Liberia votes today to choose a successor to Africa’s first-ever elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with hopes for a leader who will kick-start the economy and safeguard a fragile peace.
Sirleaf is stepping down following a 12-year reign marred by a deadly Ebola outbreak and civil war.
“Both incidents left the country in ruins and its population severely depleted,” reports Germany’s Deutsche Welle. The election itself represents Liberia’s first major security challenge since the war, the newspaper notes, after the UN formally ended its peacekeeping mission there last year.
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Sirleaf, 78, has led Liberia since 2006, serving two six-year terms, the constitutionally mandated limit. A total of 20 candidates are vying to replace her in today’s vote, the country’s first democratic exchange of power in 70 years. Among those seeking the presidency are former international footballer George Weah, a fashion model, an ex-warlord, and a slew of businessmen and career politicians. Liberians are greatly divided over who they want to govern them.
“Even if Jesus came down, people would argue over whether to vote for him,” Rodney D. Sieh, editor of the FrontPage Africa website, said in comments reported by The New York Times.
Located on the coast of West Africa, Liberia has a population of around 4.5 million people, many of them Christian, and was founded by freed American black citizens almost 200 years ago.
This election may be a turning point for the nation, whose health service was devastated by an Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 Liberians in 2014-15, US News and World Report says.
Healthcare worries aren’t the only problem. Corruption is “deeply entrenched” at every almost level of the Liberian government, says The Washington Post.
“Liberia has received billions in aid since the end of the civil war in 2003,” the newspaper reports. “Yet state institutions remain weak. Corruption is deeply entrenched. And relationships, rather than the needs of citizens, dictate political decision-making.”
Power has been concentrated in the office of the president, who appoints regional leaders, local sheriffs and judges. According to The Washington Post, while the majority of the population earns less than $2 (£1.52) a day, legislators pay themselves as much as $200,000 (£152,000) a year. And patronage is rampant.
Despite an abundance of raw materials and efforts to find outside investment, reform has been slow.
Liberia’s economy has been affected by a slump in commodity prices since 2014, as well as by the Ebola epidemic. Many Liberians are desperate for a president who will boost the economy and business.
“From all indication, the Liberian people want change. I mean a change for the better,” political analyst Kerkula Kamara told African media.
Steven Radelet, a Georgetown University professor and economic advisor to the Liberian government, told social enterprise platform Devex that “what is at stake is continuing the progress already made, which slowed down in [Sirleaf’s] second term due to extenuating factors outside of their control: commodity prices and Ebola”.
Voters face a bewildering array of choices today. In addition to the 20 presidential candidates and 26 political parties, 986 candidates are competing for 73 seats in the House of Representatives. Yet while many would-be leaders are running, few have a plan, says The Economist.
“Rest assured that this is not a healthy expression of diverse opinions. Everyone wants a piece of the pie,” The Washington Post adds.
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