The second day of Christmas saw the birth of a new President in Liberia. Former football player and current Senator for Montserrado County, George Weah won the presidential run-off against former Vice-President Joseph Boakai. The election was a memorable one for several reasons. It marked the end of the second term of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and signified a democratic and peaceful transition in a country that does not have a proven track-record when it comes to organising free and fair elections.
Time for a closer look.
Liberian elections in history
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 78, steps down after serving her second term in office. She came to power in 2005, following an election largely organised and monitored by the international community in the aftermath of the civil war which lasted from 1990 till 2003. In the preceding years, Liberia had seen a transitional government (2003-2005) rife with corruption , a fraudulent election bringing Charles Taylor to power in 1997, and an equally problematic election in 1985 which consolidated the power of Samuel K. Doe. In between these elections, in 1980, the True Whig Party which ruled the country as a one-party state for over a century – from 1878 until 1980 – was overthrown in a coup d’etat. All in all, a peaceful transition of power is not to be taken for granted in this context.
When “Ma Ellen” took power, she met a country and a state in ruins. Backed by major bi- and multilateral international donors, she managed to consolidate peace and to achieve some economic progress. Testimony to her international reputation is the fact that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. News of the award was announced just before the presidential elections in that year. Even though she made enormous strides forward, she could never completely shake off allegations of corruption and nepotism. Shifts and changes within her administration as well as budget deficits occurred frequently. The Ebola outbreak from 2014-2015 which affected over 11,000 Liberians directly and many more indirectly as well as falling commodity prices on the world market, to name but a few examples, have been serious hampering the establishment of a stable and sustainable government that is inclusive at all levels. As a result, more than half of Liberians continue to live under the poverty line, little is done with regard to national reconciliation in the aftermath of the war, and educational and economic opportunities for the many young Liberians remain scarce.
On the 2017 presidential elections
Liberians elect their president with a simple majority. With no real incumbent candidate, the first round saw 20 candidates facing off on October 10. Among them were some familiar faces. Joseph Boakai served two terms as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Vice-President, is an all-round political veteran and managed to get the nomination for the ruling Unity Party (UP) despite intense intra-party strife. George Weah had run for President in 2005 but lost in the run-off against Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. He is the founder of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) but is mostly known for his international career as a football player throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2011, he stepped aside, allowing Winston Tubman, a veteran politician, to be the standard bearer for his party while he settled for the position of vice-presidential candidate.
Prince Johnson (MDR) had come third in the first round of the presidential election in 2011. He is well-known for his role during the Civil War in Liberia and remains hugely popular in highly populated, and therefore strategically important, Nimba County. He currently also represents the people of this county in the Senate.
Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP) is a lawyer with a long standing political history. He was a former ally to Charles Taylor and contested the 2005 and 2011 elections as the standard bearer for his party.
There were new aspirants, too: J. Mills Jones used to be an employee of the World Bank in Washington and served as the Governor of the Central Bank in Liberia. Benoni Urey was the head of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs while Alexander Cummings was the “greenest aspirant” with no prior political experience, having earned his credentials in the private sector, working for the Coca Cola company.
These brief profiles reveal that presidential elections in Liberia are not only a domestic affair but involve Liberians in the diaspora to a high degree. Many of the candidates have spent time and gathered wealth and experience abroad Moreover, Liberians do not only return to Liberia to run for office but are also involved by providing material and financial support to their respective candidates.
As the “semi-incumbent”, Joseph Boakai had the strategic advantage of having served as Vice-President to Ellen for both previous terms and of therefore having access to the state apparatus and the financial resources of the party in power. However, this also implied he was perceived as representing the politics and policies of the past 12 years which have not been unanimously appreciated, not even within his own party. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Joseph Boakai have known each other for a lifetime and have also been known to be good friends in the past. As the election drew nearer, their relationship got increasingly distant. Rather than endorsing Boakai – or any of the other candidates running for President – she stepped down and refrained from getting involved in political campaigning. This lack of involvement has been interpreted by some as a vote of no-confidence in her own Vice-President.
On September 17, 16 opposition parties came together in Ganta, capital of Nimba County, to discuss a possible alliance to break the Unity Party’s hegemony. Although there were considerable differences in opinion, this summit led to the emergence of the Coalition for Democratic Change between George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), the National Patriotic Party (NPP) headed by Jewel Howard Taylor, and former Speaker of the House Alex Tyler of the Liberia People Democratic Party (LPDP). Jewel Howard Taylor is the former wife of imprisoned warlord Charles Taylor and the NPP is seen as the party that emerged from Charles Taylor’s rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Many saw this coalition as a way for Charles Taylor to return to Liberia’s national stage. Weah confirmed to have spoken with Charles Taylor on the phone. Jewel Taylor is the current senator for Bong County and remains hugely popular with her constituents. Over the years, she has distanced herself from her ex-husband while still being able to ride on his reputation. The Taylor name goes a long way in Bong County which served as the headquarters of Charles Taylor for most of his insurgency.
On 10 October 2017, Liberians went to the polls for the first round of the elections, voting for their presidential candidate and local representatives for the national parliament. The elections saw a general turnout of about 75 percent. As mentioned before, given the history of elections in Liberia, these were considered a litmus test for democracy in the fragile state. The 2017 presidential elections have been the first elections entirely organised by the Liberian authorities and security forces since the end of the Civil War and did not involve major irregularities by the standards of local and international observers. ‘Small’ issues like long waiting times, polling places that opened late or the late arrival of ballot papers were reported. There were also more serious complaints indicating fraud at the local level. National Election Commission (NEC) officials, for instance, were caught holding and distributing pre-printed ballots in Nimba County. The 8th District in Nimba County had several re-counts of the votes with different outcomes.
No candidate for the presidential race won a majority in the first round of the elections and the run-off election was scheduled for November 7, 2017. Soon after the initial results were announced, several standard bearers for their party raised concerns. Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP) had come third in the first round and argued that the elections had not met the minimal standards of proper democratic election procedures. He therefore called for a re-run. Joseph Boakai (UP) also cried foul by claiming that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had tried to influence the outcome of the elections. In the end, the run-off was postponed and the case was tried before the Supreme Court. On December 7, ending weeks of unrest within Liberia and concerns expressed by the international community, the justices ruled that although there had been irregularities, there was not enough evidence of fraud to justify a re-run. The run-off was scheduled for December 26.
Following the announcement of the date for the run-off, a new campaign got underway and the remaining candidates sought the backing from the other aspirants. In this process, George Weah received a critical endorsement from Prince Johnson who, as mentioned, remains hugely popular in Nimba County.
Overall, George Weah (CDC) won the run-off with 61 percent of the votes against Joseph Boakai (UP). He also won the majority in all but one county, namely Boakai‘s home region of Lofa County. He particularly won big in Montserrado and in the south-east of the country where he originally hails from. Results show the continued importance of local heritage in gaining support.
President-elect George Weah
Since he had run for president in 2005, George Weah has been admired mostly by poor and young Liberians living in urban areas. For many of them, his life story is that of the ‘American Dream’, i.e. rising from the slums of Liberia to the top of international football and returning to Liberia as president of the country. For many of his adversaries, however, he is viewed as an inexperienced politician able to stir into action unemployed youths. I remember, at the height of the 2011 campaign, schools and roads were closed when a CDC rally staging George Weah was announced. Local authorities in Monrovia feared violence and mobbing from George Weah’s supporters. A similar sense of insecurity was created around the party and its young supporters during the recent election campaigns.
After losing the run-off against Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005 and being confronted with critical voices lamenting his lack of political experience, George Weah enrolled at DeVry University in Miami and obtained a degree in business administration. After his return, he won a seat in the senate for Montserrado County, vowing to prove his political capabilities ahead of the presidential campaign. In a report evaluating the performance of Liberian senators, Weah was called out for his low attendance in the senate and for the fact that he had not introduced or supported any new legislation. He was furthermore criticised for his frequent travels outside of Liberia.
As the new President, Weah faces major challenges. With aid money declining, the UN mission in Liberia withdrawing and a state infrastructure that is ill-equipped to tackle many of the socio-economic problems, he is facing difficult tasks. In his victory speech, he was quick to call upon the Liberian diaspora to return home and invest in their country with their skills, expertise and money. Above all, Weah stands for the “common” man in Liberia. The following image from Liberian newspaper ‘Frontpage Africa’, represents the image associated with Weah quite well: a politician not spoiled like the established elite, but embodying hope for change and ready to fight for the ordinary man and woman in the street.
George Weah will be judged based on how these ordinary men and women see their standards of living improve over the next few years. Weah has already stated the need for a new agricultural plan that will enable Liberians to sustain themselves and even export some of their produce. Other than in the election campaigns where all candidates made similar broad and vague promises like job creation, a vow to end corruption and to further infrastructure development, concrete policies and budgets will have to be laid out.
A note on the representative elections
With all the international attention and the turmoil surrounding the presidential election, it is important not to forget the fact that on 10 October 2017, Liberians also elected the members of their House of Representatives. Members of the House are rewarded for their work with a generous financial compensation and material benefits. This makes that these jobs are highly desired. In Montserrado District 4, for instance, there were 28 candidates running for one vacant seat. In total, the National Election Commission reported 1,024 candidates running for 73 seats. Members of the diaspora who believe to have significant remaining ties to their home communities often return to Liberia with the intention to get one of the seats in parliament. Even more than at the national level, the election of representatives plays into local politics and questions of belonging. Many of the candidates are closely related to their constituents as they hail from and live in the districts they want to represent. This makes that politics is more about individuals than about parties or political ideologies. Liberia is known for its patrimonial politics in which individual ‘big men’ are able to tie dependents to them by distributing wealth. In return for these gifts they receive the dependents’ loyalty. The prominence of these patrimonial structures is demonstrated by the statistics of party alliances. Of the 73 representatives of the previous legislation, only eight were not up for re-election. Out of those 65 remaining, 30 were re-elected in the 2017 election. Even more telling is the fact that about 40 candidates were running on a different party ticket than in the previous election. Out of the newly elected representatives, 13 were independent candidates who proved to be strong enough not to need the backing of any of the running parties.
In August of 2017 I had the chance to witness a debate between the candidates of Nimba County District 3 which took place in Karnplay City. Long before the debate started, the school auditorium where the debate took place was filled with spectators. Those who came late remained on the school lawn to listen from there. After the candidates had been brought into the auditorium one by one, they were asked to introduce themselves, to present their political agenda and their concrete plans for the district. Where the presentations of the candidates not residing in their home region but in Monrovia or the diaspora were concerned, the audience made notice, in conversations amongst each other, not so much of the presentations’ content but of the variety of English the candidates employed in communicating it. Some in the audience had a hard time understanding the ‘slippery’ American English and were frustrated that the candidates did not “come down” to the level of their constituents.
The introductions were followed by several rounds of questions by the audience during which some of the candidates were given quite a tough time. One of them was asked to come forward several times to respond to questions about his achievements as a civil servant, about the reasons for leaving his previous job and about the role of his family during the war.
The nine women and 64 men who won the battle in their electoral districts on 10 October 2017 will be Liberia’s lawmakers for the next six years. They will have to make sure to uphold the balance between their responsibilities in Monrovia and to please their base back home. On both sides, expectations will likely not always be possible to fulfil given socio-economic restraints and the divergence between the politician’s and the people’s understanding of what it means to be a representative.
 Sawyer, Amos 2008 ‘Emerging patterns in Liberia’s post-conflict politics: observations from the 2005 elections’. African Affairs, 107 (427): 177-199
 Harris, David 1999 ‘From ‘Warlord’ to ‘Democratic’ President: How Charles Taylor won the 1997 Liberian Elections’. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 37(3): 431-455
 Liebenow, Gus 1987 ‘Liberia: the evolution of privilige’. Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: 117-119
 Pailey, Robtel Neajai and David Harris 2017 ‘Liberia’s run-up to 2017: continuity and change in a long history of electoral politics’. Review of African Political Economy, 44(152): 322-335
 Pailey and Harris, op.cit.
 Personal communication
 Knörr and Trajano Filho 2010 ‘Introduction’. In Jacqueline Knörr and Trajano Filho (eds.), ‘The Powerful Presence of the Past: Integration and Conflict along the Upper Guinea Coast’, Leiden, Brill: 9-10