A New Leader for Liberia
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GWEN IFILL: The African nation of Liberia takes its first shaky step back toward democracy. We start with some background.
GWEN IFILL: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated former World Bank official slated to be Liberia’s next president faces a slew of challenges, not least of which her main challenger, soccer star George Weah, has not yet given up the fight.
Weah’s supporters have taken to the streets at the Liberian capital of Monrovia to protest what they say was a rigged vote.
International observers, however, have declared the election fair. According to the National Election Commission, Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s former finance minister bested Weah 59 percent to 49 percent; the final tally is expected tomorrow. Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, won over women voters who make more than half of the electorate; she would be Africa’s first female leader. Over the weekend she urged her opponent to concede.
ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I just wish Mr. Weah will accept the results and what is clearly the choice of the Liberian people, and will work with me so that, together, you know, we can meet the needs of the youth and we can join hands to move our country forward.
GWEN IFILL: Thirty-nine-year-old Weah, an expert on the soccer field but a political novice, appealed to jobless young men and former militia fighters. Liberia, which was established by former American slaves in 1820, is located on Africa’s west coast, nestled between Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea. One of the world’s poorest countries, Liberia has been reeling from 14 years of civil war. Its last president, Charles Taylor, remains in exile in Nigeria. That war killed nearly 200,000 people, nearly 1/10 of the population and most of the dead were civilians.
The fighting ended in August of 2003 when anti-government rebels shot their way into the capital; 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers remain.
During a 2003 appearance on the NewsHour Johnson-Sirleaf explained how important Liberia’s stability is to the rest of the region.
ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: If we do not bring this epic center, Liberia, of this conflict, you know, to heal and we do not deal with it, that the entire sub-region can remain unstable and that this has adverse consequences for the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Weah, who led the first round of voting last month, remains a powerful figure. His party won a quarter of the 64-seat House of Representatives and three seats in the 30-member Senate.
GWEN IFILL: For more on Liberia’s elections and the challenges ahead, we turn to: Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute. He’s just returned from Liberia, where he served as a member of the U.S. Election Delegation; and Mike McGovern from the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that works to contain conflict. McGovern, who has lived and worked in West Africa, was in Liberia for the first round of elections last month.
Chris Fomunyoh, you were on the ground watching. Was this election free and fair?
CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Well, it’s fair to say that I was part of a joint delegation sponsored by the National Democratic Institute on the Carter Center that witnessed the voting on the first round in October and went back in November to witness the second round of voting.
And what we saw on November 8 was a very oddly and peaceful process, a process that allowed hundreds of thousands of Liberians to cast their ballots and to count those ballots in a very orderly fashion; and so it is fair to say that at this point in time, what we are hearing from the election commission is a reflection of the will of the people who voted on election day.
GWEN IFILL: Mike McGovern, are you hearing the same thing?
MIKE McGOVERN: That’s the same thing we are hearing; it seems to have replicated the free and fair election that we had in the first round.
GWEN IFILL: So who voted for whom and why? Mr. McGovern?
MIKE McGOVERN: Well, it seems that a lot of the ex-combatants and youth vote did go for Mr. Weah. But I would say the perception that the people in Monrovia and the elite, intellectuals were voting for Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and people in the hinterland of the country voting for Mr. Weah is a little bit mistaken.
In the time that I spent in the up country, all over the country, talking with ordinary people there was a lively discussion all the way back to April and May about who was going to be able to lead the country forward most effectively. And people were balancing the various pros and cons of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and George Weah all the way back then.
GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Fomunyoh, was there some question, for instance about – I have read about the conflict between America, Liberians and indigenous Liberians, Mr. Weah representing the indigenous and Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf representing the American descendants; was that conflict real?
CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Well, there was certainly an undercurrent of that, you know, that division within Liberian society, but there were also other undercurrents that kind of separated the two candidates. On the one hand, Weah is young, he appealed to a lot of young people, most of them, unfortunately, unemployed and ex-combatants, but at that point I think people began to look at Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as someone who has got the experience that can move the country forward, somebody who can be viable interlocutor with partners of Liberia, including members of the international committee and I think that played into Ellen’s favor.
GWEN IFILL: But does he still have the power with the seats that he holds in the parliament and his resistance to the concessions so far, does he still have the power to disrupt the early day, years of her administration?
CHRIS FORMUNYOH: Well, on the one hand he’s got considerable support. And I think a lot of young people still look up to George Weah. But, on the other hand, I am heartened by his appeal for calm; he has gone on radio to ask his supporters not to disrupt the process and he has said he is a man of peace, and so my sense is that he would want the process to move forward as long as he could be assured that his complaints will be investigated and taken very seriously.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. McGovern, if Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is confirmed or the election results are confirmed tomorrow, what are the first challenges that she faces?
MIKE McGOVERN: The challenges are enormous. There’s no running water in Monrovia or anywhere else in Liberia; there’s no electricity, except that which is provided by generators; there’s no land line telephones; there’s no sewage system and the road system is completely decrepit.
So all of the basic infrastructure elements have to be renewed and pretty much built up from zero. Alongside that there are other problems like rebuilding a new army that’s not going to be predatory, that’s going to be there to protect the people rather than to attack them, and restoring services like education and health.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about a predatory army, Mr. Fomunyoh. Charles Taylor who is still in exile in Nigeria, there’s some question about whether he is still from a remote, from a remote place and still controlling a lot of what’s going on there, including the armed forces that he controlled while he was president. How disruptive of a force can he still be?
CHRIS FORMUNYOH: Well, I think, you know, when you have a very fragile situation, as is the case with a country such as Liberia that it is only now beginning to recover from armed conflict, that you can never underestimate the potential for a troublemaker such as Charles Taylor to torpedo the transition.
At the same time what we heard from Liberians in October and November is a strong desire for peace, a determination, and you hear this in the streets — people saying we are tired of war; we’re tired of armed conflict; we want democracy and we want peace. And so that may mean that Taylor’s constituency is beginning to shrink within the country.
I was also surprised or agreeably surprised by the fact that his party did not perform as well in the legislative elections as some people had expected, which is saying that he is probably becoming a little more of a loner and I am really pleased to hear that the United Nations Security Council came out with a unanimous resolution last week saying that Charles Taylor should be arrested if he steps foot in Liberia.
I think Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the government that emerges from this election will need some time to begin the healing process for that country.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. McGovern why, for people watching at home, should what happens in Liberia matter to them?
MIKE McGOVERN: Well, it matters for a variety of reasons. There are neighbors to Liberia: Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’lvoire, are all extremely fragile. Sierra Leone is emerging from a brutal war of its own which was largely exported from Liberia there during the Charles Taylor period. Guinea is very fragile and risks imploding really at any point. And Cote d’lvoire is in the midst of a violent conflict.
So if Liberia becomes an anchor of peace in that region, it could really help to stabilize its neighbors.
At the same time, there have been credible claims that even al-Qaida at one point was operating laundering money into diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and so we have seen there and elsewhere some of the risks of a failed state, even with organizations like al-Qaida seeking out the kinds of places where they can launder money or do other kinds of business.
GWEN IFILL: Chris Fomunyoh, how – how possible is it for Liberia to become the anchor of peace that Mr. McGovern talks about?
CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Well, I’m really hopeful because if you look at the trends of what happened in this region in these last two decades, a lot of the very negative trends began in Liberia as Mike has stated; the whole question of child soldiers, the notion of exploiting mineral resources to foil conflict, or, you know, efforts by Quadaffi and the Libyan regime to expand its influence into Sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia was really the linchpin of all of this negative trend.
And so you can hope that if Liberia turns the corner and begins to move in a positive direction that we will see a multiplier effect in terms of the south region of Africa but even across the continent – the fact that Liberia could be the one country that is the first to elect a woman president would definitely have, you know, a resounding effect across all of Africa.
GWEN IFILL: What kind of international support does that require?
CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Well, judging from what we saw in October and November, there’s a strong international presence in country. The U.N. has got a 15,000-person-strong military presence on the ground that was very instrumental in maintaining peace through the electoral process. There was a lot of international assistance from the U.S., European partners as well in terms of election-related support and there’s a sense that if the transition goes well and the new government gets into power in January they are going to require assistance to really capitalize on some of the gains made through this election.
GWEN IFILL: And Mike McGovern, given that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the historic nature of her election as the first woman on the continent and also her connections to the West, how positioned is she to execute some of the international linkages that Liberia might need to get back on its feet?
MIKE McGOVERN: I think she is well-positioned; she speaks the language of development, the language that the donors will understand and she understands what the donors need and want. The question of corruption and money that was being given to Liberia over the last two years during the transitional period going missing became a very acute problem to the point where there’s now an intrusive program of overseeing where that money goes.
And I think Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf understands the necessity of having that kind of partnership because it will take billions of dollars most likely to rebuild all of that infrastructure.
GWEN IFILL: Mike McGovern and Chris Fomunyoh, thank you both very much.
CHRIS FOMUNYOH: Thanks for having me.
MIKE McGOVERN: Thank you.
MIKE McGOVERN: Thank you.