that era, thereby inheriting both the hidden virtues and vices of that country. Buoyed by its sizable and active diaspora, the United States occupies an exceptionally substantial space in Liberian social and political culture. Even the name of its capital, Monrovia, derives from US President James Monroe.[4]

In the 1990s, the country gained international attention due to its protracted, destructive civil wars and involvement in an uprising in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The nation has survived two civil wars of fourteen years (1989–2003). Over 250,000 people, roughly a tenth of the population, were estimated to have died during Liberia’s civil wars, making it among the bloodiest in modern history.[5] During the Civil War, horrifying atrocities were committed, such as the forcing of child soldiers to kill their parents by drug-addled commanders, bashing children’s heads against walls or stones, opening pregnant women’s bellies to remove their babies[6], and forcing civilians to eat human flesh.[7]

In August 2003, a comprehensive peace accord was signed in Accra, Ghana.[8] Since then, Liberia has had continuous stability, evolving from one of the most unstable to one of the most peaceful countries in West Africa. However, this lack of overt physical aggression, characterised by worries about returning to conflict, is only a phase of “negative peace,” according to the renowned peace studies scholar Johan Galtung.[9] Its conventions, laws, and regulations still support injustice and inequality. Therefore, its transition from war to peace is incomplete. Liberia needs “positive peace”. But doing so would necessitate creating institutions, norms, and values that promote and uphold peaceful societies.

Liberian Election 2023

On October 10, 2023, the people of Liberia cast their ballots in the crucial presidential and parliamentary elections.[10] Since the violent civil war ended in 2003, there have been four elections, including the current one. This time, a record 2.4 million people cast ballots for 20 presidential candidates from 46 political parties.[11] The front-runners in the polls were former soccer player George Weah (57) and former vice president Joseph Boakai (78). In the fiercely contested first round, the incumbent Weah garnered 43.8% of the vote, while his political veteran opponent Boakai received 43.54%.[12]

As none of the candidates could secure an absolute majority of at least 50% of the vote, Liberians returned to the polls on November 14 for the second round. In fact, the runoff between the two men marked a repeat of the 2017 elections. At that time, with 61.54 per cent of the vote, Weah won comfortably in the second round. However, this time, the incumbent has been unseated by a thin margin.

Issues and Challenges for the New President

As 5.2 million Liberians are bracing for their new President, the country stands at a significant crossroads in its history. In a region plagued by terrorist threats and coups d’état, it is hardly surprising that Liberia is not at the top of its external partner’s priority list. However, despite the international media’s general disregard for the Liberian election, it was a historic occasion for the nation. In the history of Liberia’s contemporary democratic elections, this level of turnout is unparalleled. Furthermore, it was the first general election held following a conflict in which the Liberian institutions coordinated without any assistance from external partners, such as the UN or ECOWAS security forces.

Even while the nation’s journey toward socioeconomic growth has seen considerable progress, much more work remains. The coastal nation is still among the least developed in the world today. The country’s poverty rate is still high. Despite a productive rice and cassava harvest and gold output, the growth of the economy in 2022 was a mere 4.8 per cent.[13] In the Youth Progress Index’s “basic human needs” category, Liberia is ranked 147th out of 150, underscoring the difficulty in acquiring adequate food, water, medical treatment, and shelter.[14] Over 80 per cent of the population is still experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have resulted in a steep food and fuel price rise.

According to Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index, Liberia is placed 142nd out of 180 nations, demonstrating the degree of pervasive corruption.[15] Last year, President Weah was compelled to accept the resignations of three close associates, including his Chief of Staff, Nathaniel McGill, after the US Treasury slapped sanctions on them.[16] All three had ties to dubious contracts and the embezzlement of public cash. However, despite losing their official positions, there were no prosecutions against them.[16] Instead, in the 2023 election, Nathanial McGill successfully ran for a senate seat.[18]

Significant differences persist in terms of gender and income, with 57 per cent of school-age children estimated to remain out of the classroom.[19] Drug usage among young people has skyrocketed as a result of unemployment.[20] Known as “zogos”, these addicted unemployed youths were behind the increase in violence in the run-up to the election.[21] The electricity supply is inconsistent. Inadequate road infrastructure and extremely dilapidated conditions of the few existing roads make travelling a nightmare.[22] Liberia’s median age is 18, which is relatively young.[23] It is also an extremely urbanised country, with more than half of its inhabitants living in cities.[24] Because young people in cities tend to be prominent in their demands for change, it was palpable that the country’s political discourse would hinge on the future and call for improved access to affordable housing, education, and employment opportunities.

Yet, Joseph Boakai, 78 years old, does not seem to support the theory as he has very little to contribute as fresh ideas. Boakai, who held the position of Vice President under the first elected female African head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has merely capitalised on the widespread hostility towards Weah to win over supporters. As there are reports of him nodding off at formal ceremonies during his time as vice president from 2006 to 2018, his detractors have nicknamed him “Sleepy Joe.”[25] However, Mr. Boakai has pledged to restore hope in Liberia and keep the nation “from falling over the cliff.”[26] He has pledged to improve infrastructure throughout the nation, increase agricultural output, and, most importantly, rescue Liberia from Weah’s administration’s mismanagement.

Moving Past its Electoral Violence

Given Liberia’s history of armed conflict and its daunting development problems, there was a significant possibility of bloodshed during this election.[27] As a matter of fact, the election in Liberia took place on the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Accra Peace Agreement. Some worry that violence may still erupt as the results of both rounds were close. True that on April 4, 2023, all 46 political parties in Liberia signed the updated Farmington River Declaration 2023, which vowed to settle electoral disputes through the legal system before and after elections.[28]

Yet, a month before the October election, there were violent altercations in several parts of the nation between members of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and the opposition Unity Party. Furthermore, Lofa County saw at least two deaths and twenty injuries as a result of this pre-election violence.[29]

Nevertheless, despite considerable administrative shortcomings and divisive rhetoric, it has been a peaceful and broadly fair presidential election. This was also the first election since UN peacekeepers left in 2018.[30] Therefore, in addition to attesting to Liberia’s efforts to preserve its democracy, a peaceful runoff demonstrated that the nation has managed to defeat the odds a democratically volatile region faces.

Weah succeeded Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2018, who, despite her lack of riches, managed to shepherd the nation away from the agony of a civil war over a 12-year period.[31] Now, the outgoing President, George Weah, has been hailed for his sportsmanship in conceding to his rival in the presidential racefrom across the political divide and the region. Recognising his statesmanship and dedication to strengthening peace and security, the Ecowas regional group has also released an effusive statement expressing gratitude to Mr. Weah.[32] Ecowas has been leading the charge to stabilize Liberia; in the 1990s, it dispatched up to 12,000 soldiers there, with Nigerian troops serving as the core of Ecomog, a peacekeeping force. Another group of people are giving credit to Nigeria, calling it the 'Jonathan effect'.[33] In 2015, the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, wanted to get another term but was defeated, and he called up then-opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari to congratulate him.

Way Forward

There are some clear indications of democratic backsliding in the region with the recent military coups in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Gabon, the anti-government demonstrations in Sierra Leone, and the unrest surrounding Ouattara’s success in the third term of reelection in Côte d’Ivoire. Given that it offers a glimmer of optimism for the continent shaken by coups, this election is especially significant for Africa and Liberia.

Liberian politics appear to walk a tightrope between open discontent with the current state of affairs and a general concern about averting the bloodshed of the past, with results expected to lead towards a peaceful democratic future. Indeed, the healing process has been arduous and slow. Nonetheless, the outcome of the current election provides a reason for celebration and serves as a motivation for the region and beyond to march towards democracy.

Beyond the personalities, Liberian politics frequently convey a limited and muted sense of possibility since few places have experienced their contemporary politics formed, and in some cases distorted, by the long shadow of history more than Liberia. Undoubtedly, Weah’s decision to give up his political ambitions has prevented the nation’s ongoing democratic transition since its bloody civil war from derailing and reversing its progress towards democratisation.

For the first time in more than 70 years, the nation beheld a democratic power transfer. Bokakai has experience leading a nation, serving as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s deputy for 12 years. This peaceful transfer of power also underscores the resilience and tenacity of Liberia’s democratic institutions. The nation endured enormous obstacles to preserve stability. The country is now looking to the future with the hope that President-elect Boakai will lead it towards peace and harmony. In any case, George Weah has set the stage for other countries to follow, showing a red card to those flouting democracy in West Africa, where there has been a recent upsurge in military coups and disputed elections.

Endnotes

[1] “Liberia’s George Weah concedes to Joseph Boakai in presidential polls”. Al Jazeera. November 18, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/18/liberias-george-weah-concedes-to-joseph-boakai-in-presidential-polls
[2] “Liberia’s President concedes election defeat in a knife-edge vote.” Deccan Herald. November 18, 2023. https://www.deccanherald.com/world/liberias-president-concedes-election-defeat-in-a-knife-edge-vote-2776046
[3] Yoonji Han. “In the 1800s, the American Colonization Society relocated thousands of freed Black Americans to West Africa. It led to the creation of Liberia.”. Buisness Insider. August 8, 2022. https://www.insider.com/american-colonization-society-resettlement-black-african-history-liberia-segregation-2022-8
[4] Shamlal Puri. “Happy days are back in Monrovia”. Standard Media. June 14, 2023. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/counties/article/2000198500/happy-days-are-back-in-monrovia
[5] Awange, J., Saleem, A., Konneh, S., Goncalves, R., Kiema, J., & Hu, K. (2018). Liberia's coastal erosion vulnerability and LULC change analysis: Post-civil war and Ebola epidemic. Applied Geography, 101, 56-67.
[6] “Liberian accused of war atrocities faces fraud trial in US”. Lethbridge News. October 2, 2017. https://lethbridgenewsnow.com/2017/10/02/liberian-accused-of-war-atrocities-faces-fraud-trial-in-us/
[7] “Liberian rebel commander accused of cannibalism goes on trial in Switzerland”. The Guardian. December 3, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/03/trial-of-alleged-liberian-war-criminal-accused-of-cannibalism-starts-in-switzerland-alieu-kosiah
[8] U.S. Embassy in Liberia “Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement”. August 18, 2023.
https://lr.usembassy.gov/commemorating-the-20th-anniversary-of-the-signing-of-the-accra-comprehensive-peace-agreement/
[9] RobtelNeajai Pailey&Aaron Weah. “Liberia has suffered 20 years of ‘negative peace’. It’s time for change”. Al Jazeera. August 17, 2023.
https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2023/8/17/liberia-has-suffered-20-years-of-negative-peace-its-time-for-change
[10] “Liberia presidential election heads for November run-off vote”. Reuters. October 25, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/liberia-presidential-election-goes-run-off-electoral-commission-2023-10-24/
[11] “What to know about Liberia’s presidential election”. Al Jazeera. October 10, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/10/what-to-know-about-liberias-upcoming-elections
[12] “Liberia election results: George Weah and Joseph Boakai neck and neck”. BBC. October 16, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-67119913
[13] “Polls close in Liberia’s tightly contested presidential run-off”. Al Jazeera.November 14, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/14/liberians-to-vote-for-president-in-tightly-contested-run-off
[14] Michelle Gavin “History Casts a Long Shadow Over Liberia’s Democracy”. Council of Foreign Relations. November 13, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/article/history-casts-long-shadow-over-liberias-democracy
[15] Trading Economics. https://tradingeconomics.com/liberia/corruption-rank
[16] “US sanctions three senior Liberian officials for alleged corruption”. Al Jazeera. August 15, 2022.https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2022/8/15/us-sanctions-3-senior-liberian-government-officials
[17] “Liberia elections 2023: three things the next president must do”. The Conversation. October 8, 2023. https://theconversation.com/liberia-elections-2023-three-things-the-next-president-must-do-215181
[18] “Liberia: U.S.-Sanctioned McGill Cleared for Senatorial Race”. Daily Observer. September 1, 2023. https://www.liberianobserver.com/liberia-us-sanctioned-mcgill-cleared-senatorial-race
[19] “What next for Liberia after 20 years of peace? A UN Resident Coordinator blog”. UN News. August 16, 2023. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/08/1139762#
[20] Coumba Kane. “Liberia's youth shattered by another war: Drugs”. Le Monde. November 24, 2023. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/le-monde-africa/article/2023/11/24/liberia-s-youth-shattered-by-another-war-drugs_6286299_124.html#
[21] Joseph Siegle and Candace Cook “Africa’s 2023 Elections: Democratic Resiliency in the Face of Trials”. Africa Centre for Strategic Studies. November 9, 2023. https://africacenter.org/spotlight/elections-2023-nigeria-sierra-leone-zimbabwe-gabon-liberia-madagascar-drc/
[22] Carielle Doe and Edward Mcallister “NEWSMAKER After decades in the wings, Liberia's quiet man Boakai set for presidency”. November 20, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/after-decades-wings-liberias-quiet-man-boakai-set-presidency-2023-11-18/
[23] Worldometer. https://www.worldometers.info/demographics/liberia-demographics
[24] Michelle Gavin “History Casts a Long Shadow Over Liberia’s Democracy”. Council of Foreign Relations. November 13, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/article/history-casts-long-shadow-over-liberias-democracy
[25] Aanu Adeoye. “Liberia’s George Weah concedes defeat after tight vote”. Financial Times. November 18, 2023. https://www.ft.com/content/e22a7b0c-91f2-4a34-8139-a1049c52362a
[26] Gem O'Reilly & Moses Kollie Garzeawu “Joseph Boakai: Who is Liberia's next president, set to replace George Weah”. BBC. November 17, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-41837299
[27] “Vote Counting Underway in Liberian Presidential Runoff”.VoA. November 15, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/vote-counting-underway-in-liberian-presidential-runoff/7356217.html
[28] OlubankeKing-Akerele. “Liberia: The Farmington River Declaration: Dead or Alive?”. Liberian Observer. September 25, 2023. https://www.liberianobserver.com/liberia-farmington-river-declaration-dead-or-alive
[29] “UN urges end to election violence in Liberia”. CGTN. October 5, 2023. https://africa.cgtn.com/un-urges-end-to-election-violence-in-liberia/
[30] “Voting closes in Liberia as football legend vies for second presidential term”. France 24. November 14, 2023. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20231114-liberians-mull-second-presidential-term-for-football-legend-weah
[31] “Joy and hope in Liberia as Weah is sworn in”. Arab News. January 22, 2018. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1230991/jserrors/spa/aggregate
[32] Moses Kollie Garzeawu& Lucy Fleming. “Liberian leader George Weah hailed for his sportsmanship after accepting defeat”. BBC. November 19, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-67468127
[33] Ibid

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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