You can imagine the electric feel on the ground in Liberia right now, with less than 3 weeks to go until the October 11th elections. The atmosphere is heating up in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
The election holds special significance as it comes at a time where Liberia is trying to fully recover from the disastrous civil war that raged from 1989-2003. This is the “first domestically organized vote” (Reuters) since the war, after the 2005 U.N.-organized election that resulted in Johnson Sirleaf’s victory. Thus, it is important that it runs smoothly and does not plunge the country back into conflict. Liberia is also one of the poorest nations in the world, and vitally needs stable elections.
Who are the major players in the upcoming election? The incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, known locally as ‘Ma Ellen’ or the ‘Iron Lady’, is the first female head of state in Africa. Many have predicted that she will emerge victorious in the coming elections, as she did in the 2005 elections, to carry out a second term. Johnson-Sirleaf runs as part of the Unity Party (UP). The main opposition is the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), under presidential aspirant Winston Tubman and vice presidential candidate, former A.C. Milan soccer player George O. Weah (who ran against Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf in the 2005 election). The CDC is giving the ruling UP a tough battle for victory. Tubman and Weah claim that Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration has failed the Liberian people and argue that change is needed. Both presidential aspirants from the UP and CDC have impressive backgrounds as both are Harvard-educated, with Johnson Sirleaf as a former Finance Minister and World Bank employee, and Tubman as Justice Minister and representative to the UN. The other major player is Charles Brumskine, running as part of the Liberty Party, who has had a long history in Liberian politics and is a law expert.
Let’s take a critical look at Johnson-Sirleaf’s first term in office. Her supporters are confident Johnson-Sirleaf will be able to further pull the country out of the economic crisis that has marked its post-civil war years. Highlights of Johnson-Sirleaf’s rule include negotiating Liberia’s outstanding debt after the civil war, raising civil servant and teacher salaries, improving infrastructure, enhancing educational opportunities, having no political prisoners, and presiding over a period of economic growth. Critics have attacked Johnson-Sirleaf’s for not ruling out endemic corruption enough during her time in office. Moreover, as part of her election campaign in 2005, she claimed she would only run for one-term, but has reneged on that promise. This is troublesome, since Africa has a history of notorious rulers who have been reluctant to give up their time in power, but Ma Ellen claims that she needs another term to carry out her desired goals. Johnson-Sirleaf has emphasized that taking office in 2006 with the country in a precarious situation left little resources to carry out her goals, but is confident that 5 years later, more progress can be achieved. The Unity Party pledged that if re-elected to the presidency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration will rebuild the hydro-electric dam by 2015, create 20,000 jobs annually, build paved roads to every county capital, complete community colleges in all counties and increase salaries of teachers and health workers, especially those working in rural areas.
Of particular importance to FUEL Youth is the emphasis that Johnson-Sirleaf has put on expanding educational opportunities as part of rebuilding Liberia after the civil war. At the grassroots level, Johnson-Sirleaf has solidified her support with endorsements from major grassroots organizations, including the University Students for the Re-Election of Madam Sirleaf (USROMS). These students point out the notable transformations in Liberia during Johnson-Sirleaf’s time in office, with large benefits to education. This shows that the education sector of Liberia supports Ma Ellen’s prioritization of education as a vital component to rebuild Liberia, a message that we at FUEL Youth agree with. During Johnson-Sirleaf’s first term, she has increased money spent on education in the national budget and pledges to continue to expand educational opportunities. Johnson-Sirleaf has increased teacher salaries and provided education and training opportunities, demonstrating the importance of incentivizing good teachers to teach the next generation of Liberians. The 2007 executive order of the government also stipulates a ‘free education policy’ that is compulsory for all students from Kindergarten to Junior High. The President hopes to train even more teachers in the country, through “tuition-free programs for teachers pursuing teacher training programs” (All Africa) as well as stipends. This focus on education is very exciting for FUEL Youth and its goals to enhance education in Liberia. However, while the 2007 policy to expand free education for school-aged children was a promising first step to address the many needs of Liberia’s growing youth population, there are numerous problems that the Liberian government must still address. For instance, at least 50% of schools in Liberia were destroyed during the civil war, and over 60% of teachers in Liberia lack proper training to teach the next generation. Thus, Ma Ellen’s call for free and compulsory education falls short of its promise until it addresses some of the underlying structural issues, which is why FUEL Youth is so committed to helping further expand and improve education in post-war Liberia.
Last Saturday, up to 40,000 Johnson-Sirleaf supporters thronged the capital as part of her re-election campaign. These crowds brought traffic and general activity to a standstill in bustling Monrovia. People walked from surrounding areas of the city to be part of the excitement gripping the capital. In an ebullient manner, Johnson-Sirleaf danced on the truck carrying her through the capital to the stadium where she gave her speech. Huge numbers turned out to the stadium to show their support for Ma Ellen, countering critics’ claims that Johnson-Sirleaf and her Unity Party had low approval ratings. Fans waited for hours for Johnson-Sirleaf’s arrival in a thrilling atmosphere of support and adoration saying, “We love you Ma Ellen” (All Africa). Johnson-Sirleaf was overcome by the display of support, and looked flabbergasted while trying to hold back her emotions. The environment seems electrifying currently, and makes you wish you could be there! However, we at FUEL Youth are keeping our fingers crossed that all this jubilant outpouring ahead of the elections will remain calm.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has voiced concerns over threats to peace in Liberia ahead of the upcoming elections. ECOWAS’s President, Mr. Gbeho, said that the “explosive rhetoric” (APANEWS) being used by Liberian politicians is troublesome after substantial efforts to create lasting peace in Liberia after the brutal civil war. Top politicians have claimed their parties in the lead, and if they don’t win, they may be tempted to claim it is due to rigging; these claims are prompting severe tension. Opposition vice president candidate George Weah has said, “We will resist her plans to cheat and will not accept results from any fraudulent elections. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, consider Yourself WARNED. We have evidence that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is bent on cheating in these elections” and the CDC will not accept any “fraudulent elections”. Mr. Weah has upped his virulent attacks on the president and continually vilifies her. Weah’s proclamations that he will “massively defeat” the incumbent Johnson-Sirleaf is troublesome, since he has suggested that results to the contrary will be evidence of rigging. This bodes negatively for the CDC as an opposition party, since its vilification and mud-slinging tactics instead of focusing on what it can do for Liberia suggest that it lacks the political maturity to be the ruling party in fragile Liberia.
There are also concerns over small-scale violence ahead of elections. There have been isolated attacks on individuals that are believed to be “politically motivated” (All Africa), raising concerns over Liberia’s stability during the run-up to the election on October 11th. Market women have denounced the election violence, including intimation and burned cars, since it has the potential to morph into larger conflict. There are fears that the use of inflammatory language may create political crisis if it is not controlled. Mr. Gbeho ended with “We are worried about this country’s future” (APANEWS), providing a cautious outlook of the elections. As Mr. Gbeho rightfully says, leaders of Liberia need to practice restraint and uphold the democratic process to keep the country together in such a turbulent time, rather than fanning the flames. Amidst these concerns, the UN Security Council has said that a full peacekeeping force, UNMIL, will stay in Liberia after the October presidential election to maintain peace. There are also claims that Johnson Sirleaf is considering bringing in Nigerian troops to enhance security during the elections.
The President of the ECOWAS Commission, Victor Gbeho, has called the peace in Liberia “precarious” (APANEWS) after recent cross border raids from Liberia into Cote d’Ivoire. These raids came from armed men who claim they are loyal to defeated Ivorian presidential candidate Laurent Gbagbo. ECOWAS is concerned that these rebels will be allowed to gain traction while Liberia is focused on elections. The UN is helping Liberia’s fragile neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire, to bolster security along the porous border due to Liberian “mercenaries” (CNN) carrying out attacks cross-border. Stability in Western Cote d’Ivoire holds significance for neighboring Liberia, especially since Cote d’Ivoire suffered from its own post-election violence earlier this year. While Liberia’s security is of utmost concern for FUEL Youth, the possibility of regional instability also bodes negatively. We are full of hope that leaders will take necessary steps to help ensure lasting peace.
In a controversial side development, the Liberian Supreme Court had said that six political parties, including the Unity Party of incumbent Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, should halt their political activities ahead of the upcoming election. The petition claims they must freeze political campaigns until the court rules over the ten-year residency clause, which states “presidential aspirants must have stayed in Liberia ten years before contesting for the presidency” (APANEWS). This Court order comes at a time when election activities and campaigns have been heating up across the country. Due to the turbulent time in which it finds itself, the Court is having the hearing Tuesday. Members of an opposition party, the Movement for Progressive Change, filed the petition to claim that Johnson-Sirleaf, as well as other presidential candidates, don’t meet the ten-year residency clause. The petition seeks to block President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and other presidential candidates from contesting the upcoming elections. Johnson-Sirleaf has dismissed these claims, saying that her attempt to run in the 1997 presidential election rigged to favor warlord Charles Taylor shows that she is qualified to run in the 2011 election.
All Africa says that Johnson-Sirleaf stands ahead as the frontrunner. Liberia has maintained a fragile peace since the end of the war in 2003 and the upcoming elections will really test the strength of that peace. FUEL Youth is hopeful that there will be robust participation and that the elections will be free and fair to maintain the stability for the future of Liberia and its youth. Here is to hoping things will run smoothly.