Liberian Elections: Who, What, And Why?


President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is about to step down after 12 years in office, leaving the post to one of the 20 or so candidates vying for the position. Elections are scheduled for the 10th of October and they are expected to pass peacefully. These will be the third round of presidential elections since the end of the civil war in 2003 and there is nothing to suggest that the political climate has changed significantly since the last round in 2011.

Many of the contenders are returning candidates, some of whom have run in all past presidential campaigns. However, as Sirleaf stands down and her current vice president Jerome Boakai runs in her place, there is a strong possibility of power changing hands this time. The Nobel Prize-winning president has won all her elections but has lost a great deal of popularity during her tenure. Rebuilding the country has taken a long time and many Liberians have lost patience with her and with her Unity Party.

Looking elsewhere there are several strong candidates. George Weah and Charles Brumskine are currently the front-runners with Boakai, the pseudo-incumbent. Weah presents the Congress for Democratic Change Party (CDC) and has a lot of support in the capital Monrovia, partly from his high-profile career as a professional footballer. His running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor brings with her the support of Bong County, a particularly populous area which has been left behind in the current administration’s development plans. Brumskine of Liberty Party (LP) obtained 13.9% of the vote back in 2005 and, with his high levels of support from the Grand Bassa, Margibi and River Cess areas has also been piped as a potential winner. His running mate Harrison Karnwea might steal some votes from Prince Johnson, yet another contender, who is also ethnically Nimbaian like Karnwea.

It is immediately obvious that Liberian politics are drawn along ethno-regional lines, and few candidates are popular outside of their home region. In the past, there have been half-hearted attempts at coalitions in order to overcome the fragmentation of support; no real progress has been made in this election campaign either. The most likely outcome of the election will be a smattering of votes for all the candidates and small margins for the eventual winner.

Yet, the concerns of many Liberians are shared across ethnic and geographic divides. The country’s recovery from 14 years of brutal civil war is far from complete and in interviews around the different provinces, the same complaints repeat themselves. This is, perhaps, why the candidates echo each other in vacuous speeches offering the same promises, which have destroyed the citizens’ faith in politicians. As a result, voters are left with little more than the popularity and ethnicity of each candidate to make their choice.

As not one candidate appears to be offering any radical, or even different, the solution to Liberia’s problems, it is fairly easy to predict the direction of the government following the election, whoever wins. The main focus will be infrastructure as Liberia suffers from an extremely under-developed road network. A recently completed aid project, funded by the World Bank, built a surfaced road which has not only allowed Liberians to cross parts of the country more easily but has crucially opened up many more cocoa farms to supply routes. With an estimated 90% of its GDP wiped out by the Civil War, the importance of this contribution to economic growth cannot be underestimated.

The road network is also vital for transporting those who might need to travel, such as those who need healthcare. In 2003, there were just 50 doctors in the whole country and even though that number has grown, with hospitals attached to mines fuelling the rise in medical professionals, access remains dire. Front Page Africa, an independent news outlet, recently conducted a series of interviews with members of the public, concluding that the “appalling conditions” were likely “to greatly affect [the] election results.” Although their analysis is questionable, the interviewees consistently blame the deaths of close relatives on their inability to access healthcare without more than an hour’s walk. One explains that “voting for the Unity Party means that we are satisfied with the long distance we cover to seek healthcare.” Token gestures have not helped either. Yarwanee Singbah, whose daughter died seeking medical care, said that “the ferry provided by the vice-president can’t help the situation.” Significantly, the World Bank’s reluctance to advertise their funding of the road led to several politicians claiming the initiative as their own. The next government will definitely prioritize infrastructure, whether for the economic or social benefits it brings.

Education in Liberia has recently received publicity as the department has started outsourcing management of 93 schools to 8 different providers. Many disapprove of the scheme but the current levels of education leave much to be desired. With fewer than 40% of school-aged children attending primary school, and with 40% of the girls who claim that they had been offered better grades, money or school supplies for sex, the situation is clearly unsustainable. Fewer than 1 in 4 women who finish primary school can read a sentence. But this desperately low standard of education is not confined to the rural poor; in 2013, none of the 25,000 university applicants passed the entrance tests, when bribes and family connections were briefly ignored.  Whether the next government continues the schemes, which are achieving up to 90% better attendance rates than the national average, remains to be seen. What is certain is that education must be one of the next government’s priorities, if any meaningful improvement can be made to the lives of ordinary Liberians.

One of the problems with continuing the educational schemes, however, lies in the cost. The government spends an average of $50 a year on each pupil; the schemes can access double this amount. And this reliance is really the most important problem facing the next administration. For each of the ten years following the end of the civil war, aid amounted to a third of gross national income, UN Peacekeepers included, and the reliance on aid has begun to be dangerous. The head of the public works ministry, Gyude Moore, has complained that running a budget in which aid is so prominent is like “trying to be a good husband and father when your neighbour is feeding you.” He worries that the dependence on aid might lead Liberians to question the need for a state at all, particularly given that aid agencies continually bypass the government to administer their projects.

These elections are fairly unique in the region: they are likely to run smoothly with little overt corruption or violence. The problems are not. Whoever takes control will take on the project of continuing the rebuilding project and is unlikely to find a magical solution for Liberia’s extremely serious and widespread problems. Hopefully whoever wins will be up to the challenge.