Liberia’s Transition: A Lesson in Democratic Elections in Africa

By Abdul Rahman Lamin

On November 14, citizens of Liberia took an important step towards consolidating peace and strengthening the democratic journey in their country. In a region where election outcomes are often rejected by opposition parties, resulting in political boycotts, and constitutions manipulated to prolong the tenure of incumbents, thus laying the foundation for further instability, as recently manifested by successive military coups, Liberia has distinguished itself as a beacon of hope for the future. Citizens voted out an incumbent president, George Manneh Weah, paving the way for a smooth transition of power from the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) to the Unity Party (UP), led by veteran statesman and one-time Vice President, Joseph Nyumah Boakai. And yes, they did so without a single shot fired. No one got killed, neither were scores of citizens injured in clashes with security forces, as we have frequently seen in what is, an increasingly turbulent and fragile sub-region. 

Importantly, Weah, known more for his prowess as a soccer maestro than for skills in fixing a broken economy that had plunged many Liberians into poverty, graciously conceded defeat when the country’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) declared the results in favour of his opponent, Boakai. The President’s courage in picking up the phone to call the President-elect, to concede the race, coupled with the professionalism and higher standards of integrity with which the NEC, under the leadership of Madam Davidetta Browne Lansanah, oversaw the entire electoral process, is not only impressive, but one for the history books. Equally worthy of admiration is the magnanimity shown by President-Elect Boakai, towards his archrival, following his victory, and above all, the respect with which Liberians have treated one another, in the post-election period; no enemies or villains chased around like rebels, a feat that is all too common in the politically-charged neighborhood of West Africa. 

All round, this is truly a mature experience of how democracy ought to work in West Africa, a best practice that one hopes other countries in the sub-region would emulate. Legend has it that a prominent clergyman of yesteryears had once foretold that a day would come in Liberia when an “astute statesman” would emerge as the choice of the people, to take the country out of the abyss it finds itself in, but this, he cautioned, would only come to pass long after the young people of Liberia would have lost confidence in their chosen “grassroots leader” whom they ushered into power only a few years earlier, engendering great hope for the future, hope that was never fulfilled by their king. With the failure of the chosen “messiah” to take his people to the promised land, citizens turned to the prophetic statesman, alluded to in the popular legend, which was all too frequently recounted in the wake of Liberia’s devastating civil war in the early 2000s.  

Beyond Liberia, it is also worth reflecting on this rare experience in democratic governance within the broader context of West Africa, and indeed Africa at large. At issue, we should ask the question what needs to be done to ensure that democratic governance is further strengthened, and importantly not undermined whether through unimpeded incumbency advantages, what has been referred to elsewhere as “democratic coup d’états” on the one hand, or through uninvited and unwarranted military interventions that have become too frequent lately, on the other. 

Maybe for a start, the continent needs to initiate an open, frank, and bold discussion on this subject which is quite relevant in the current political environment. Is it not time to start reflecting on all normative instruments that underline the primacy of democratic governance in the continent, with a view to examining their viability, review their content, and strengthen them? These instruments include the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and its sub-regional equivalents, namely, the ECOWAS Charter on Democracy, the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, International Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, and EAC Principles for Elections Observation and Evaluation, etc. The reflections should consider whether the scope and substance of these instruments ought to be expanded to include “democratic coup d’états,” among others.  

To answer the above question, largely depends on whether in fact relevant stakeholders and key players at the helm of the region’s political architecture are willing, prepared, and ready to take on this bold but fundamental step to trigger a continent-wide conversation aimed at transforming Africa’s democratic journey, and consequently restoring trust in the social contract between citizens and their leaders. Whether or not they will do so, remains to be seen. What is clear though is that in the face of all the multidimensional and complex challenges facing the peoples of the region, and indeed around the world, at the very minimum, these important questions must be put on the table for wider deliberations across countries, importantly by citizens, to help guarantee a secure and credible democratic future, in the face of contentious elections. In a nutshell, a fundamental rethink when it comes to matters of governance and constitutionalism in West Africa, and dare I say the rest of the continent for that matter, is now a matter of urgency. 

Let us return to Liberia before closing. In February this year, in a tribute I wrote to honor the memory of the late Amos Claudius Sawyer, published in Daily Observer, I invoked the popular Liberian words of wisdom: “when the capable is not available, the available becomes capable”; and concluded that the former statesman was indeed both “capable and available” given his lifelong dedication to leading his people in their journey towards democratic freedom. A few months later, in June, Sawyer’s protégé and Liberian academic, Ibrahim Al-Bakri Nyei, called for “credible elections” in Liberia, arguing that it be the country’s best tribute to the deceased former president. For all intents and purposes the citizens have heeded Nyei’s call and, in so doing, made Sawyer posthumously proud that the seeds he sowed many decades ago, may now be bearing fruits. In the process, Liberians have also carved an enviable place for themselves in the history of Africa’s democratic journey, especially where elections and political transitions are concerned.  

All eyes are now clearly on the incoming President, Ambassador Joseph Boakai, to see whether he would in fact borrow a page from his fellow resolute public servant, Sawyer’s book, especially at a time when Liberia needs him most. It would appear that he has gotten off to a brilliant start with his call for national unity and reconciliation, and the appointment of an all-inclusive transitional team — conditions that are clearly necessary for robust economic activities to resume in Liberia again. As we congratulate and wish him well during his tenure, we hope that like Sawyer, before him, President-Elect Boakai will also turn out to be both “capable and available,” and in the process valiantly lead Liberians in their ongoing journey to rejuvenate the economy, and build a bridge to socioeconomic transformation forever, into the future. In the meantime, one would also hope that upcoming elections in the region, in 2024, will learn a thing or two from Liberia.  

The Author:Dr.Abdul Rahman Lamin is a Sierra Leonean analyst based in France and writes in his personal capacity.