Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, is about to choose its next president.
On 10 October, 46 political parties and 20 presidential candidates will compete for two million registered votes at 5,000 polling stations in 15 counties.
But whoever wins will confront a polarised Liberia.
Liberia is more divided than it has been since the end of its 14-year civil war in 2003. The war ended with the signing of a peace agreement, but its scars are still visible across the country.
Frustration around the soaring cost of living, cronyism, patronage, nepotism, and the culture of impunity which triggered the war is once again tearing the country of 5.4 million people apart.
There are also external factors that could undermine Liberia’s recent progress. For example, the Mano River Union, a sub-regional body of which Liberia is a founding member, remains volatile.
The recent military coup in Guinea, the anti-government protest in Sierra Leone and the violence around Alassane Ouattara’s third-term re-election “victory” in Côte d’Ivoire are signals of vulnerability within the Mano River Union.
The next president will have to address three priorities to restore hope and confidence in Liberia’s recovery:
- national cohesion
- stronger state institutions.
My previous analysis of Liberia revealed the country’s inability to manage its internal conflicts. It also showed how Liberia’s reliance on regional powers like the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) escalated and prolonged disputes. The next president must recognise these realities and address the three priority areas.
Falling living standards
There are growing concerns in Liberia that the George Weah-led administration is not doing enough to improve living standards.
There were high expectations of change when the president took office in 2018. Many expected him to lift them from poverty. They saw a real chance for a better future. Today, however, a good number of Liberians feel he has lost his connection with poverty and with the people who elected him into office.
Over 50% of Liberians live below the poverty line. The rising cost of basic commodities prevents families from meeting their food needs.
Weah alone is not responsible for all of Liberia’s problems. His administration inherited irregularities that plagued previous governments.
Corruption shows up in many forms and at all levels in Liberia. It disrupts democratic decision-making processes, weakens public trust in government and undermines the rule of law.
The nation’s integrity institutions lack independence. They include the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, the General Audit Commission and the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
These agencies were created to curb corrupt practices. But they lack political independence, capacity and resources.
They are further weakened by a culture of impunity. And managerial appointments are often made on the basis of cronyism (jobs for friends and colleagues) and patronage (using state power to reward selected voters for electoral support).
Corruption is prevalent in the judiciary too. Judges solicit bribes in exchange for decisions that favour offenders.
President George Weah and his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ran on the promise of fighting corruption. Both failed to live up to their commitment.
In 2017, after her terms as head of state, Sirleaf admitted that her government had not done enough to fight corruption.
In 2022 Weah had to suspend three of his top officials after the US imposed sanctions on them for corruption and abuse of state functions. No investigation has been launched and none has been prosecuted.
Weah himself has faced serious criticism for his refusal to declare his assets upon taking office and for violating Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative’s standard procedures.
The country ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the corruption perception index. It could slide back into chaos unless the next leader takes serious actions.
Like Sirleaf, Weah pledged to build an equal, fair and just Liberia. But his lack of action in the fight against corruption sends the wrong message to development partners. And it undermines voters’ confidence in the electoral system.
Voters’ confidence in the upcoming poll is already low. A study by the Center for Democratic Governance in Liberia shows only 34% of Liberians believe in the ability of the National Elections Commission to hold a free and fair elections.
The lack of trust in the electoral system is reinforced by the commission’s failure to release the final voter roll 16 days before the elections. This has cast further doubt on the commission’s credibility and neutrality.
There is also anger over the government’s failure to establish tribunals to try individuals accused of war crimes, as recommended by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Victims of the war want to see warlords punished for their crimes. But the call for justice is ignored as Weah and politician Joseph Boakai (Sirleaf’s vice-president from 2006 to 2018) forge stronger alliances with perpetrators and war profiteers.
Weah’s 2017 election victory was largely attributed to the support he received from warlord Prince Johnson. Weah was also supported by Jewel Howard Taylor, his vice-president and ex-wife of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s 22nd president, convicted for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
Weah and Johnson have long parted ways. Johnson has given his support for the 2023 general elections to 78-year-old Boakai.
However, Weah is not isolated. He still enjoys popular support from his status as a football star, his coalition with Taylor, and his new alliance with Roland Duo, a former rebel commander who boasts of his crimes.
Former warlords control large voting blocs, sought after by presidential candidates. Establishing a war crime court would amount to political suicide.
But the new president must introduce genuine reforms and promote good governance if he is to sustain peace or govern a region filled with political backstabbing, resource competition and the struggle for new global alliances.
The next head of state must act decisively on deep-rooted and unresolved grievances.
He or she must address public sector corruption, grant full independence to the nation’s transparency institutions and provide adequate resources for the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission and the General Audit Commission to hold offenders accountable.
Liberia’s next president must ensure that the recommendations of the General Audit Commission are followed through and empower the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate and indict those suspected of bribery, embezzlement and illicit enrichment.
Low-level corruption should not go unpunished. That includes things like patients paying bribes for medical treatment, and teachers demanding special favours from students to pass an exam.
Liberians hope for a better future as 10 October approaches.