No country in Africa is linked as closely to the United States as Liberia, a state that traces its origins to a philanthropic enterprise initiated by a group of prominent Americans authorized by a Congressional charter to establish a “land of liberty” for manumitted African American slaves as well as victims of the banned transatlantic slave trade “recaptured” from vessels intercepted by the U.S. Navy.
And yet those bonds have offered Liberians little protection against the same scourges of poor governance, civil conflict, and brutal violence that have ravaged so many of African countries.In fact, it was only six years ago that the country held the first truly free and democratic election in its nearly two centuries of existence, elevating the first woman to be elected head of an African state.
Yesterday’s presidential run-off was supposed to consolidate the progress made since the end in 2003 of a civil war that stretched across three decades and claimed the lives of at least 250,000 Liberians, setting in motion a regional conflagration that continued to burn through parts of West Africa until earlier this year when the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire was resolved by force. Instead, a boycott has marred the poll, threatening not only Liberia’s fragile democracy, but the stability of the entire region.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had been widely expected to trounce opposition candidate Winston Tubman in Tuesday’s vote. In the first round, held on October 11, the incumbent head of state had won 43.9 percent of the vote. While that tally represented an 11.2 percent advantage over her opponent, it wasn’t enough to avoid a run-off. Nonetheless, the president entered the final round with the endorsement of the third and fourth place finishers, who between themselves accounted for 17.4 percent of the vote in the initial poll. In addition, she had the clear support of the great and the good of the world: just four days before ballots were cast last month, she was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with countrywoman Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakel Karman.
Last week, however, Tubman cited alleged irregularities with the first-round vote and threatened to drop out of the run-off and call on his supporters to boycott the second round. That the United States, the United Nations, the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union have all deemed Tubman’s fraud claims “unsubstantiated” did not prevent his supporters from clashing with police, backed by UN peacekeepers, in the streets of Monrovia on Monday in incidents that left at least two people dead and several others seriously injured. Between opposition calls for a boycott and fears sparked by the violence, turnout yesterday was low.
The likely result of all this will be that Johnson Sirleaf wins reelection handily, but her victory will seem tainted or, at the very least, somehow less legitimate. This won’t alter anything immediately, but the issue could well come back with a vengeance down the road when the desperation of Tubman’s brinkmanship—he was widely expected to suffer a crushing defeat in the poll—is forgotten. The opposition candidate is, after all, a septuagenarian for whom this was likely the last campaign. However, his running mate, a former footballer for A.C. Milan, Chelsea, and other clubs whose rise from rags to riches is widely admired by many in Liberia, might well revive the charges and exploit perceptions of the reelected Johnson Sirleaf administration’s lack of political mandate to undermine it. George Weah is certainly no stranger to populist appeals: in 2005, when he ran for president against the Harvard-educated Johnson Sirleaf, he even made his lack of formal education a badge of honor, encouraging his followers—many of them unemployed youth without prospects like Weah himself might have been had his talents as a striker not been noticed by legendary coach Arsène Wenger—to chant in pidgin “He no book, he don’t know book—I’ll still vote for him.”
All this matters because not only has the international community in general and the United States in particular expended considerable effort to end Liberia’s 1989-2003 civil war and bring its erstwhile warlord-cum-president before an international tribunal for numerous war crimes as well as spent billions of dollars restoring a modicum of normalcy to the country, but because the country is deeply interconnected to its neighbors, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire—the latter just having ended its own civil conflict barely six months ago. The borders of these countries are porous and their peoples belong to myriad ethnic groups whose traditional territories straddle contemporary frontiers. As I documented in my two books on Liberia’s state failure and the political economy of war in the West African country and its neighbors, political conflicts here almost inevitably metastasize. Thus even “localized” tensions have a way of spiraling into national and then international conflicts, undermining the progress of an entire region, to the detriment not only of Africans, but of others who have interests in this geopolitical space that is increasingly significant, both strategically and economically.
Consequently, Tubman’s intransigence in the face of unanimous international affirmations of the integrity of the Liberian electoral process—yesterday he again vowed that “we will not accept the result”—is not only an act of hubris, it is a gravely irresponsible attack on his country’s fledgling political institutions and a menace to the hard-won peace and security of the region. In his statement on the elections, President Obama noted: “Liberia has taken important steps to consolidate its democracy since the end of its civil war. Those gains must not be setback by individuals who seek to disrupt the political process. The international community will hold accountable those who choose to obstruct the democratic process.” A test of this resolve may well be in the offing.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.