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Liberian election is pivotal moment in Africa’s democratic development

By Simon Allison 12 October 2011

As Liberians went to the polls on Tuesday, they did so with not just the hopes of a nation on their long-suffering backs, but those of a continent. With Africa still too often characterised by shoddy leadership, stunted development and a repressive political system, Liberia represents the hope for the future. By SIMON ALLISON.

Liberia shouldn’t be where it is. Not according to most African precedents. The country’s long and bitter civil war took decades to resolve, and hiatuses in the fighting were overseen by brutal dictators like Charles Taylor. Their first peaceful, properly-contested election was only in 2005, and yet here they are, six years later, enjoying another one. Somehow, the policital vacuum created by the long-running conflict has been filled by a fragile, tentative democracy where elections are not foregone conclusions and political figures are free to speak their mind. It’s a remarkable transition, made all the more so by Liberia’s almost complete lack of proper infrastructure and relative scarcity of resources (at least resources that the government can benefit from in the short-term; the diamonds and gold which fuelled its wars for so long remain informally mined, for the most part, although that might change if investors are encouraged by smooth elections).

Some of the credit for this must, of course, go to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: President of Liberia, Africa’s only female head of state and now Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She’s a formidable woman who first rose to prominence in the rarified halls of the World Bank before returning to Liberia to contest the last elections. She is something of a darling of the international community, who are perhaps dazzled by her competence and gender, sometimes overlooking the many flaws of her administration. Corruption remains rife, for instance, and very little has been done to improve basic infrastructure; she also had suspiciously close links to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was rumoured to be funding her political campaigns. But these are minor criticisms in the context of what she has done for Liberia; improving health and education, introducing rights and the rule of law, and giving women a greater role in public life than ever before. This year’s Ibrahim Index of African Governance, released on Monday, shows Liberia’s improvement in numbers – along with Sierra Leone, it’s the only country in Africa to show any significant improvement in governance over the last six years. Given how slowly those governance indicators change over time, this is a remarkable feat.

Johnson-Sirleaf, under the banner of the Unity Party, is running for a second term in this election, a decision which was not without controversy as she’d originally promised to serve only a single term. But there’s still too much left for her to do, she says.

Not that she’ll definitely have the chance to do it. Winston Tubman, nephew of independence leader and former president William Tubman, leads the main opposition party, which this year is stronger than ever before, after the decision of football superstar George Weah to merge his party with Tubman’s. The two men are both virulent critics of Johnson-Sirleaf and her government, and their message resonates with Liberia’s poor who – much like South Africa’s – are still waiting to see a material change in their lives. Although their Congress for Democratic Change party is strong, it will be a surprise if they are able to unseat Johnson-Sirleaf.

Also in the running is the infamous Prince Johnson. He was a warlord in the civil war era, and continues to enjoy support in the influential Nimba County where he’s from. His defining political act was the gruesome torture and murder of former dictator Samuel Doe; this was filmed and put on tape, and continues to be sold on the streets of Monrovia. He recently ducked responsibility for the killing, saying that “the devil made him do it”. The devil has a lot to answer for in Liberia.

Elections are expected to run smoothly, although not without difficulties; it’s rainy season in Liberia, and muddy roads will cause all sorts of transport problems. The vote is being monitored by international bodies, and provisional reports indicate that so far all is going according to plan. This is good news for Liberia, and even better news for Africa. DM



Read more:

  • Liberia election: Sirleaf faces Tubman challenge on BBC News;
  • Liberia: is former warlord Prince Johnson fit to rule? on the Global Post.

Photo: REUTERS

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