Even in the smallest countries, elections can be big. In Liberia, whose entire population of less than 5 million is about half of New York City’s, the current election is one of the biggest in its history. It marks the end of the mandate of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa, and an opportunity for the country’s first peaceful, democratic handover from one president to another in more than 70 years.


I visited Liberia a fortnight before polling day. Next to me on the final leg of the flight was a Liberian living in Minnesota, who told me it was worth the 12,000-mile round trip to vote. Clearing the arrivals hall was a snap – it’s about the size of a squash court. The drive into the city started with an apology from my driver for the state of the road and the lack of streetlights, but took me past the headquarters of one of the main political parties. At 10pm on a Sunday, alone among buildings in Monrovia, it was fully lit, noisy and busy.

Crowded playing field

Liberia’s presidential ballot is a big vote in lots of ways. Prior to the first round, there were 20 candidates, no clear leader, not a lot of policy differences among the main names, and not much detail from, well, anyone. Monrovians and visitors alike are busy shuffling the contenders into alliances and arrangements that make sense.

A popular scenario goes like this. Current vice-president and ruling party man Joseph Boakai, who came second in the 10 October vote, goes into the two-man run-off on 7 November. There, he benefits from support from the fast-rising Alexander Cummings, who made his money and his name in corporate America, including more than ten years as executive vice-president of Coca-Cola, to see him over the line. Cummings benefits from his position as a fresh entrant to Liberian politics and a departure from the perennially recycled figures who, one way or another, have links to civil war instigator Charles Taylor. Newcomer Cummings finished fourth, only 40,000 or so votes behind the familiar Charles Brumskine in third place. Under this popular scenario, Cummings is rewarded for his support for Boakai by being appointed finance minister. He spends his years in government cultivating the economy as well as his own image, preparing himself for the top job in 2023.

But politics on the ground in Liberia evolve rapidly; what makes sense one day can be stale the next. And almost two weeks after the first round, football legend George Weah, Liberia’s most famous son but a previous presidential loser without notable successes as a sitting senator, is gaining momentum. He and his boosters are calling this election ‘their time.’ Weah came top in initial voting, but short of the 50% mark that avoids a second round. Weah may be able to count on the visible, vocal support of tens of thousands of teenage boys, but a good chunk of these boys aren’t even registered to vote. So while they chant ‘no second round’ as votes are being counted, it isn’t enough. He needs to convince everyone who voted for change – even if that change wasn’t him – that he can deliver. That Weah chose the ex-wife of Liberia’s most famous prisoner to be his running mate may or may not help matters. Jewel Howard-Taylor’s ex, the above-mentioned Charles, is in a high-security prison in the north of England.

Taylor’s incarceration and his distance from Liberia haven’t totally wiped out his influence, even though the civil war finished more than a decade ago. And as well as political pieces that tessellate into winning alliances and shapes of government, there are scenarios that, even if closer to ‘worst case’ than ‘most likely’, fit together to pave routes to grimmer outcomes. For example: Weah and his party narrowly lose the run-off but, convinced of their popularity, refuse to accept the result, claiming not only procedural flaws but also pro-Boakai bias at the electoral commission. Taylor, whose National Patriotic Party won the 1997 general election and which merged with Weah’s party to fight this one, manages somehow to pull strings and pass messages from his cell. With no qualms about encouraging aggression nor any further sanctions to fear, Taylor incites his supporters to violent protests. Inflamed by excessive force from the security agencies, this escalates into nationwide unrest.

Moving on from the war

Liberians tend to see these sorts of scenarios as unworthy of their country, and prefer to think that they are resistant to a return to extreme violence. . After all, Johnson-Sirleaf has presided over 14 years of peace, even though her critics say she’s been slack on corruption and her government has brought little in the way of economic development and public services. And as her time in power ends, some of the older stories may be losing some of their force.

This election, for example, could be the final one in which Prince Johnson - a politician who revels in his role as a kingmaker and whose backing in the run-off could swing the election – can count on block support in Nimba county, Liberia’s second most populous. Johnson, who has held the Senate seat for Nimba since 2006, is best known for his part in the 1990 real-time torture video of Samuel Doe, the president his men had just overthrown. He has been able to count on the Nimba vote as a result of his abuses of Doe, who as president had ordered reprisal attacks on Nimba villages to punish the region for a failed coup against him led by men from there... However, as more young people migrate from Nimba to Monrovia and the memories of another generation’s enmities fade, Johnson may lose his potency, diluting the influence of a civil war emblem.

Weah’s story, though no longer new, is different. During the civil war, he was scoring goals for European football clubs. While Weah’s stardom attracts adoration, the rare athletic abilities of the international centre-forward exist for most people in the realms of fantasy. Boakai, while more prosaic, has a tale to which many more Liberians can relate. Born into a poor village family, his advancement came first through study then from years of work in Monrovia business and politics. It’s less dramatic than the boy lifted from the slums to become an idol at AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, but it resonates more broadly. ‘His story is my story’, a Liberian journalist told me. ‘That’s important. He knows his people, and he knows what we need.’

That may be, but looking beyond the short-term attention the election generates, there are limits to what any one person can achieve as head of state. The political and business elite, have links and interests going back to the Taylor years, and have been doing deals with one another for just as long. When everyone gets cut in, this reduces the likelihood of conflict, but tends not to make for either a very dynamic government, or one particularly motivated to spread what little wealth Liberia has. And it’s another question of scale: the ability of the state, even if it is led by someone who looks like a man of the people, to push back against the overwhelming poverty suffered by the majority of Liberians – the small-time farmers, fishermen , traders, cooks, menders and beggars - is tightly limited. For the next president, winning the election is just the first of a lot of big challenges.

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