By Riva Levinson, Oct. 9, 2017
Tuesday, Oct. 10, the citizens of Liberia will go to the polls to elect a new president and 73 members of its legislature. It will be the first time since 1944 that one elected leader will hand over power, peacefully and democratically, to another in the country founded by freed American slaves.
It will also be the first time that a sitting president will retire from office, consistent with the country’s Constitution, and be permitted to live peacefully and with dignity in-country. In this case, that president is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected to lead an African nation, and a Nobel Laureate for Peace.
The are 20 presidential candidates, with a handful of real contenders. The top spot is up for grabs, as institutional partisan interests battle it out with political newcomers.
Here’s why what happens on Tuesday is important, and what it tells us about U.S. policy, Liberia’s political evolution, and African democracy.
U.S. leadership mattered. And it still does.
Liberia was the West African nation that introduced to the world the gruesome vernacular of blood diamonds and child soldiers in the early 1990s. From Liberia’s warlords and criminal gangs, an entire sub-region from Sierra Leone, to Cote d’Ivoire, to Guinea was thrown into turmoil.
Peace eventually returned to in 2003, in no small part due to the leadership of the United States, a policy driven by the U.S. Congress, and supported by then-President George W. Bush, who sent the Marines offshore to back up African peacekeepers forcing brutal dictator Charles Taylor into exile.
And the U.S. did not walk away once Taylor was gone. It stayed in Liberia for the long-game — democratic institution building.
Today, Liberia is a leading member of the 15-nation regional economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), all nations at peace, and which have committed to democracy as essential to development.
We are reaping the rewards of a consistent, bipartisan U.S. policy through successive administrations. And the good news is that it’s not going anywhere, even with Sirleaf’s departure from the scene. In a resolution introduced on Oct. 2, Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) reaffirmed “the U.S.-Liberia relationship and calling for free and fair elections.”
An empowered electorate.
It used to be that Liberia’s elections were won or lost with bags of rice, T-shirts and cash. And while all of these things still factor in, they are no longer sufficient condition to win the vote. Liberians today are an empowered people.
The country has a vibrant civil society and a rumbustious press. Women are collectively associating, advocating for improved market conditions. Young people are convening on social media platforms and chat rooms. And no one should underestimate the impact that the Ebola crisis had on strengthening communities.
True, many observers predict the likely outcome, believing that the country’s two leading political parties, the incumbent Unity Party (UP), and the main opposition, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), hold an advantage to place into the second round of Liberia’s electoral process, which requires the winning candidate to score an outright majority. But that being said, their emergence is by no means assured.
While CDC Standard Bearer, the soccer super star George Weah, continues to have a zealous following as he makes his third bid for the presidency, he may not be able to close the deal this time. Young Liberians want more than a living legend for their leader.
Incumbency, once considered a rite-of-passage in Africa, has become as much a liability as it is an asset for the Unity Party (UP) candidate current vice president, Joseph Boakai.
With margins shrinking for the two main parties, the field has opened up to other would-be contenders for the presidency including lawyer Charles Brumskine, another three-time presidential candidate; Benoni Urey, reportedly the richest man in Liberia and a former associate of Charles Taylor; and Alexander Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive, running on his private sector managerial experience.
Says one of the many international elections observers in Liberia for the contest, “if anyone is telling you that they know how this is going to end up, don’t believe them. It’s a wide-open contest. And it’s really exciting!”
It’s democracy, stupid.
What’s happening in Liberia is not occurring in isolation. It’s an unstoppable trend on the continent driven by a young population, where an estimated 64 percent of its 1.2 billion people are under the age of 35.
There are still the notable hold-outs, those leaders who have clung to power for decades as in Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Chad, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and the Congo, but every year, the continent is attaining new precedents in its democratic evolution.
Last November, in Ghana, opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo unseated a sitting president for the first time in the country’s history. In January 2017, in The Gambia, a leader who tried to subvert the will of its population, Yahya Jammeh, was ousted by a population who risked death to protest in the streets, with ECOWAS ultimately supporting regional mediation and a democratic outcome.
This August, the Kenya Supreme Court annulled the election of a sitting president, Uhuru Kenyatta, because of gross irregularities in the counting process. A first for the highest court in Kenya, and across Africa where executive power is often absolute.
And last month, the Togolese took to the streets, protesting President Faure Gnassingbe and demanding that presidential term limits be enacted to rid the country of 50-year dynastic rule.
With U.S. support, and regional solidarity, Liberia heads to the polls tomorrow. It is already a country of political pioneers, with Sirleaf being the first woman elected president on the African continent, and whoever wins this election, Liberians will again have broken Africa’s political barrier to entry, permitting novices and political newcomers to stand just as much a chance at winning as entrenched partisan interests.
K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016),Follow her on Twitter @RivaLevinson.
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