Buying friends and votes
An outgoing president who turned her back on the vice-president’s candidacy and a detained former president who interferes in politics through his ex-wife – these are some of the ingredients in the Liberian elections scheduled for 10 October.
Nobel peace laureate and incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's second term in office ends this year and on Tuesday her successor will be determined. The elections will be settled in two rounds, the two leading candidates from the first moving on to the second and final round.
According to NAI researcher Anders Themnér, rumours are circulating that Johnson Sirleaf does not support the candidate from her own party, current Vice-President Joseph Boakai. She fears that Boakai as president would investigate her for extensive corruption. If predictions are correct, Liberty Party candidate Charles Brumskine may proceed to the second round at Boakai’s expense.
Ex-wife to ex-president
Former football star George Weah, the presidential candidate for the biggest opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), is also likely to reach the second round. Weah recently allied with Jewel Taylor, ex-wife of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, who in 2013 was sentenced to 50 years in prison for crimes against humanity.
“Apparently, from his cell in England, Charles Taylor sent his blessings for his ex-wife’s cooperation with Weah. This could be crucial, since Charles Taylor is still popular in Liberia and would probably win an election if he could run... Of course, he also has sworn enemies from the civil war. So it’s a thin line for Weah to balance on. International observers are rather sceptical of Taylor’s return to politics in Liberia”, Themnér points out.
now we have the chance to meet politicians and make some money
Previous elections in Liberia have been free and fair, according to independent observers. However, Themnér remarks, it depends on how one defines free and fair. Just because there has not been any vote-rigging does not mean everything is alright: money has changed hands in exchange for political support. This is nothing unusual, Themnér observes, and is going on right now. One story he always hears in Liberia before elections is "now we have the chance to meet politicians and make some money".
"Because this is when politicians even travel to rural areas. They offer rice, T-shirts and sometimes even money to secure people's votes. Local leaders become important during campaigning because they can mobilise ‘their’ villages in support for a candidate”, Themnér says.
However, trade of friendships and votes also takes place at the power centre of Liberia. It is also common to create new political parties just before elections. They never have a chance of winning; the intention is only to get a bargaining position for the second round. If somebody has strong support in a region, it is worth a lot of money and favours to the two main candidates.
Observers often say that political parties in African countries lack ideology. However, in Liberia that is not completely true. The two main parties can be put on a traditional left–right scale. The market-friendly party of the government, the Unity Party (UP) has its greatest support among the middle and upper classes, while the opposition CDC has many voters among marginalised and young people.
Ethnicity often dictates politics in African countries. Liberia is no exception, but there is another dimension. For a long time there has been tension between the 150,000 Americo-Liberians – descendants of freed US slaves who came to Liberia in the late nineteenth century – and the rest of the population, informally called natives.
“Americo-Liberians control large parts of the economy and have many of the most important positions in society, while natives are widely discriminated against. Many of them change to American surnames to improve their opportunities on the labour market, for example. What is interesting now is that UP's candidate Boakai is talking to the natives about having more influence, despite the fact that the party has a stronghold among the Americo-Liberians. It probably has to do with Johnson Sirleaf's hesitant support for him. He wants to distance himself from her and instead approach other groups”, Themnér notes.
Despite these tensions and uncertain loyalties, Themnér does not think there is a risk of major violence during the elections.
“Campaigning has been relatively calm, and since neighbouring countries prefer stability in Liberia, it will remain calm. Without outside support, armed conflict is not likely to occur.”
TEXT: Johan Sävström
Madame President : the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf / Helene Cooper, 2017
Warlord democrats in Africa : ex-military leaders and electoral politics/ ed. Anders Themnér, 2017
More information about Elections and Liberia in the NAI library
Charles Brumskine is the political leader of the Liberty Party and came third in the 2005 presidential election.
Jewel Taylor was married to President Charles Taylor and was First Lady of Liberia during his presidency.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa. In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.
George Weah was named FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d'Or, becoming the first African player to win these awards. He ran unsuccessfully for president in the 2005 election, losing to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the second round of voting.
Charles Taylor was President of Liberia between 1997 and 2003. During his term of office, Taylor was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity as a result of his involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. He was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Joseph Boakai is Vice President of Liberia since January 2006.