TOPICS > Politics

Liberia Looks to Elections to Forge Stability

BY James Yolles  October 7, 2005 at 5:00 PM EDT

Officials and scholars closely involved in the ballot are divided over the degree to which the elections will help the nation. Some believe Liberia is a nation ready to turn a corner toward stability, while others view the vote with skepticism.

Liberia’s troubles erupted when rebel Charles Taylor led an uprising in 1989 against the government. The country was ravaged by civil war until Taylor, then president, was exiled in 2003. The decades of fighting and corruption left the country’s infrastructure and industry essentially destroyed.

During its years of turmoil, Liberia attempted democratic elections, but they did little to end the fighting. In 1985, dictator Samuel Doe’s party ran tightly controlled elections, which he easily won. After a short-lived peace agreement in 1995, fighting continued through Taylor’s election in 1997, severely hampering the democratic process.

International observers hope this election will break the pattern. As the National Committee for Election Monitoring noted in its June 2005 report on voter registration, “Unlike the 1997 elections, in which many Liberians participated with the view to ending the civil and political crisis, the upcoming elections are being viewed as an opportunity to recreate the values and principles of democracy and democratic process in national governance.”

The 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war set up a transitional government and official electoral process.

Many national and international election observers have spent months working to educate the electorate and ensure transparent ballot counting.

“There is an extremely strong international presence in Liberia that has been absent in the past,” said Tom Crick, a senior political analyst and Liberia project director at the Carter Center, an organization that has worked closely with Liberians on election preparation.

Crick also said the outside presence — which includes the second largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world — has helped make Liberia a more suitable environment leading up to Election Day.

Although it is widely acknowledged that monitors and peacekeepers will help make the election process smoother, some experts caution that the international community might be too involved and could hamper Liberia’s democratic institutions after the polls close.

“There has to be continued attention paid to the international community’s role and engagement in Liberia,” said Emira Woods, co-director of foreign policy in focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. “I think that role is best kept in terms of providing security. There are some tremendous concerns around where the international community will play a more heavy-handed role. I think that is worrisome, because that is delaying even further a process towards democratic participation that is long overdue.”

According to organizations in Liberia, the main pre-election challenge has been voter education. The National Committee for Election Monitoring’s June report noted that “every monitor decried the lack of or insufficient public awareness about the election process.”

“In some extreme cases some un-informed communities stayed away from the centers because they considered the indelible ink marks on the finger of registered voters to be a demonic practice,” the report said.

There also are a large number of displaced citizens, many of whom fled during the civil war, who are afraid or unable to return to Liberia. There are no absentee ballots. According to Refugees International, only 18,000 internally displaced people returned for voter registration in the spring. Over 100,000 eligible voters are still outside Liberia and out of the election process.

“I am concerned because I think that a vast majority of people, who — due to no fault of their own — have been marginalized and disenfranchised,” said Kofi Woods, a lawyer in Liberia and a regional representative for the International Foundation for Dignity.

The field of candidates is large and the debates have been relatively frank and open. In August, Liberia’s National Election Committee had approved 762 candidates for the upcoming election, including 22 people vying for president, 206 candidates for 30 Senate seats, and 512 contenders for the House of Representatives’ 64 seats.

Experts such as Crick said the large number of candidates demonstrates the open and accessible nature of the election, but others read it differently.

“Politicians have not been able to overcome the fractiousness of the past, which is reflected in the number of candidates. The elections are reflecting the divisiveness of the many years we’ve gone through of war,” said Carl Patrick Burrowes, a historian and journalist who has written widely about Liberia.

In the run-up to elections, there were frequent debates at all three levels of government broadcast on the radio. Newspapers across the country published opinion pieces about candidates, and voters had the opportunity to speak with candidates on radio call-in shows.

Thus far, no candidate has received nearly the attention of presidential candidate George Weah, an international soccer star who is widely regarded as the greatest African soccer player ever. A former UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Weah once withdrew $20,000 from a bank in Liberia and handed it out to passers-by. Former South African President Nelson Mandela has called him the “African pride.”

His main challenger is Ellen Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who worked at the World Bank. In 1997, she ran for president of Liberia and finished second to Taylor.

Some experts said someone with Sirleaf’s experience might be more appropriate as a leader for a country with so many issues.

“This does not only require someone with a good heart. It requires someone with both the will as well as the capacity to be able to take this country from where it has come,” said Kofi Woods.

Whatever the outcome — final results are expected around Oct. 26 — many agree that challenges lay ahead for the winner and nation.

Liberia has a crumbling infrastructure, 80 percent of the country is illiterate, unemployment is around 85 percent and teachers are paid irregularly. Monrovia, the capital, has significant plumbing and electricity problems. Schools and hospitals also are scarce.

For Emira Woods, the new government’s priorities should be purely economic, including reclaiming large sums of debt in foreign accounts that resulted from years of poorly run governments.

“What you need beyond elections are the key conditions for economic growth and stability. Debt cancellation should be first and foremost on the agenda of the new government and of international allies,” she said.

Burrowes believes the new government should work on changing the culture of violence and fraud.

“We could rebuild the roads and bridges and destroy them in a minute,” he said. “The government is going to have to be rebuilt and in the process, the society put back together. We must have a very public and high-profile stance against corruption.”

Kofi Woods agreed, saying the courts should constantly challenge the government to do the right thing. “We must first deal with corruption and violence. This means a lot in terms of reconciliation, in terms of ensuring that a mechanism for better accountability and transparency is in place, and these are indeed the biggest issues. We must be able to respond to the needs of our people without abusing and violating their rights.”

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor, the exiled leader who lives in Nigeria, still has strong ties to militant figures in Liberia, said Douglas Farah of the Washington Post. Farah wrote that Taylor still has access to his supporters in Liberia, many of whom help Taylor funnel millions of dollars that he looted from the Liberian people “into the purchase of weapons and the financing of militias so that he might intimidate, kill and bribe his way back into power.”

Nonetheless, observers said Liberians generally view the elections as a means to a more stable nation. “There is tremendous resilience,” said Emira Woods. “These people have gone through so much throughout the country. I am hopeful that people are tired of war and will reaffirm their commitment to peace in their actions on Election Day. … I don’t think the Liberian people will take lightly any efforts to return to war and conflict.”