The Liberian Election: Looking Back At Progress Made Under Africa’s First Female President

Hours after polls closed for Liberia’s October 10th presidential election, voters were still waiting in queues expected to hold them until dawn.

Liberian election legislation requires a result of 50 percent of the vote plus 1 for a candidate to be successfully elected as president. With 20 candidates currently up for the role, experts predict a second round of voting may be necessary.

This next chapter of Liberia’s history has not, therefore, been definitively decided. As election results come in and speculation turns to the months and years ahead, it is important to look back and to hold on to the progress which has already been made.

This week’s election marks the end of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. Now 78, Ms. Sirleaf has served as the Liberian President for two consecutive terms, a total of twelve years and the maximum period allowed by the country’s constitution.

Ms. Sirleaf’s presidency has been remarkable in a number of ways. For one thing, she was not only Liberia’s but also Africa’s first democratically elected female leader. She was also one of three women to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for “peace movement” and contributions to “women’s rights.” She shared the honour that year with Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni peace and women’s rights activist, and fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, who was responsible for both the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement.

The twelve years of Ms. Sirleaf’s presidency have been most remarkable, however, for their relative peace and stability.

Having declared independence in 1847, Liberia has a short but bloody modern history. It has faced two civil wars, the second of which is said to have claimed 250 000 lives and ended only in 2003 when President Charles Taylor, Sirleaf’s predecessor, was ousted by rebels. Liberia was also hit hard by the Ebola crisis in 2014 and 2015.

Sirleaf’s Presidency was by no means perfect and she has faced criticism at home for the country’s continued poverty and inequality. Moreover, the country and its government still have a long way to go in their efforts to fill security needs left unmet since the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) exited the country in 2016 after 13 years of support.

And yet, much has been accomplished since the end of Liberia’s turbulent 20th century which should not be taken for granted. As Sirleaf, herself pointed out in an October 9th address to the nation, “For the first time in three generations, we will be transferring Presidential authority, democratically, and peacefully, from one elected leader to another.” And they will be doing so on their own.

Indeed, 2,183,683 Liberians registered to vote in this week’s election, out of a population of 4.6 million, and voter turnout has, by all accounts, been high:

“People began queuing up since 5:30am,” reported Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, on Tuesday, “They were very eager to cast their votes. A lot of passion and interest has been paid to this election.”

Despite the fact that Liberia’s future is still in a state of flux, there is cause for optimism.

“No one is entitled to your vote,” said Sirleaf on Monday, calling for Liberians to vote peacefully, to respect the outcome of the election, and to recognize their own democratic empowerment. “Vote for the person and persons you believe will make Liberia a better place.”

That is, after all, the hope which forms the foundation of all democracy—that citizens will be able to have a say in deciding who runs their country and, therefore, what they think will make that country a better place. What now remains to be seen is in which new direction Liberia’s democratic election will take it and where it will end up.

Genevieve Zimantas