20 years after the end of Liberia’s Second Civil War, citizens head to the polls for their fourth democratic election since the tragedy. The election represents the possibility of electoral peace as Africa currently grapples with political instability amidst military coups.
On 10 October 2023, Liberia held presidential elections. The front runners in the polls were the current president, George Weah and former vice president, Joseph Boakai. The National Elections Commission has steadily released the results which indicate that the two contestants are set for a run-off. This election is of particular importance for the country which was assaulted by civil wars, and for Africa as it is a beacon of hope for the coup-littered continent.
In a tightly contested presidential election, Liberia stands at a significant crossroads in its history. President Weah got 43.8 per cent of the votes while Boakai had 43.4 per cent. The country is now poised for a runoff election as neither candidate achieved an outright majority of at least 50 per cent.
Both candidates have deep histories with the country, hence their faithful followings. Weah, the incumbent, is a former professional football player and has been in office since 2018. He was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995 and won the Ballon d’Or, the first and only player representing an African country to achieve this. After his retirement from football, he ran for Liberian presidency in 2005 which he lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He was later elected in 2017, defeating Joseph Boakai.
Boakai on the other hand, was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s vice president and served from 2006 to 2018. This event carries immense importance for both the nation and the continent, considering Liberia’s complex historical background and the backdrop of recent coups and political turbulence in Africa.
Liberia has a distinctive history as it was established by freed enslaved people from America in the 19th century as a symbol of hope and self-governance in Africa. However, it quickly became marred by a legacy of civil wars, political instability, and authoritarian rule.
The Liberian Civil Wars lasted from 1989 to 2003. It began when Samuel Doe, a Master Sergeant in the Liberian army, came to power in 1980 through a coup. He re-established ties with the US by resisting Soviet expansion into Africa during the Cold War. His rule was characterized by human rights abuses, corruption, and political repression. This led to growing discontent among various factions, which ultimately sought to overthrow his government, although he resisted various coup attempts throughout his rule. He eventually held a presidential election on 15 October 1985 which he rigged to attain 51 per cent of the vote. The resulting civil war was staged by Charles Taylor, the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It lasted for seven years and caused a substantial death toll. The second was a result of actions from various factions and lasted for another four years, deepening the humanitarian crisis. The estimated death toll from both coups is 150,000-250,000.
On 18 August 2003, the Liberian Government and the rebels signed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement that laid the framework for a two-year National Transitional Government of Liberia. This paved the way for peaceful elections in 2005 which welcomed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female African president. Johnson Sirleaf was able to achieve incredible feats for the traumatized country including erasing its entire debt at the time and introducing free primary education. She was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to maintaining peace and justice.
Like 2005, the 2023 election represents a crucial milestone in Liberia’s journey towards political stability and national reconciliation. It presents an opportunity to cement the nation’s commitment to democratic principles and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Liberia continues to bear the scars of a brutal civil war spanning over a decade. The current economic situation in the country remains dire as more than 50 per cent of Liberians live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.
Liberia’s last election was celebrated by the United Nations Secretary-General for being peaceful. It is also currently considered partly free according to Freedom House with a 60 per cent score based on political rights and civil liberties. The 2023 electoral campaign has similarly been largely peaceful as the political parties signed the Farmington River Declaration 2023 committing to a nonviolent electoral process. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, Liberians also overwhelmingly support elections as the best way to choose their political leaders even though do not fully trust the National Elections Commission.
Liberia’s election also carries broader regional implications for Africa as the continent has witnessed a resurgence of coups and political instability in several countries. Africa has experienced seven successful coups since August 2020, including in Sudan, Guinea, Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso and two in Mali. Even in countries where coups are not imminent, the electoral process is a systemised coup d’état that enables the rigging of election results disguised as democracy. Examples of these are Nigeria’s 2023 elections that led to international condemnation, along with Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections that was adjudged to be disrupted and unfair.
Ironically, the comparison between rigged elections and coups is such that even among citizens in some African countries, coups are celebrated as they at least provide a break from the suffocating hands of those who refuse to leave power, manipulating and cheating their way to remain for decades. This sentiment was felt in Gabon when the military ousted Ali Bongo as president. A successful election in Liberia will serve as a positive beacon on the continent, reflecting that peaceful and true elections can happen even in the midst of instability and political fraud.
While Liberia still has various issues to work through, its growth over the past two decades is substantial and admirable. The results of the election will hopefully continue to support the current trajectory of political freedom to inspire the same across the continent and eliminate the problems of poverty and corruption still weighing it down⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].