Elections continue to be an expected trigger of violence on the African continent. They led to serious disputes and deadly crimes in countries such as Kenya and recently in Cote d’Ivoire. Liberia (where AJWS will be hosting a Study Tour in March 2012—join us!), is preparing to hold its second ever presidential and legislative elections on October 11th, and the stakes are very high. The elections will be a crucial test of whether democracy is firmly entrenched in this country that fought its way out of a deadly 14-year civil war. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s current president and Africa’s first female head of state, is reported as the election front-runner, ahead of 15 other presidential candidates.
In July, Liberia celebrated the 164th anniversary of its independence under the theme Liberia Rising, Do your Part, Get Involved. The celebration recognized the gains in peace, security and economic development that Liberia has achieved after decades of political violence. It also set the stage for the government’s visionary goal of making Liberia a middle-income country by 2030, with an ambitious development plan laid out by Johnson-Sirleaf.
As I write, the supreme court of Liberia is considering whether Johnson-Sirleaf is even eligible as a presidential candidate as a result of a controversial residency requirement. In addition, some critics have accused her of behaving like many African leaders who want to remain in power: she is seeking reelection despite a pledge to serve for only one term.
This is a reasonable concern. There are currently 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including my home country of Burkina Faso, with leaders who have managed to stay in power for more than 20 years. It’s imperative for Liberia to not follow this trend if it wants to keep rising. It’s also vital for this emerging post-conflict country to push back candidates with ties to violence and who stand ready to make a political grab during the upcoming elections.
Regardless of the election outcome, Liberians do not want to go backwards. As we approach this crucial turn in the history of Liberia, here are three reasons why I believe the Liberian elections will bring progress, not setbacks:
- First, Liberian political actors want to move forward peacefully. The national election commission, the current government and several political parties have demonstrated their willingness to move beyond their differences by signing a code of conduct for engagement in the electoral process. These stakeholders have pledged to maintain a non-violent environment and to refrain from intimidation and manipulation before, during and after the presidential and legislative elections. Civility has largely been observed on the political scene, although there have been a few reports of intense exchanges between rival political parties and a recent deadly incident during a political rally last week.
- Second, the international community is supportive of Liberia’s goals for peaceful elections. Last week, the UN Security Council voted to extend the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia by one more year in order to ensure security during and after the polls. The current government is calling upon non-partisan foreign observers to come in and monitor the elections and to support the process in any way possible. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also convened top security officials of six West African countries to assess the security threats in Liberia and identify ways to mitigate these threats in advance of the general elections. They committed to send observers to monitor the elections and asked the UN mission in both Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire to increase joint monitoring and control at the borders between the two countries.
- Third, Liberia’s civil society—including women and youth groups—is actively participating in this key political moment. Last week, the Federation of Liberian Youth, the Association of Female Journalists and the youth-wing leaders of 23 political parties developed a code of conduct in order to reduce the likelihood of young people engaging in violent activities during the elections. Likewise, AJWS’s partners Mano River Women Peace Network-Liberia and the Association of Disabled Females International trained women as poll watchers and educated voters prior to the country’s referendum and the general elections.
Even if the elections are successfully staged, Liberians will still need considerable assistance and support to rebuild their lives and their country. These elections must not be taken as the end point to any investment in Liberia or the magic solution to peace and prosperity. The international community and ECOWAS must strive to take the long view as they support this country to strengthen key institutions that will enable it to really entrench a culture of peace and credible elections from now on. It goes without saying that civil society members have a huge role to play in this process.
Funders and supporters must help Liberia meets its development challenges by supporting civil society organizations to participate actively in all aspect of public life and keep politicians and public leaders on track.