What to know about Liberia’s presidential election

7 months ago 169

Liberia goes to the polls for the presidential and parliamentary elections on Tuesday at 08:00 GMT. Twenty presidential candidates, including incumbent George Weah, are competing to lead the country of five million.

Weah, a former international football star, rode to victory on a wave of optimism in 2017, bringing hope to a country that had been devastated by two back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003, and the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016. His election was an historic event, marking the country’s first democratic transfer to power since 1944. He promised to tackle poverty, create jobs, build roads and end corruption.

George Weah at the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York CityLiberia’s President George Weah arrives to address the 78th session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, US, September 20, 2023 [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Nearly five years after he took office in 2018, the former Ballon d’Or winner remains popular in some parts of the country, but anger is growing over persistently high levels of corruption and the cost of living.

Here’s what you need to know about the Liberian election:

Will the elections be peaceful?

In a country still recovering from two wars that killed a quarter of a million people, the threat of violence is never far from the minds of voters. Old fears were stoked last month after three killings during election campaign clashes in the northern Lofa county.

The incident involved supporters of Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and the Unity Party. The latter party is led by Joseph Boakai, who served as vice president in the previous administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and is considered Weah’s main rival in the presidential vote.

Joseph Nyuma Boakai, Liberia's former vice president and presidential candidate of the Unity Party (UP), speaks during a campaign rally in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2017Joseph Nyumah Boakai, Liberia’s former vice president and presidential candidate for the Unity Party (UP), speaks during a campaign rally in Monrovia, Liberia, on December 24, 2017 [Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters]

In August, Weah’s supporters carried a coffin through Monrovia, with images of Boakai’s face plastered on the sides, provoking anger and a resurgence of grief. The ruling party was reportedly reticent about condemning the spectacle.

All parties vying in the polls – 46 have been accredited by the National Elections Commission – pledged in April to refrain from violence in the so-called Farmington River Declaration, drafted under the aegis of the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The elections happen to take place on the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Accra Peace Agreement, which ended the second Liberian civil war.

What are the main issues voters are looking at?

Corruption: Liberia is ranked 142 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. Weah, who spent much of his first electoral campaign criticising Sirleaf’s failure to tackle corruption, has not performed much better.

Last year, the US slapped sanctions on three Liberian government officials, including Weah’s chief of staff, for engaging in corrupt practices. In April, Washington’s outgoing ambassador accused politicians of “buttering their own bread” and “feathering their own nests”.

Poverty: In December 2022, locals took to the streets of Monrovia to protest about rising food and fuel prices during Weah’s prolonged absence from the country. The president had been watching his son, Timothy Weah, playing the US team at the World Cup in Qatar.

He also attended a US-Africa leader’s summit in Washington. According to the World Bank, more than half of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day. Half a million faced “acute levels” of food insecurity this year, with prices of staples like imported rice, palm oil and cassava on the rise ­– partly owing to the war in Ukraine.

Despite having a wealth of natural resources, such as rubber, timber, iron, diamond and gold, Liberia ranks 178 out of 191 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index.

Accountability: Former president and strongman Charles Taylor was convicted by an international tribunal at The Hague, and is now serving a 50-year sentence in Britain, but there has been no sign of justice at home.

Despite the recommendations of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009, many war criminals walk free. Senator Prince Johnson, a former strongman whose fighters raped and killed, is not only free but again running for office.

Johnson was also involved in the killing of former president Samuel Doe in 1990 – a video of him watching Doe’s ear being sliced off went viral on the internet. Close to Joseph Boakai, Johnson’s popularity in Nimba county makes him an asset to any would-be president.

Who are the main presidential candidates?

George Weah: The young and the poor were once inspired by the former footballer’s rags-to-riches story, which saw him rise from humble beginnings in Monrovia’s Clara Town slum.

The 57-year-old’s popularity has waned, though he is expected to do well in places like Bong country, a stronghold of Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor. His alliance with the ex-wife of Charles Taylor raised eyebrows in 2017, but has since been normalised.

Joseph Boakai: Known as “Sleepy Joe” for allegedly napping at public events, the 78-year-old from Lofa county served as vice president between 2006 and 2018. Mild-mannered, but determined, he harvested latex for American rubber giant Firestone Plantation, working as a janitor while studying at the College of West Africa.

By the 80s, he had worked his way up into politics, serving as agriculture minister under President Samuel Doe, who was murdered in 1990, a decade after attaining power in a bloody coup.

Supporters hold a banner bearing a portrait of Alexander B. Cummings during a rally against living conditions in the capital Monrovia on December 17, 2022Supporters hold a banner bearing a portrait of Alexander B Cummings, president of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), during a rally against living conditions in the capital, Monrovia, on December 17, 2022 [Emmanuel Tobey/AFP]

Alexander B Cummings: A former Coca-Cola executive, the leader of the Alternative National Congress joined forces with the Liberty Party in an attempt to rally the opposition under the banner of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP).

Having failed to convince voters in 2017, the 66-year-old hopes to use his decades of experience in business and philanthropy to lift the country out of poverty. Focused on economic growth, he has a progressive agenda in areas like business financing, women’s representation and eco-tourism.

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