The forthcoming elections in Liberia promise to feed a plethora of candidates in both the presidential and legislative races as in previous elections. However, what is at stake is, how the voting majority who desperately need development in the country will exercise their democratic franchise to vote for the minority who will front to represent them. Adolphus Mawolo writes reflecting on the 1997, 2005 and 2011 presidential elections.
Looking back at previous elections in Liberia the past two decades, it is almost difficult to draw a clear conclusion that voting in those elections had been influenced by parties’ manifestoes on clear-cut policy issues such as addressing illiteracy, healthcare, unemployment, etc. Take for instance, the 1997 elections that brought former warlord, Charles Taylor to power. After almost eight years of death and destruction in civil war that began in December 1989, the regional grouping, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with backing from the international community organized elections that fielded 13 presidential candidates. Mr Taylor was declared winner by the election commission chairman, Henry Andrew after obtaining 75.33 percent of votes in polls hailed internationally as credible. Yes, the elections were credible but they were not free. Even though, a consensus had been built among warring parties and international actors to end the war -organize and conduct elections, rebel groups had not given away their positions, thus, limiting what could have otherwise been a full-scale campaign across the country due to fears of attacks, deaths and destruction. Liberians had been through ‘hell’ at the hands of rival factions and they did not want to take chances at voting for the wrong person. May I remind that voting right at that time was not about voting for the person who articulated the best policy for post-war reconstruction of Liberia! Liberians were not even sure entirely that holding elections alone could sustain the subtle atmosphere of peace that they were experiencing. So electing the man who had the upper-hand during the war and who still had men under his command to dominate a re-ignited war was a ‘sure case’. As Mike McGovern, an anthropologist who has studied West Africa's conflicts said in a New York Times publication in 2006, there is a very strong current within West African diplomacy which basically says you make a deal with the strongest actor because if you don't that person will go back to the bush and fight or otherwise destabilize the situation. This explains Mr. Taylor’s supporters' chilling election campaign cry in 1997: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him." Indeed, this was a vote for peace. But twenty months after Mr. Taylor’s election victory, a renewed insurgency began on April 21, 1999 in the northern Lofa region, led by the group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), under the aegis of its leader, Sekou Damate Conneh. By June 2003, the war had extended from north to the southern Montserrado County –the seat of the Liberian presidency. By then, another rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) had joined the fray. Under both internal and international pressure, Mr. Taylor resigned on August 11, 2003 and flew to Nigeria under a regional brokered deal, paving the way for a transitional government that would organize elections two years later. In 2005, elections campaign debate shifted from voting for peace to voting for the lesser of evils (people who had played active roles in the civil war). There was also the push to elect the first female president of Liberia. Liberia’s past presidents since independence in 1847 had all been men, and so, many women especially the educated elite supported the objective to break this long standing record. By the time the results of the first round of elections were announced and the field de-crowded to only two contenders in the run-off polls, the debate shifted slightly. The educated minority wanted one of their kind elected as she could better articulate Liberia’s plight to the international community as well as attract private investments to spur growth and development in the war-scarred country. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of only two female contenders in the male dominated race was up against an inexperienced and half-educated former world footballer of the year, George Weah. Johnson-Sirleaf had worked in the government back in the 1970s as an assistant minister in the ministry of finance as well as in the UN system. In fact, she contested the 1997 presidential election and lost only to Mr Taylor. So, her academic credential as a Harvard trained economist coupled with her years of experience working in government and international institutions made her the likely winner –which she eventually became. However, the issues that formed part of the core of the elections debate were not a determining factor for many voters as to who got their votes. Aside from the supra, voting in national elections in Liberia are also usually influenced by such issues as geographic interest, ethnicity, religion and or what a person could take home at the end of the day. Geographic and ethnic interests Statistics from the 2005 presidential election show the variations and pattern of how people voted based on tribal and geographic interests. In Grand Bassa and Rivrcess Counties, Liberty Party (LP) for instance won the highest of votes 58% and 46% respectively. Its standard bearer, Charles Brumskine, hails from Grand Bassa County and belongs to the Bassa ethnic group which predominately occupies Grand Bassa and Rivercess Counties. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Gola from Bomi County won majority of votes 33.9% as well as in Lofa County 25.9%, home of her vice president. In Grand Cape Mount County, Varney Sherman, a Vai, won 88.3% of votes from the county. Former rebel commander, Prince Johnson revered by his kinsmen and considered by many as the ‘father’ of Nimba County in Liberia’s north-east for his role in the fight against a rival tribe ‘Krahn’ during the civil war was rewarded with the county’s highest seat in the senate during the 2005 elections. He was re-elected nine years later in the 2014 Senatorial election. This pattern of voting was also repeated in the 2011 Presidential election. Religious interest Liberia is home to multiple faiths but its chief religion is Christianity. About 85% of the population according to the 2008 national census practice this religion, and, this numerical strength has meant that, no one practicing another religion in the country is elected to the Presidency, no matter his or her qualification, long standing history of handwork, honesty and discipline. The 2011 presidential debates also revolved around similar elements as in the previous elections. Aside, the opposition had campaigned for a change of government, citing poor performance and offering a prospect of hope under their watch but they failed –thus, elongating the stay of President Johnson-Sirleaf in power by an additional six years. However, that mandate will end next year officially with the election of a new President at polls scheduled for October (provided that the election produces an outright winner, otherwise, a run-off poll a month later will be called to decide). Already, President Johnson-Sirleaf has endorsed her Vice President for ten and half years, Joseph Boakai, to succeed her. Several political parties have been formed to join the long-existing list of parties ready for the showpiece. Looking ahead, it’s likely the issues that will dominate the 2017 elections debate will be any different from those we heard in the previous elections: voting for a change of government versus voting for continuity, characters assassination, academic credentials of candidates as well as the usual geo, religious and ethnic politics. But what is of crucial concern is how the desperate population will exercise their democratic franchise at polls to vote for change. Adolphus Mawolo is a Liberian journalist and blogger working for trans-regional broadcaster, West Africa Democracy Radio headquartered in Dakar, Senegal. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Political Science from the African Methodist Episcopal University, Monrovia, Liberia.