Liberia holds ‘free-for-all’ election
DEMOCRACY has finally taken root in this tiny country. Hundreds of young people danced on Wednesday to the beat of West African highlife music blaring from generator-powered speakers outside the headquarters of supporters of the imprisoned warlord Charles G. Taylor.
The ubiquitous scent of coal fires and marijuana wafted through the air. Posters of George Weah, the former professional soccer player and standard-bearer of the Congress for Democratic Change, wearing distinguished eyeglasses and salt-and-pepper chin stubble, looked over the crowd.
Less than a mile down the road, the Unity Party was hosting its own jam, with food and free-flowing drinks. Candidates routinely pass out cash at these affairs, and the latest video making its way through Liberian social media shows a presidential candidate, Oscar Cooper, in white undershirt and jeans, standing in a doorway handing out money as people file out.
Voters go to the polls on Tuesday, and for the first time since anybody can remember, a sitting, democratically elected Liberian president is about to hand over the reins to a democratically elected successor.
Like its parent country, the United States, Liberia, founded by freed American blacks on an unruly slice of tropical West African coastline almost 200 years ago, is greatly divided over who should try to govern it.
“Even if Jesus came down, people would argue over whether to vote for him,” Rodney D. Sieh, the editor of FrontPage Africa, said in a boldly blasphemous comment about this ostentatiously Christian country.
But any resemblance to American presidential elections ends there. Liberian democracy means daily traffic jams caused by thousands of people marching through the streets chanting campaign slogans. “Our ma spoil it, our pa will fix it,” is the curious offering of some supporters of the ruling Unity Party. The “ma” in this case is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now feuding with her vice president, Joseph Boakai — he would be the “pa” — over sundry misdeeds.
Liberian democracy means having a chance to leave rural villages and partake in the nightly parties.
“I am here to show that Oppong is qualified to be the next leader of Africa,” announced a cheerful Morris Dwah, referring to Mr Weah, whom Liberians routinely call by his nom de soccer. Mr Dwah said he had traveled for two days from Nimba to take part in the festivities.
This battle over which of 20 registered candidates will succeed Ms. Sirleaf, the first woman in Africa to be democratically chosen as president, often resembles a roof-raising party — but it also sometimes seems to be just on the edge of requiring a phone call to the police.
Fights between supporters of Mr Weah and Mr Boakai break out routinely; in Kakata last month several people were hospitalized after one fracas.
Supporters stage impromptu daily marches, banging on the windows of cars in their way. And the memory of the country’s 14-year civil war, which came complete with child soldiers and rebel fighters wearing wedding gowns and blond wigs, hangs over it all.
In a radio broadcast at the beginning of the campaign season, Ms. Sirleaf urged her would-be successors to keep a lid on things. “We hold them as political leaders who seek the highest office of our land to act with dignity and responsibility that befits that office — to live up to their commitments to ensure violence-free elections,” she said.
But a quick perusal of those potential successors shows that may be easier said than done. Mr Weah’s vice-presidential running mate is Mr Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who told reporters last month that although her ex-husband isn’t involved in Liberian politics any longer — he is locked up in a British prison for war crimes — he still has promises that need to be kept. She called for putting Mr Taylor’s agenda “back on the table.”
Her remarks so alarmed European Union officials in Monrovia that they put out a statement remind- ing Liberians that Mr Taylor, who resigned as president in 2003, is in the fifth year of a 50-year prison sentence, and that it is not going to be “overruled because of a change of president in Liberia.” The statement noted that a condition of Mr Taylor’s sentence is that “he does not attempt to interfere in Liberian politics, and this is monitored closely by prison authorities.”
Also running for president is Prince Johnson, one of the former warlords roaming around town. Mr Johnson, the standard-bearer of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction, is best known for ordering the killing of President Samuel K. Doe back at the start of the Liberian civil war in which a quarter-million people died.
Back in 1990, Mr Johnson sipped a beer while ordering his youthful forces to cut off Mr Doe’s ears; the video is widely available on the internet. But that hasn’t stopped Mr Johnson’s political progress — he was elected senator from Nimba County in 2005, and came in third when he ran for president in 2011.
Mr Johnson does not like Mr Weah, whom he recently called a “drunk” in a radio interview. “His men have gone on rampage injuring people here and there,” complained the former warlord of the former soccer player. “If this guy is elected as president of Liberia, I see the country going back to war.”
Mr Weah’s ex-girlfriend is also running for president.
A model turned philanthropist, MacDella Cooper was once called a “serial husband stealer” in The New York Post’s Page Six column. Back during the salad days of their relationship, Ms. Cooper and Mr Weah traveled together to Monte Carlo and Mexico. In 2014, she told The Post that Mr Weah was the father of her third child, and that she was a future Liberian first lady. But things went downhill, as they sometimes do, and now Ms. Cooper is running against her former beau as the candidate of the Liberia Restoration Party.
She is the only woman at the top of a ticket. Ms. Cooper told journalists last weekend that Ms. Sirleaf’s recent statement that it was time for “generational change” in Liberia was, as far as Ms. Cooper was concerned, a “clear endorsement for me, the only female candidate in the ensuing presidential race, because I am the youngest contender among the men.” She is 40. Finally, there is Ms. Sirleaf’s vice president, Mr Boakai, who at the moment is involved in a spat with the president under whom he has served for 12 years. She is mad because of slogans like “our ma spoil it, our pa will fix it.” He is mad because Mrs. Sirleaf said that she was not going to hand him the presidency, and that he would have to work for it.
Whatever the case, the president has not been out campaigning for him, and there are whispers that she is flirting with Mr Brumskine, with Mr Cummings, even with Mr Weah, whom she beat twice.
Such is democracy in Liberia. No one expects anyone to get over 50 percent on Tuesday, so there will probably be a runoff election, and the top two candidates will battle each other. — NY Times