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Liberians Head to Polls in Test of Struggling Democracy’s Stability

October 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The African nation of Liberia faces new challenges as it struggles to maintain its democracy and stability following its civil war. In partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting, special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the nation, where unemployment is rampant, as it prepares for next week's presidential election.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an African nation struggles to build democracy after civil war. From Liberia, we have a report from special correspondent Kira Kay.

KIRA KAY: In a suburb of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, the crowds swell to catch a glimpse of their country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Officially, she’s come out to dedicate a public latrine. But this is election season, and so every move Sirleaf makes is also political.

In 2005, she became the first president to be elected in Liberia after decades of coups and civil war. She’s now running for a second term, one of 16 candidates in a competitive race.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF, president of Liberia: It’s been for us a struggle. But let me put it this way. We’ve come a long way. The first term was just tackling those fundamentals, putting in place the structures, the systems, the laws, the strategies. It’s taken me longer than I had anticipated because the capacity was so low.

KIRA KAY : Liberia’s two civil wars waged between 1989 and 2003 were infamous for extreme brutality, drugged-up child soldiers and chaotic rebel factions.

Two hundred and fifty thousand people were killed, a million more displaced. By the time warlord President Charles Taylor was forced from power in 2003, the country was destroyed physically and emotionally.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: The whole moral integrity of the system was undermined during these years of deprivation, during these years of war.

KIRA KAY: Sirleaf’s qualifications as a former international banking executive and her standing as Africa’s first female president have made her popular on the world stage and attracted billions of dollars of donor aid and debt relief.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We had an $80 million budget when we came in. That’s probably a budget for one of your high schools. Our revenue has increased (INAUDIABLE). We’ve rebuild the streets in the capital which were awful, and the main ones.

Now we’re starting on the primary roads. We’re restored electricity in a capital city that was dark for 14 years. And, today, we’re now adding more.

There was no water, tap water. And we’ve restored that. We have made primary education compulsory and free.

KIRA KAY: All of this has been underwritten by the security guarantee of one of the largest United Nations missions in history. At its peak, 15,000 blue helmet troops and police.

And at this police academy, the United Nations is training recruits to begin to take the lead on internal security.

COL. SAMUEL DAKANA, National Police Training: This is a new day. This is a new development. This is a new set of police force.

KIRA KAY: Col. Samuel Dakana says three quarters of the 4,000 needed officers have already graduated from these halls and are out patrolling the streets. He also admits the police have had a bad reputation as being corrupt and abusive.

SAMUEL DAKANA: It came to a time that even the citizens never have confidence in the law enforcement. But by effort of the training and officers that are now in the field performing, people beginning to see it different compared to what has happened over the years.

KIRA KAY: On the other side of town, more signs of nation-building.

This moot court supported by the American Bar Association is preparing the first class of magistrates to graduate in 20 years.

MAN: Guilty and nothing but guilty.

KIRA KAY: In a matter of days, they will fan out to ever underserved county in the country.

Trainee Calvin says the stakes couldn’t be higher.

CALVIN KAMARA, magistrate program trainee: Liberians resorted to war because they never had access to justice. Some fear that their rights were being trampled upon without redress. So in order for the peace and stability of Liberia to remain, justice plays a very important role.

KIRA KAY: The magistrates program seeks to address a need even President Sirleaf admits she didn’t solve during her first term. The delivery of services outside Monrovia to the rural parts of the country where populations are at greater risk of marginalization and discontent.

The road to Liberia’s capital passes through here, Bong County. This region experienced intense violence and displacement during the conflicts. Rebel warlord Charles Taylor even once had his headquarters here, recruiting fighters from among the local population.

JACKSON SPEARE, International Alert: There are a lot of youth that are ex-combatants were affected.

KIRA KAY: Jackson Speare, an analyst with International Alert, says Liberia’s fragility can be seen best here on the streets of the Bong County’s main town.

JACKSON SPEARE: We have a very weak local government structure as a result of the war. Because of that, the youth could take advantage of it and could begin any violence that it wanted to. We’ve had the case where police stations have been burned down twice since the last elections, as a result of the youth being generally frustrated about things.

KIRA KAY: Liberia has a staggering 80 percent formal unemployment rate and the government’s job creation efforts have lagged. But a few basic skills programs have been set up for former combatants in hopes of keeping them engaged. The YMCA runs this auto mechanic class for young men like Moses, who was forced into Charles Taylor’s army at the age of 9, was orphaned and then lived on the streets.

Moses says he hopes he’ll have a future at this because when he’s not busy working, his thoughts return to his war-time experiences. Many of Liberia’s other war-affected young men have had to resort to working together as a sort of union of motorcycle taxi drivers.

But analyst Jackson Speare says their war time command structures remain in place and have sometimes led to violence.

JACKSON SPEARE: The reason why they hold together and they’re so violent is because they feel vulnerable. Just in case there is a problem, they can respond to one another, into those structures. But we’re not trying to transform those structures into positive gains for the community. It’s also dangerous.

KIRA KAY: This past spring, several hundred Liberians fought as mercenaries in neighboring Ivory Coast’s civil war. Then returned home with their weapons, only some of which have been seized by the U.N. mission, UNMIL.

CHARLES BRUMSKINE, Liberty Party of Liberia: We are a post-conflict nation. Even the peace that we appear to endure is very fragile. If UNMIL left today, who knows what’s going to happen?

KIRA KAY: One of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidential opponents is lawyer Charles Brumskine.

CHARLES BRUMSKINE: We believe that nothing we do in this country will matter if we do not reconcile.

KIRA KAY: He says the country’s made more vulnerable by the absence of a formal reconciliation process.

CHARLES BRUMSKINE: After 14 years of war, Liberians remain divided or remain hurt, are angry. We need a leadership that would have the moral authority to bring our people together.

KIRA KAY: Soon after she was elected, Sirleaf did create a truth and reconciliation commission that collected victim testimonies and named perpetrators for prosecution. But the final report also recommended that Sirleaf be barred from public office because of her early financial support of warlord Charles Taylor.

CHARLES BRUMSKINE: Had this report come forth without the President Sirleaf being mentioned, by now I bet you, it would have been implemented. But because she was indicted, nothing has been done about it. Regrettably, that’s not much coming from our friends even in the international community.

So, we have the problem of beginning the process of reconciliation.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I’ve never been worried to the point where we’re not implementing it because I’ve been named or because I’ve been affected. No.

KIRA KAY: There are reasons it’s moving slowly.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Yes, there are other reasons it’s moving slowly. The resources that it takes, the capacity. The report is very voluminous the recommendations are many.

KIRA KAY : Ultimately, it is the Liberian voter who will judge Sirleaf’s record.

During the first round of voting that set the date for the presidential election and addressed several constitutional questions, the stage was already being set for a hotly contested race.

FREEMAN GODU, high school teacher: I feel that the country is progressing. Development is going on, infrastructure development.

KIRA KAY: School teacher Freeman Godu praised President Sirleaf’s work on recovery, but is still deciding who he will vote for.

FREEMAN GODU: Well, my own concern would be about some form of corruption. Corruption has brought this one country down to its knees. So, we want the government to be able to weed out the corrupt officials in government.

KIRA KAY: Corruption is a long-time problem in the country, but one that many voters feel has shown little sign of abating under Sirleaf’s leadership.

MAN WITH GROUP: The government is corrupt, they are not in favor of the Liberian people, the young people, no job creation. We’re going to use this card to make sure — we’re not going to do any pulling (fighting) — but we are going to use this card, to vote Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf out.

KIRA KAY: This election is being widely viewed as a test of the country’s stability. The United Nations is waiting until after the vote to determine an end to its peacekeeping mission.

Are you post conflict?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We are post-conflict. Is it guaranteed that we will remain post-conflict and won’t slip back? I cannot give that guarantee, because we still have vulnerabilities. But of one thing I’m certain: the majority of Liberians, seeing what they can gain from peace do not want to go back to war.

KIRA KAY: As Liberians head to the polls this election day, there are more at stake than Sirleaf’s bid for a second term. A Democratic and violence-free election will another important step on Liberia’s delicate road to recovery.