Liberia Votes 2017: Transformed from War-torn Pariah to beacon of African Hope

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Candidate Brumskine. Photo-Facebook.

[Commentary]

For most part of the 1990s during its civil war Liberia was a basket case of violence, child soldiers, sexual violence, mutilation of war opponents, and so on and so forth.

Billions of dollars worth of properties were destroyed and more than 200,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of Liberians sought refuge in many parts of the world, including the U.S.

After a decade of war the first free and fair multiparty democratic election took place in 2005. It brought to power the first woman elected president not only in Liberia, but Africa as a whole. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected in 2011.

She is term-limited. So the election of 2017 will be one in which the incumbent is not running. This kind of democratic transition, which we expect to be completed next year, has not happened in Liberia for more than 70 years. So it is a very important and crucial election.

There are about 10 candidates for president, including President Johnson-Sirleaf's vice president, Joseph Boakai who has served under her for her two terms.

Along with Vice President Baokai, other top candidates are Charles Brumskine, and George Weah, the former soccer star. Though the campaign is scheduled to officially start in the first week in August, there have been many pre-campaign activities by various political parties.

Some see it as a race between the two most viable opposition parties, Liberty Party of Cllr. Brumskine, an erudite and very reputable lawyer and the Coalition for Democratic Change of Weah, once voted the world's best footballer.

One of these two opposition parties is more likely to battle with the ruling Unity Party for the second round. This observation is based on a prediction that no party will win in the first round the 51.1% needed to avoid a runoff. The election would then go into a runoff between the two parties receiving the largest votes.

With so many people running for president, one may ask what the issues are. The most frequently discussed ones are: the fight against corruption; accountability; health care; infrastructural development; electricity; access to water; and how to alleviate the massive suffering of people in the country as a result of poverty.

While the voters have not heard much from the various parties as far as platforms are concerned, one candidate that has set himself apart is Brumskine who has released several policy documents on health care, education, agriculture, and other sectors. Not much has been heard from the ruling party's candidate in terms of policy agenda.

Given the massive influx of development aid from the international community, many people believe President Johnson-Sirleaf has not worked diligently enough to justify the money her government received from our international partners. Of course President Johnson-Sirleaf argues that she took the country from the brink of collapse to where it is today, a nation fully rehabilitated and integrated within the comity of nations.

She also argues that because of her stewardship, Liberia has regained respect among other nations; that it is no longer a pariah state as it was under former president Charles Taylor who is currently serving a 50-year sentence in a U.K. prison. He was convicted in the Special Tribunal on war crimes for his role in the Sierra Leone civil war.

Whether to share credit for the "good things" that happened under President Johnson-Sirleaf or to take the blame for the regime failures has been the dilemma facing Vice President Boakai.

Add to this catch-22, Boakai has not articulated clear cut policies that could build confidence in his ability to lead the nation. Some say he does not have the leadership quality and charisma to lead Liberia.

Whatever the outcome of the 2017 election, one thing is certain -- Liberia has turned a corner from the violent reputation associated with her during the 1990s. If all goes well it would be the first time in 70 years that Liberia sees a democratic transition from one elected government to another.

Joseph Boakai and The Ethnic Argument: Liberia is a country that was founded by liberated Africans who had been enslaved in the United States. The formerly-enslaved ruled for more than 100 years until the violent overthrow of the government of President William Tolbert on April 12, 1980. This military takeover brought to power Samuel Doe, whose ancestry was not traced to the formerly-enslaved rulers.

In the 10 years he was in power, he presided over a regime as corrupt as the one he overthrew. Additionally ethnic favoritism in national affairs increased divisions. The possibility of democratic change became distant after Doe rigged the 1985 vote in his favor. This fraudulent election led to years of horrific bloody war as many opposed military dictatorship disguised as civilian democracy.

While Vice President Boakai has not articulated his vision and plans for the country, one argument that has taken the center stage in his campaign is that it's time for a so-called "native president" to rule. In other words a Liberian whose ancestry is not linked to the formerly-enslaved.

The gist of that argument is that since the founding of the nation more than 100 years ago, the country has been ruled by Americo-Liberians.

The counter argument is that the revolution of 1980 should have bridged the gap between the descendants of the settlers and the so-called "native Liberians" and that today as one people, we should not be dividing ourselves along ethnic lines. The argument today should be more about the bread and butter issues: good health care system; infrastructural developments; and, so forth.

The paramount question should be: which candidate has the best plans, not who is "native" or "settler." Appeals to ethnicity must not be a substitute for lack of a clear policy agenda given the country's history of ethnic violence.

Though VP Boakai has not made any public statement about the so called "native versus settler" issue, many of his supporters have been very vocal about it. One of them is Nimba County District No. 8 Representative, Larry P. Younquoi. He is one of the architects of the divisive negative campaign to elect a "native president." How can that be the basis of appealing for votes?

According to Younquoi: "This is a national crusade to take back our country. This is a civilian-styled version of the ill-fated April 12,1980 episode...we are currently on the battle front of Liberian politics." Statement such as this is considered by many as divisive. In this post-war era Liberia's priority must be national reconciliation.

Both chambers of the Liberian parliament are dominated by so-called "native Liberians". The cabinet and the judiciary are fairly diversified. There is no room for divisive rhetoric designed to incite the youth. Liberians should cast their vote for the candidate offering the best program and solutions.

The Prince Johnson Factor: Prince Johnson was one of the warlords during the wars of the 1990s. He became notorious as the man who captured and tortured President Samuel Doe to death. The gruesome murder of the violent dictator was captured on video.

Many people may see him as a warlord who murdered hundreds of people in addition to Doe. However, Prince Johnson is "hero" to the people of his county of Nimba whose voters have rewarded him by electing him senator in 2005. His supporters voted massively for him in 2011. He was third runner-up to Madam Johnson-Sirleaf and Winston Tubman. He then endorsed the candidacy of President Johnson-Sirleaf in the run-offs.

Sen. Johnson has become the most unpredictable figure of Liberian politics. He changes from one alliance to another. He has changed positions many times. During the inauguration of the headquarters of the opposition Liberty Party of Brumskine, he blasted the ruling UP for corruption. He said Boakai should not be elected based on the failures of the UP led government.

Johnson then met with Ben Urey of the All Liberian Party to discuss alliance. It then seemed he would support the governing UP and Boakai. Many people think that the former general wants to grab enough votes to bargain with someone during a run-off as he did in 2011. There has been speculation that he received substantial payout for his endorsement of Madam Johnson-Sirleaf in 2011. Voters of Nimba County have a choice between Prince Johnson, who will not be president but wants to be kingmaker, or Harrison Karnwea, who also hails from there and can be the next VP if Cllr. Brumskine's party wins.

Liberia has come a long way from the era of tragic wars. People can freely contest in the democratic process today; a democracy born out of sweat and blood. Liberians have turned their backs on the era of horrific war violence. The election of 2017 marks a great progression in the country's democratic transformation.

Liberia offers hope and inspiration for action by the citizens of other African countries still ruled by ruthless dictators. They too must seize their destiny and demand democratic dispensation.

Nvasekie Konneh is a poet and writer. He's authored two poetry collections and a memoir about the Liberian civil war. He's a nine year veteran of the U.S. Navy. He divides his time between the U.S. and Liberia and is currently a member of the opposition Liberty Party of Cllr Charles Walker Brumskine.

He can be reached via nvaskon1@gmail.com

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