Categorized | Africa, World

No Cheers Yet for Liberia

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The international community has been quick to praise Liberia’s presidential elections as marking the country’s first peaceful transition of power in decades, with former football star George Weah taking an early lead in provisional results. This is indeed a remarkable feat for a country that has been ravaged by two civil wars, unexpected slumps in commodity prices for iron ore and rubber (its two main exports), and the Ebola epidemic.

Yet the cosmetically successful elections mask deeper issues in a country still recovering after its second civil war. Corruption is endemic, women’s rights are still shaky, and the phantoms of past conflicts continue to haunt citizens. The situation is a sad reminder of the fact that even mostly-sound democratic institutions are no panacea for countries like Liberia and their neighbours.

When incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006 she promised to make the fight against corruption the main priority of her presidency. Eleven years later and she has made little progress. Although she launched a high-profile anti-corruption campaign and appointed a special corruption prosecutor, many saw her actions as a political ploy to get revenge against her opponents. After all, Sirleaf’s campaign came at a time when nearly all high-level politicians in Liberia were suspected of corruption – including the president herself. One of her sons has a senior public role as deputy governor of Liberia’s central bank, while a second was appointed chairman of the National Oil Company but had to resign after he was accused of accepting bribes. The president also appointed a third son and her sister to key government posts. No wonder that many Liberian politicians believe that corruption is part and parcel of the political game.

It was not only anti-corruption efforts that stagnated under Sirleaf’s watch. The economy also barely improved with Liberia remaining among the world’s poorest countries. Only 2% of the population has access to electricity and the literacy rate is still below 50% – which explains why few Liberians will shed a tear at the departure of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Although Sirleaf made history when she was elected the first female head of state in Africa she has been remarkably complacent when it comes to women’s rights, with the upper echelons of politics and business still overwhelmingly male. While some steps forward have been made, Liberia’s parliament is only 12% female and the government has failed to meet its goal of having women holding at least 30% of all national elected seats and party leadership roles. It is notable that the only woman involved in this round of elections is George Weah’s running mate, Jewel Howard Taylor – the ex-wife of former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor.

Given Liberian women’s lack of political representation and their collective memory of the rape and sexual violence that they suffered during the civil war, there is little wonder that they are worried about the prospect of another male-dominated government that will not prioritize their rights. In an ominous signal of what might be to come, the Senate recently moved to change a rape law that was passed after the civil war that had made rape a non-bailable offense.

Finally, despite the fact that international observers were quick to laud the elections as “smooth” and “fair,” even that has now been called into question. A number of irregularities have popped up and one of Liberia’s main parties has already complained about fraud. It is unclear if the second round will be hampered by similar or even more serious problems.

Of course, some of Liberia’s neighbours have it far worse – and they provide some valuable lessons. The DRC, a democracy in name only, can boast neither functioning government institutions nor the ability to meet its citizens’ basic needs. Just last week, the CENI (the electoral commission) announced that long-postponed elections to replace President Joseph Kabila will not be held until at least April 2019. Opposition politician Claudel Lubaya told Reuters that “what the CENI has announced is not an electoral calendar but an election-killing agenda,”

The government’s move comes at a time when support for presidential hopeful Moïse Katumbi is surging. Despite being exiled in Europe on fraudulent charges he has been leading the charge against Kabila and has corralled the opposition around his bid. Katumbi recently announced he will return to Congo in December and called on citizens to start civil disobedience movements to uproot Kabila. “The only man Kabila is scared about in the country is me,” Katumbi said. “Congo is losing every day, every minute, every second Mr. Kabila is in office. His mandate is finished,” he told journalists in London in early October.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, what appeared to be a historic vote in Kenya have now been marred by opposition leader Raila Odinga’s refusal to participate in a re-run. The announcement came after the Supreme Court nullified the initial election results in response to allegations of voting irregularities. Following the deaths of at least 24 people in post-election violence, renewed conflict has now erupted over the new law stipulating that if one candidate withdraws from a re-run the other automatically wins. The stalemate raises the question of whether public confidence in the democratic system will ever be restored.

In comparison with existential crises in the DRC and Kenya, Liberia’s democracy appears much healthier. Yet the (so far) peaceful poll cannot shroud the fact that Monrovia’s youth have threatened to take up arms again and that one of the candidates, Prince Johnson, extolled the merits of his murder of former President Samuel Doe before a crowd of adoring supporters. Liberia might not have the DRC’s ossified political structure and Kenya’s institutional jerry-rigging, but it is far from being a poster child of African democracy.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Tom Wirth

About Tom Wirth

Originally from Düsseldorf, Tom is a recent graduate in International Affairs from St.Gallen (with a focus on Africa), and is an aspiring foreign policy analyst in preparation for a PhD in Conflict Analysis.

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