Ravaged by a 14-year-old civil war and the Ebola epidemic, Liberia is presently reeling with election fever. The air is palpable with excitement as young people dance to music blaring from vans or songs they composed. It is a momentous period. This is the first time a democratically elected president will hand over to another President in post war Liberia.
The presidential election is being fiercely contested by 20 candidates. However, there are four frontline candidates; namely incumbent Vice President, Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party (UP); football icon, George Weah of Coalition for Democratic Congress (CDC); Liberty Party’s (LP) Charles Brumskine; and the Alternative Congress’ (ANC) Alexander Cummings. For a country which produced the first female president, there is only one female candidate, MacDella Cooper vying for the Presidency. Obviously, after 12 years in office, President Johnson Sirleaf has not been able to translate gender equality into reality.
The campaign is centred on largely tackling corruption, investing in education, infrastructure and jobs. However, it is left to be seen if people will vote based on issues. When asked what will drive people’s votes, most of the respondents I spoke to retorted “Our Vote, Our Secret”; others retorted it is our turn. Vice President Joseph Boakai is from Foya District, Lofa Country; an area yet to produce a president but has produced vice presidents in the past. Also at play is the all-important tension between Americo Liberians and indigenous Liberians.
However as is prevalent in other African elections, money rules the game. Today in Liberia, people are being paid to participate in rallies, the election is largely about crowd pulling, with each party trying to outdo the other. Voters’ cards are allegedly being procured and people induced to sway votes. According to a friend, elections can best be defined as an opportunity to redistribute wealth. He explained further that the only time every citizen gets access to the wealth of the country is at election time, after the elections those elected monopolise the opportunity to chop the wealth of the nation. There are also contentions that the large Liberian Diaspora are influencing the way their relations back home vote.
On another front, several groups have emerged in the country endorsing candidates. Foremost is the Islamic groups. The National Muslim Heritage Foundation (NAMHFO) endorsed the presidential bid of Joseph Boakai; the Imam Council of Liberia also paid visit to All Liberian Party (ALP) candidate, Benoni Urey; Muslim women led by Aisha Conneh also endorsed the presidential candidate of the Alternative National Congress, Alexander Cummings. Sheki Toure, owner of Aminata and Sons Inc. in a program monitored on 100.5 Prime FM publicly endorsed Vice President Boakai on behalf of Liberian Muslims. According to him, the Muslim community have devised a system where they interview all candidates and thereafter endorse one since 2005.
The National Electoral Commission, NEC, has recruited and is still training election officials. It is fascinating that the classification of officials is according to educational qualifications. The queue controllers are secondary school graduates, presiding officials are university graduates or students, while supervisors are of the highest level of education and professionals. However, the biggest challenge bogging the NEC is logistics. The distribution of electoral materials is a logistical nightmare, particular as the elections will be held during the rainy season. The final batch of the ballot papers have been received but how these materials will reach the hinterland remains a challenge due to roads made unmotorable by the heavy rains. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is assisting in the movement of ballots to provincial capitals and cities, but how this will get down to villages with few days left for the election is a challenge. The NEC has also been criticized for producing over one million extra ballots for the presidential elections. However, the NEC has responded reassuring all that printing contingency ballots are consistent with industry standard practice.
There are minimal fears of violence on Election Day. Nimba County, the stronghold of Yommie Johnson, a self-acclaimed kingmaker and Presidential Candidate of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction (MDR), remains the likely hotspot. Bong and Monteserrado where some pre-election violence have been witnessed are also worth watching closely. Clashes may occur largely because of the campaign on Election Day with each party trying to give out food or stipends in an effort to mobilise voters. The Women’s Situation Room is already holding daily sit out, praying for peaceful election with the physical situation room to commence on October 8.
The election observation missions have arrived Liberia in full swing, with the international observer missions fully represented. Having received lots of flak following the Kenyan Presidential election, they have issued several strong statements on the elections. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has issued several updates on the election with the most recent calling for transparency in the transmission of results, publication of voter rolls etc. In the same vein, the European Union Observer Mission has expressed fears on the ability of NEC to transport and distribute ballots and other election materials few days into the election. Obviously there is a serious shift towards overall electoral integrity and not just focusing on the polling.
It is reassuring that Liberians that I spoke to have faith in their electoral system and its management. When asked if the election can be rigged, not one Liberian responded in the affirmative. All believed that despite the challenges, the elections will reflect the will of the people. In the country’ recent history, the presidential elections are never won in the first round. With 20 candidates and their inability to form a coalition at this stage of the elections, it is likely that the elections will get into second round as no candidate will acquire the required 50 per cent+1. The alliances formed after the first round may very well determine the outcome of the elections.
Idayat Hassan is the Director of the Abuja based Centre for Democracy and Development.