Twenty candidates have their eyes on the Executive Mansion in Monrovia as Liberians go to the poll on 10 October. The posh residence is currently occupied by President George Weah. The former World Footballer of the Year is seeking reelection for a second term as his six-year term comes to an end on 22 January next year.
In the general elections, voters in the West African country will elect the president, members of the House of Representatives and half of the Senate.
However, only one of the 19 other presidential candidates is considered a serious challenger to the incumbent. That is Joseph Boakai, a former vice president of Liberia under Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, whom Mr Weah defeated in a runoff after the 2017 election failed to produce a winner on the first ballot.
Mr Boakai, who has since become the face of the opposition in Liberia, graciously conceded defeat six years ago. However, he appears to be poised for a fiercer fight this year.
Under pouring rain on 17 September, the 78-year-old launched his election bid at a stadium in Monrovia filled with supporters.
Mr Weah’s chances of keeping his seat depend on how well he can convince Liberians that he can perform better than he has so far. His administration has been blighted by high food prices and corruption scandals and the coalition that prodded him into office has pulled apart.
Weah’s first term
The ex-footballer and senator from the Congress for Democratic Change party was sworn in as president after winning the run-off against Mr Boakai with 61.5 per cent of the votes.
The historic election marked the first democratic transition in Liberia – with about 5.1 million people – since its first and second civil wars.
Mr Weah was helped by an alliance with his predecessor, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, who was lauded for restoring and sustaining peace in a country ravaged by two civil wars spanning 14 years.
Her government also revived the country’s collapsed infrastructure, including a hydroelectricity dam and roads, in addition to pushing for investment in the economy. However, she also faced allegations of corruption and nepotism.
Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf supported Mr Weah her party’s (Unity Party) candidate, Mr Boakai who was her vice president during her two terms in office. But her alliance with Mr Weah has broken down.
In his inaugural speech, Mr Weah promised “to do everything in my power to be the agent of positive change.”
He also vowed to fight corruption, saying anyone found guilty of corruption would face the wrath of the law. “Though corruption is a habit amongst our people, we must end it. We must pay civil servants a living wage so that corruption is not an excuse for taking what is not theirs.”
How he is perceived by voters to have fared on those promises may determine his fate on 10 October.
In 2022, three key members (the Chief of Staff, Liberia’s Chief Prosecutor, and the Managing Director of the National Port Authority) of Mr Weah’s government were indicted by the US for involvement in public corruption.
Although Mr Weah suspended the officials so they could be investigated, an opposition leader, Alexander Cummings, accused the president of culpability for their alleged misdeeds.
“This is not the time for bogus suspensions, coverups, and fake investigations,” the opposition leader said at the time.
Mr Cummings came third in the 2017 election and is again on the ballot for the upcoming elections.
In the 2022 corruption ranking of Transparency International, Liberia ranked 142 out of 180, six places worse than its 2021 ranking of 136.
Since Mr Weah took over in January 2018, the country has consistently ranked low on the corruption perception index, with the only high moment being in 2018 when it ranked 120 out of 180. It has since been falling in the index, ranking 137 in 2019 and 2020, 136 in 2021, and 142 in 2022.
The West African nation of five million people is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half its people living on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.
Living conditions in Liberia were worsened by the Ebola virus, which ravaged the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently, the Russia-Ukraine war which has left the world more hungry.
If Mr Weah falters at the poll, Mr Boakai, who has patiently waited in the last six years, stands to be the beneficiary.
However, he will have to overcome being nicknamed “Sleepy Joe” and disprove his portrayal by opponents as incompetent and unable to stay alert due to his old age.
Criteria for Winning Presidential Election
The winning candidate must secure at least 50 per cent plus one of the total votes cast to avoid a runoff. No candidate has ever managed that feat, with Mr Weah needing the runoff to beat Mr Boakai in 2018. There are 2.4 million (2,471,617) registered voters for the current elections.
Consolidating Liberia’s Democracy
The 10 October election will be the fourth since the civil wars that ravaged the country.
“The successful conduct of the October 10, 2023 elections are critical for the consolidation of the country’s fragile democracy,” said Oscar Bloh, chairperson of the Elections Coordinating Committee, Liberia’s largest domestic election observation group.
He noted that ongoing campaigns which will end on 8 October have been characterised by inflammatory speeches and rhetoric and allegations by the main opposition party of vote rigging by the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
“If the results [of the election] do not turn out in favour of the opposition, the opposition could mobilise their supporters and the risk of electoral violence could be high.
Chido Onumah, the coordinator of the African Centre of Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), recalling the torrid political history of Liberia, said the upcoming election is important for the African continent.
“While elections do not equal democracy, it is important that we have a culture of political transition through elections to guarantee peace on the continent and ward off the creeping military incursion that is gradually overwhelming the continent,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the integrity of the electoral process and outcomes, Mr Onumah said, adding that in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gabon where elections took place recently, there was strong criticism of the electoral umpires and their willingness to deliver outcomes that represent the genuine will of citizens.
Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves. The country is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves’ descendants comprising five per cent of the population.
Liberia became notorious in the 1990s for its long-running, ruinous civil wars and its role in a rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
At least 250,000 people were killed in the civil wars, and many thousands more fled the fighting as the economy collapsed.
The war ended in 2003 and in 2005 voters in the country elected Africa’s first female head of state, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf.
Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, in a historic democratic transition of power since the end of the True Whig Party in 1980, handed over to Mr Weah in January 2018.
According to the World Bank, Liberia’s economy expanded by 4.8 per cent in 2022 despite global headwinds from the war in Ukraine, high global inflation, and depressed demand in advanced economies. The expansion, it said, was driven by mining and agriculture.
The Laurels International Magazine