Today, Liberia is heading to the polls once again to vote on their next President. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President of Liberia and the first woman to lead an African country, will step down after 12 years at the helm. Also known as “Ma Ellen” or “The Iron Lady of Africa,” President Sirleaf was said to be “arguably the best president the country has ever had.” by The Economist.
2.2 million of Liberia’s 4.6 million people are registered to vote and they will choose between 20 different candidates. 18 of the candidates are running on a party ticket, though there are two others with self-run campaigns. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, then there will be a mandatory run-off election between the top two candidates from the first round.
One of the top key candidates is George Weah. Known as “King George” or “Oppong” by his supporters, he gained prominence as a professional footballer in Europe. Now at 51, he is running for the Presidency again after he lost in 2005 as a candidate and 2011 as a vice presidential candidate. He is no longer a political novice, having served in the legislature since 2015. Still, his platform is rather vague and consists mainly of the slogan “Change for hope.” Potentially misstepping, he chose to run with Jewel Howard Taylor, who has been a member of the legislature since 2005. Most importantly, however, she is also the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the one-time president of Liberia who is currently serving a 50 year term in a British prison. Though some still adore Charles Taylor, the man who ravished the country during its 14-year long civil war, the rift has still not healed. It would be unwise to continue to play upon those wounds.
Another candidate for the top post is Charles Brumskine. Mr. Brumskine served as the president of the Senate (the upper house of the legislature, similar to the U.S.) under Charles Taylor. This relationship lasted until 1999, when Mr. Brumskine fled the country due to differences with Taylor. In his own words, “Mr. Taylor thought we were taking too much of what he perceived as his power away from him. So the country became too small for both of us, and I had to leave.”
Joseph Boakai is the natural choice for successor. He was the vice president under President Sirleaf for both of her terms and is viewed by the public as corruption-free. He previously served as the Minister of Agriculture under Samuel Doe, the 21st President of Liberia, and, like Ma Ellen, has experience working for international organizations. He is a safe candidate and can be expected to continue President Sirleaf’s efforts to woo the international community.
Prince Johnson, an ex-warlord is also running for the presidency. He was the commander of the rebel group that mutilated and killed Samuel Doe, the 21st President of Liberia, in 1990. Now a pastor, he has claimed all responsibility for the killings as the head of the rebel group, but states that those deaths happened during war time and now that time is over.
Luckily, the days of gunslinging are over. However, the tradition of buying elections with cash, alcohol and t-shirts is still alive and well. Alexander B. Cummings Jr., a candidate running on the Alternative National Congress (ANC) ticket and an executive vice president for Coca-Cola until 2016, has played this game well by giving scholarships to children. This has given him a very personal link to the voters he is wooing. With 69% of the population living below the poverty line, this electoral strategy is entirely understandable. However, many voters are non-aligned and simply go to rallies in order to get free food, only going home to change their shirt so as to avoid offending the candidates doling out the cash.
Despite a lack of clear and detailed policy plans, the hope is that whoever becomes the next president is able to get the economy back on track, cut back corruption, and fix the country’s education system. After nearly 5000 citizens died following the Ebola crisis and disrupted so much of the country, this will be no small task. Add on the legacy of the civil war, which still lingers on in the minds and bodies of many, and the challenges posed are great. The shoes of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be hard to fill.
Featured image: Soon to be former-Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Adidas Ababa Briefing by African Progress Panel. Flickr Creative Commons