Liberia holds ‘free-for-all’ elec­tion

Sunday Express - - Africa -

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

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