Despite its turbulent history, marred by civil war and the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Liberia should be on the verge of experiencing the first peaceful transition of power in 73 years. With President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepping down after two terms, former international football star and now Senator George Weah, 51 is the favorite to win the presidential run-off slated for November 7th. Having recently received the endorsement of Prince Johnson, who came 4th in the first round, the momentum seems to have swung behind Weah, at the expense of his opponent, current Vice President Joseph Boakai.
But after a surprise announcement on Sunday from the ruling party, the country’s democratic transition is in doubt. In a spectacular show of skullduggery, Boakai‘s Unity Party (UP) released a statement accusing fellow party member and outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of conspiring to “veer Liberia off from the path of peace” by conspiring to rig the election and install Weah as president. The statement concluded with “none of us had the slightest thought that a president who was democratically elected twice would endeavor to create discord.” The UP has now joined two opposition parties who had petitioned the Supreme Court to re-run the vote over allegations of voter fraud. The Court is expected to rule on October 31st and, if it finds in favor of the plaintiffs, it could ask the Electoral Commission to cancel the results of the October 10th poll.
Were the elections actually rigged?
The UP’s somersault is rather startling as the first round went off peacefully, with Weah securing 38.4% to Boakai’s 28.8%. And while international observers – including the European Union’s own observers – saw little impropriety during the poll, the run-up was tainted with corruption allegations. One candidate, Oscar Cooper, was caught on camera handing out cash, and another, Alexander B. Cummings Jnr, who finished 5th, purportedly arranged scholarships in exchange for patronage. But insofar as the conduct of the vote is concerned, there is little proof that the process was flawed enough to warrant a re-run. Coincidentally, in a stark show of the pot calling the kettle black, it was Cummings’ own party that filed the original complaint before the Supreme Court.
Since October 10th, Liberia’s imperfect political culture has been put on full display. As it becomes increasingly likely Weah will win, the animus towards him has grown. The Supreme Court challenge is just the latest in a string of attacks directed against the former footballer. His detractors charge that he is not politically savvy enough to put Liberia back on track. His choice of running-mate – Senator Jewel Taylor, wife of the jailed former leader Charles Taylor – has led to fears a Weah presidency could be a catalyst for renewed violence. Some commentators have even claimed that Taylor would somehow be a backseat driver for Weah’s government from his prison cell in Durham, in Northern England.
But Weah, a famous footballer in the 1990s and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995, has been active in Liberian politics since the country’s pluralistic system was reinstated in 2005. Twice he has run for the Presidency, in 2005 and 2011, and accepted defeat on both occasions before being elected Senator for Monrovia in 2014. His rags-to-riches story, emerging from Monrovia’s slums to become one of the most celebrated African sports figures of all time, has made him a role model for many of Liberia’s restive youth.
There’s a better explanation for the UP’s decision to go against their own leader: the theory that this a last-ditch attempt by Boakai to uproot Weah’s momentum. The Vice President, who has been at Sirleaf’s side for the past 12 years, is keen to distance himself from the President’s less-than-stellar record. That is not to say that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has not achieved some successes. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in the country’s peaceful transition and is very popular internationally. She managed to secure $5 billion in debt relief and was actively supported by the Bush and Obama administrations. Regionally, too, she gained plaudits for her role mediating the crisis in Gambia earlier this year and securing a peaceful transition of power there. She has been described by The Economist as ‘the woman who put Liberia back on its feet’.
At home, however, Sirleaf’s cachet is diminished. Sky-high youth unemployment (85%), the devastation caused by the Ebola outbreak (4,800 dead) and accusations of nepotism have all damaged the government. This joblessness is indicative of Liberia’s wider economic challenges, as Liberia is still desperately poor. Despite praise abroad for Sirleaf, only 2% of Liberians have access to electricity. The country’s total energy output is less than 30 MW (as a comparison, the UK’s per capita figure is higher at 34.8MW) and its GDP per capita stands at a mere US$455. Liberia ranks 177th (out of 188) in the UN’s Human Development Index. The country lacks health and education infrastructure and there are still many slums in the country.
All these factors exacerbated the Ebola crisis and have been impeding faster economic development. Boakai is seen as a continuation of Sirleaf’s fickle policies, and considering the President has been unable to satisfy the high expectations of Liberia’s population, who could believe the 75-year old Boakai has what it takes to lead?
If anything, last weekend’s UP orchestrated political theatrics are indicative of Boakai’s desperation and desire to cling to power – regardless of the cost. A re-run of the elections risks destabilizing an already fragile ethnic equilibrium and could undo Sirleaf’s work in pacifying the country. It’s an irresponsible gambit, especially considering Liberia is not all that far removed from a civil war that left between 100,000 and 300,000 dead.