Global Policy Forum

High Stakes for the Region as Liberians Prepare to Vote


By Reed Kramer

October 5, 2005

Liberia faces a 'make-or-break' situation as voters go to the polls next week, officials and Africa-watchers in the United States agree. The election is a central facet of the peace accord signed two years ago ending nearly 15 years of deadly armed conflict that spread throughout the West African region, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused incalculable economic destruction."Liberians need to realize that this is their one shot at peace and development," says U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who chaired the House Africa subcommittee for the past eight years. "Americans are pulling for them."

"This is Liberia's first and best opportunity to establish a democratic society," says U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Woods. In an interview he said the administration of President George W. Bush is generally pleased by the way the campaign has been conducted and is hopeful that the process will produce "a stable democratic government that espouses free market policies and can be a good partner for us in the region." Walter Kansteiner, who was responsible for Africa as Assistant Secretary of State during Bush's first term, says the election "represents Liberia's opportunity to return to the family of democracy." The United States, along with other members of the international community, "has expended a lot of resources to stabilize Liberia, and now the Liberians have to demonstrate that pluralism is achievable."

The campaign has been vigorously contested, particularly at the top of the ticket, where 22 candidates are on the ballot. Two other would-be contenders have gone to court for certification to join the field. Local press and pollsters identify the front-runners as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (66) of the Unity Party, who is a former banker and United Nations development official, and soccer star George Weah (39) of the Congress for Democratic Change, along with two lawyers and veteran politicians, Varney Sherman (52) of the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia and Charles Brumskine (54) of the Liberty Party. The elections represent "a rare if not final chance for Liberia to emerge from cronyism and conflict" after the years of civil war, says Susan Rice, who was Kansteiner's counterpart as Assistant Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. "The burden really falls on the Liberian people to seize this opportunity," she says. "In the past, they haven't."

Liberia has the longest-standing ties with the United States of any African nation. Freed slaves and a few free-born African Americans came ashore in 1822, transported by a U.S. Navy ship and supported by the American Colonization Society. The Society was established by prominent U.S. citizens to encourage emancipated blacks to leave North America and settle on Africa's west coast. In 1847, the new arrivals declared a sovereign republic they called Liberia, named its capital after President James Monroe, adopted a U.S.-style constitution, a red-white-and-blue flag with a single star and the dollar as their official currency. In World War II, the United States used Liberian territory to re-supply Allied troops in North Africa, and the Firestone plantations there became a source of vitally needed rubber. During the Cold War, Liberia hosted sophisticated U.S. communications facilities and served as a CIA staging post for anti-Soviet activities and later for operations against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya.

The descendents of Liberia's founders, dubbed Americo-Liberians, exercised political and economic control over the indigenous population until a bloody 1980 coup, led by a young, unschooled master sergeant, Samuel K. Doe. Initially popular with the impoverished majority - and welcomed as the representative of a new era in Liberian politics by the administration of President Ronald Reagan - Doe presided over a decade-long slide into anarchy and despotism. The corruption and incompetence prompted widespread support among Liberians for a rebel incursion in 1989, led by Charles Taylor, an exiled former government procurement officer. But more chaos followed, with Taylor rivals, one of whom executed Doe in 1990, sponsoring their own militias. Taylor, backed by youthful armed factions, gained control in 1994 and emerged as the winner in 1997 elections that were marred by instability and intimidation. "The United States has a historical responsibility to Liberia," says Vivian Lowery Derryck, senior vice president of the Academy for Educational Development, who headed the Africa bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration and is serving as a member of the election observer team from the Carter Center and National Institute for Democracy. "The outcome is very important to us."

For more than a decade, conflict in Liberia was a festering sore for the West Africa region, pouring refugees, arms and civil strife into neighboring Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea. The entire region felt the economic impact, and West African nations took the lead role in the peacemaking process. The price tag for Nigeria's peacekeeping interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone between 1990 and 2003 may have run as high as U.S. $15 billion, Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar said last month. "Instability in West Africa, with Liberia at the epicenter, has opened the way for regional predators to profit from the suffering," Rice says. "This has retarded the potential for progress throughout a region that is important to the United States - from Ghana to Nigeria, from Senegal to Mali." Kansteiner says he hopes that elections in Liberia will have an opposite influence - pushing West Africa in a positive direction by "providing proof that democracy can take hold." The country's last elections failed to deliver that result. "Liberians had the opportunity in 1997 to get it right and to bring the nation together, and it didn't happen," says Howard Jeter, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who was Special Presidential Envoy for Liberia at the time. "If they don't have a credible election devoid of corruption and fraud, I am fearful that the international community will lose interest in helping Liberia," he says. "Liberia should be a prosperous country, but you can't have a prosperous nation without peace and respect for the rule of law. The ball is in their court."

Royce, a prominent Republican member of the U.S. House, fears that this election could also be tainted by Taylor, even though he was forced to vacate office in August 2003 and is living in exile in Nigeria. Royce charges that Taylor is meddling in Liberian politics and undermining security in the region and says he should be deported to stand trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he has been indicted for war crimes, human rights violations and other atrocities during the war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. "I'd feel a lot better about Liberia's prospects for success if Charles Taylor was awaiting trial in Freetown," Royce told AllAfrica.

Riva Levinson, managing director at BKSH and Associates, a Washington government-relations firm with a high-profile client list, believes Taylor's conduct of the 1997 election led directly to the region's emergence as a criminal and terrorist safe haven. "Liberia proceeded to fall apart and the ramifications were felt throughout the region," she says. Levinson worked as a volunteer in 1997 for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - who came in a distant second to Taylor, after he vowed to resume the civil war if he lost. Levinson is supporting Sirleaf again "because I believe in her ability to bring peace and economic opportunity to the Liberian people." Sirleaf is a former finance minister, who also worked at Citicorp and the World Bank and holds a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University. She was jailed by the Doe regime, before escaping the country, eventually becoming head of the Africa bureau at the United Nations Development Programme. For most of the past decade she has lived in West Africa, working with financial institutions and civil society organizations.

If she wins, Sirleaf would become Africa's first elected woman head-of-state, a prospect that Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) says "could usher in an era of empowerment for women on the continent." In a statement, Watson, who is a member of the House Subcommittee on Africa and International Human Rights, praised Sirleaf for "running on a reform, anti-corruption agenda, which threatens to upset the established political order not only in Liberia but also in Africa at large." Derryck also holds Sirleaf in high esteem. "She has been a champion of human rights and women's rights for a long time, she's a competent seasoned administrator, and I'm sure she would make a good president." By fielding what he sees as a "healthy list" of presidential contenders, Kansteiner believes Liberia is positioned for a successful election. "The candidate I personally know best is Ellen, and I have tremendous regard for her abilities as someone who could pull the country together and provide the leadership required for the next important phase." But like other Americans interviewed for this article, particularly former officials, Kansteiner demurred from making an endorsement, saying: "I'm sure there are other worthy candidates, as well."

Some Liberia watchers believe that sports superstar George Weah, who was international football player of the year in 1995, has an unassailable edge among the presidential candidates. His name recognition among youth and his practice of showering Liberian dollar bills along his route attract enthusiastic crowds to his campaign events. The philanthropic activities he has funded for years, including scholarships and donations to Liberia's football team, have won him additional supporters, particularly among the country's most disadvantaged. In an August article, New York Times Magazine writer Andrew Rice quotes Weah as saying that he is running because the people demanded it, and he wants to give something back to the country that sponsored him. Doe, a soccer fan, made him captain of the Liberian national team and funded the development of his talent. But after an uneasy relationship with Taylor, Weah fled the country, becoming an international football phenomenon and a wealthy role model for impoverished young Liberians. Derryck sees Weah as a "fresh face," someone who "models being an engaged citizen" for Liberia's youth.

"Newcomers like George Weah represent the future," says Leonard Robinson, president of the Africa Society in Washington, D.C., who worked to resolve the Liberian civil war while serving in a State Department policymaking post in the early 1990s. Robinson, who also expresses great respect for Sirleaf's record and experience, believes Liberians desperately want to "restore the country's dignity and end the era of destruction and embarrassment." He says that may lead them to turn to a next-generation leader for "a fresh start." Weah "reflects the hope of many Liberians that national presidential and parliamentary elections on October 11 will mark a turning point in the country's bloody history," the Financial Times's Dino Mahtani reported this week. But Mahtani does not believe the contest is over. "While Mr Weah's popularity is undeniable, other candidates could pose a threat," he wrote, "especially if voting goes to a second round."

During the campaign, Weah's lack of political experience and limited education has been an issue. Born in 1966 in a Monrovia slum, he left high school early to pursue a soccer career. The Daily Observer, a respected Liberian newspaper, reported earlier this year that the bachelor's degree in sports management listed on Weah's campaign biography came from a 'diploma mill' that has been shut down by the Federal Trade Commission in Washington in cooperation with the British government. The website also touts Weah's service since 1994 as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, alongside other international celebrities, including Angelina Jolie, Harry Belafonte and Youssou N'Dour.

The 'ambassador' title is used repeatedly on the Weah website, although at home he seems to prefer the royal appellation 'King George', according to various newspaper profiles. Andrew Rice notes that Weah, who critics portray as a playboy surrounded by sycophants, wears a gold ring embellished by a lion, has a carved wooden throne in his office, and is catered to by aides drinking aged cognac. "Weah's popularity is due to the fact that he is a soccer player," George Fahnbulleh, a Liberian commentator living in the United States, told Voice of America this week. "That is it." He said using the title 'ambassador' is an attempt to inflate his stature and is something Jolie and other celebrities serving the United Nations refrain from doing. Fahnbulleh said he fears that Weah's lack of political know-how could open him to manipulation by others and drag the country down again.

U.S. officials in Washington and Monrovia, speaking privately, give Weah generally positive reviews and have especially welcomed his unqualified support for a financial reform package known as Gemap (Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program), under which externally selected financial experts will be positioned in key government agencies to monitor fiscal performance over the next three years. Donors have made adherence to the program a condition for aid totaling over $U.S. 500 million that has been pledged for the country's post-war recovery and reconstruction. Although Sirleaf, along with other leading candidates, has endorsed the plan, which she says is a reasonable donor response to the "serious financial mismanagement" of the transitional government, she has also stressed the need for Liberians to manage their own affairs responsibly. At a campaign appearance outside Washington, D.C. in August, before a crowd of Liberians working in the United States, Sirleaf appealed to them to be engaged in their country's rebuilding.

Among supporters at the event, there were widely expressed fears that Weah would become another African "big man," tolerating cronyism at home and subject to manipulation from abroad. Several speakers, who warmed up the crowd for Sirleaf's speech, said they had initially believed Weah's appeal to poor youth would help end the era of armed militias that have destabilized the country, but that they had come to believe that Sirleaf's policies and experience were the best guarantors of Liberia's future. Sirleaf outlined her six-point program of peace and security, reconciliation, good governance, resource management, accountability and transparency and gender equity. Showing some of the fire she has also brought to recent rallies across Liberia, she exhorted the group to bring their resources and skills home and work to finally end war, corruption and poverty. "Liberia is blessed with resources," she said. "For God's sake, Liberians should not be poor!" Whoever wins, this is the first time in the history that everybody eligible to vote will be able to express themselves freely at the ballot box," says the Africa Society's Robinson. "Liberians are demonstrating they are hungry for the taste of free and fair elections."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.