…. Liberians poised to vote president, vice president, and legislators, issues of corruption, economics, healthcare, and security take center stage
In 2017, President George Manneh Weah won a resounding victory in the presidential election, making him the country’s 25th head of state in January 2018.
His victory brought relief to many underprivileged Liberians, especially the youth, who saw him as a beacon of hope, given the fact that he grew up in Clara Town, a slum in Monrovia, and rose to the pinnacle of international athletics and onward to the helm of national leadership. But six years into his presidency, critics say much has not been done to address corruption, security, health, and the economy.
“This government has not done well when it comes to the fight against corruption,” said Anderson Miamen, head of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL). “A lot of people are angry about the fact that there have been a lot of scandals reported.”
CENTAL is a leading advocacy group that works with the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) to expose wrongdoing in the public sector. Miamen believes that the Weah administration lacked the willpower to fight corruption in Liberia, saying “It’s just a will issue…the willpower has not been strong enough.”
Liberia remains at the top of corruption rankings. The latest Global Barometer Index found Liberia was the third most corrupt country in Africa.
Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian activist and assistant professor at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), argues that “Liberia’s forthcoming elections are as much about the rule of law as they are about corruption with impunity, which appears to have consumed President Weah.”
“Although he promised to ‘weed out the menace of corruption,’ his ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) is fronting two candidates for the national legislature who were sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury for ‘ongoing public corruption’ during their stints as heads of government agencies. While this does not bode well for fighting corruption, it opens up the space for Liberian voters to pursue clear alternatives to the status quo.”
She continued, “Contrary to popular opinion, my previous and ongoing research demonstrates that the post-war Liberia electorate tends to reward candidates they presume will govern with integrity and reject those they believe will not. 2023 will be no different”. Voters will look unfavorably on candidates with dubious track records in and outside the public sector, particularly elected officials who have embraced corruption as their modus operandi.”
Liberia is among the least developed countries in the world. Corruption, poor infrastructure, and lack of demonstrated leadership ability from past and present leaders are reasons for the country's backwardness.
Ahead of the election, a new survey released by GeoPoll reveals that a significant number of the population lack confidence in the Weah government's capacity to tackle Liberia's challenges, with 40.73% of respondents expressing very low trust, and an additional 25.12% indicating low trust levels. Only 15.37% of respondents expressed high to very high levels of trust in the government, underscoring a prevailing sentiment of skepticism among the Liberian electorate regarding the government's ability to effectively address the nation's pressing issues, as the survey finds.
Also, the 2023 Afrobarometer survey found that only 20% of Liberians trusted the government to do what is right "just about always or most of the time."
The GeoPoll survey also finds that nearly 81% of respondents described the current state of poverty as “extremely severe, severe, or moderate," with the largest segment being 48% of respondents describing the current state of poverty in Liberia as "extremely severe.”
According to the survey, the issues of leadership qualities, experience, policies, tribe, and party affiliation are the most decisive factors that would shape the election's outcome. Pailey believes that “given Liberia’s sharp socio-economic decline under Weah’s watch, the economy is of utmost importance for the 2023 presidential elections.”
She added that “although the country recorded modest growth and increases in its cash-based budget from 2018 to 2023, which should have stabilized the economy, gross mismanagement by the Weah administration — compounded by COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine — catapulted Liberia into financial freefall.”
“Depreciation of the Liberian dollar, high levels of inflation, multidimensional poverty, ballooning domestic and external debt, income inequality, resource extraction without value addition, food insecurity, waning private sector investment, crumbling infrastructure (roads, energy, etc) and unemployment are the key challenges that bedeviled Weah and must be central issues for reform in 2024 and beyond,” she explained.
The upcoming elections are key, as evidenced by the poor socio-economic conditions facing many Liberians who overwhelmingly voted for Weah in 2017.
There are 20 presidential candidates competing to replace Weah or give him one term in office. Seemingly, the race is between Weah and former Vice President Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party.
Boakai, along with his “Rescue Team”, says Weah has done nothing to uplift Liberians; hence his plan to rescue the country.
“While top opposition candidates have vowed to ‘rescue’, ‘fix’, ‘sweep’ and ‘renew’ the economy, with some more equipped than others to achieve macroeconomic stability, it is unclear what President Weah will do better or differently if granted a second mandate,” says Pailey.
Liberia’s security is one of those areas that is underfunded by the government. The sector received less funds in the national budget for operational use.
On this, Pailey argues: “With security institutions ill-trained and under-funded to tackle a guns and drugs epidemic in the country and heightened insecurity in the sub-region, voter registration irregularities, and pre-electoral violence have also gone virtually unaddressed by the ruling party. These issues are foundational to democratic consolidation and must shape voter choices”.
A security expert, who spoke to the Daily Observer for this story on the condition of anonymity, agrees with Pailey. “The security sector in the last five years definitely has not improved,” he explains. “The current sector has not by any measure built on the huge gains previously made before its inception. The sector must revert to its training and professionalism; the sector must operate as a service-oriented organization for all and not for a particular section or class of people.”
He continued: “The very soul of our democracy and the survival of our nation as a people hang in the balance when the security of its citizenry is at stake; the bedrock of any democracy is the rule of law and one cannot speak of the rule of law in the absence of security. So, when security fails, the rule of law fails, and definitely, when these components of our value as people fail, our democracy as we know it today is then doomed.”
Pailey urged Liberians to also be “mindful that whoever they elect in the executive and legislature will affect the tenor of war-era accountability.”
“While some presidential candidates have vowed to implement the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations in part or full, particularly the establishment of a war and economic crimes court, others, including the incumbent, have been more reticent”, Pailey notes. “War crimes accountability (or lack thereof) will determine whether Liberia carries on with maintaining ‘negative peace’– the absence of direct physical violence characterized by fears of a relapse into warfare – or whether it is able to achieve some semblance of ‘positive peace’ – building values, customs and institutions that create and sustain peaceful societies.”
The soon-to-be-held election in Liberia is the country’s fourth general and presidential race since the end of the civil war in 2003. Many Liberian voters are in high spirits to cast their votes across the fifteen counties.
Liberian poet and writer Lekpele M. Nyamalon said that as Liberians head to the polls on October 10, various factors will determine their votes, ranging from individual and collective concerns to the seemingly mundane.
He says issues such as security, social justice, and corruption are at the forefront of Liberians’ concerns. “The pursuit of social justice should form the core of any political manifesto, reflecting citizens’ desire for equal distribution of opportunities, wealth, and privilege as a fundamental right — a struggle as old as the founding of the Liberian nation, encapsulated in the phrase ‘Aluta continua (the struggle continues)’.”
Putting things in perspective, Michael George, a 40-year veteran of the progressive struggle for multiparty democracy in Liberia, and one who was imprisoned along with hundreds of other political activists in March 1980 shortly before the coup, had this to say: “No one will win any elections here relying on violence…[no results will be legitimate in the absence of] a free, fair, transparent and credible process.”
“Don’t sow seeds for long-term instability. Some people were warned not to use force in 1989, urging them to wait for the 1991 elections. We were called cowards. Today, we all seriously regret the war. You brought war to correct the 1985 ‘fraud’”, Mr. George said.
“We fought for 14 years trying to correct one election mistake. In the end, we still had to hold elections to try to stabilize the country. Don’t fight over an empty bowl. If you lose fairly, succumb gracefully, whether the ruling party or the opposition. A violent fight for power, even in the face of the fact that you lost a free, fair, transparent, and credible electoral process will be counterproductive. No one will ever rule Liberia by force again and be in peace. Trust me. Free advice,” George noted.