Talk to any number of Liberians today about President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and you will get different opinions, many of which contrast with her glowing international profile. Liberians, it seems, cannot decide whether Africa’s only female president deserves a second term – but this is a decision that they will have to make, one way or the other, come the country’s second post-war elections in October.
The failure of enough voters to turn out and vote for constitutional amendments in a referendum on August 23 – dogged from the start by a lack of interest and suspicions of conspiracy – has confirmed critics’ fears that people were not engaged by the amendments on the table, even though one proposed change was of some consequence: reducing the residency requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates from ten years to five.
The eleventh-hour reversal of a boycott threat by one presidential candidate, Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change, may not have helped matters. Nor did a printing error on the ballot paper.
Serious logistical problems have increased pressure on the National Elections Commission to prove that Liberia’s second post-war elections will be free and fair, presenting as serious a test of the country’s democratic credentials as there has been since civil war ended in 2003. Liberia has made considerable progress in the past eight years. Roads have been built; electric power was restored in the capital, Monrovia, the economy is growing and the army and police are more robust. Yet, as President Johnson Sirleaf aptly put it, “there is still much work to be done”, particularly if the “land of freedom” is to be aid-free within the next ten years.
Corruption is still public enemy number one, and little has been done to tackle impunity for human rights violations, evidenced by the slow implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which was supposed to facilitate genuine healing after the war but has instead become a political football. Idle ex-combatants still roam the streets, reawakened by the fighting in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire to their potential as guns-for-hire. Liberia’s myriad problems are no secret. The challenge is whether the presidential election will provide a platform for the right leadership and strategies to emerge to tackle them.
The proliferation of old faces contesting the vote leaves little room for political transformation. Opposition heavyweights Charles Brumskine (third place in 2005) and Winston Tubman, among others, are poised to give the incumbent a run for her money. Those who would unseat her continually point to her early links with the brutal Charles Taylor (judgment on whom, expected shortly in The Hague, is being eagerly anticipated by all Liberians). But very few of the presidential candidates, if any, can deny any connection to him.
Liberia needs a fresh crop of political leaders, motivated more by the desire for lasting change than a sense of entitlement to political power. Former warlords and people who benefitted from the war are still active in Liberian politics and are reluctant to break with a past that favored them. This must change if the reconstruction process is to move forward in a manner that is beneficial to the country as a whole. Post-conflict transformation takes time. After the elections, Liberia will still need sustained regional and international support in three key areas.
Fighting corruption must start with targeted action, building on more than 40 reports from the General Auditing Commission and supported by the strengthening of the justice system. Economic transformation is also necessary; educational curricula must begin to match market demands if unemployment is to be reduced.
Finally, efforts to stabilise Liberia must accompany simultaneous interventions to ensure peace in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, whose recent war has had such a pernicious impact. Liberia’s best chance at lasting peace is the holding of peaceful, transparent, free and fair elections. Its people and partners must stand unequivocally united against recent incidents of politically-motivated violence that could undermine the gains made in the past eight years.
The government and the Elections Commission should seize the opportunity presented to crack down on potential spoilers ahead of the elections. Titilope Ajayi is the International Development Research Centre Fellow for West Africa in the Dakar office of the International Crisis Group.