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Liberia (Vol 14, 2017)

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Franzisca Zanker
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Presidential and legislative elections were the main political event in Liberia in 2017. The stakes were high as these would be the first post-war elections for which the Liberian security sector was solely responsible. They were hotly contested, with 20 presidential candidates and over 980 candidates for the 78 seats in parliament. The process went well, with disputes resolved in court rather than on the streets. Populist George Weah was elected president.

See also Liberia 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022.

Contents Volume 14, 2017.

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Presidential and legislative elections were the main political event in Liberia in 2017. The stakes were high as these would be the first post-war elections for which the Liberian security sector was solely responsible. They were hotly contested, with 20 presidential candidates and over 980 candidates for the 78 seats in parliament. The process went well, with disputes resolved in court rather than on the streets. Populist George Weah was elected president.

Towards the end of her tenure at the end of the year, President Johnson Sirleaf’s domestic legacy came increasingly under question, but internationally she retained much political clout. Liberia strengthened its relationship with neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and hosted the regional ecowas summit. The estimated real gdp growth stood at 2.5%, certainly an improvement from –1.2% in 2016, though still far off the 8.7% of 2013. The budget for the fiscal year 2017/18 was at $ 526.6 m, a 12.3% reduction on 2016/17.

Domestic Politics

The main political event of the year was the presidential and legislative elections, held on 10 October, with a second presidential run-off on 26 December. The stakes were high, since these elections would bring about the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power since 1944. They were also the first post-war elections for which the Liberian security sector was solely in charge of ensuring security, the un Mission in Liberia (unmil) having formally handed over responsibility for security matters in mid-2016.

The elections were hotly contested, with 20 presidential candidates and 986 candidates vying for the 73 seats in the House of Representatives, from a total of 26 political parties. The high number of candidates can be explained not least by the political and financial gains at stake. The publically unpopular 2012 Democracy Sustainability Act stipulated that the political parties or coalitions that came first, second and third in the presidential elections would receive an annual sum of $ 2 m, $ 1 m and $ 500,000, respectively, from the national budget. Legislators would also receive high salaries. The proliferation of parties and candidates did not translate into concrete party politics, however, and voters were yet again left to choose primarily on the grounds of regional bases, patronage and personalities rather than of specific issues. Issues that all contestants addressed, irrespective of party, included poverty reduction, the maintenance of peace and security, the elimination of corruption and revitalising the Liberian economy. The number of female contestants was low, amounting to fewer than 20% of those standing for the legislature and there was only one female presidential candidate, Macdella Cooper, who went on to win a slim 0.7% of the votes.

Candidates for the legislature had to take a simple majority to win, and only 26 representatives were able to retain their seats, with 64% of seats taken by newly elected officials. In the last senatorial elections in 2014, only two of the 15 senators had been able retain their seats, indicating that representatives may be better able than senators to present their local campaign promises, though there was also a notable difference in election turnout (see below). The Congress for Democratic Change (cdc) became the strongest party in the House, with 21 seats (an astounding gain of ten), out-doing the Unity Party (up), which retained 20 seats (losing five compared with 2011). The Liberty Party (lp) lagged behind with only three seats (losing four). Highlighting the weakness of political parties, 13 seats were won by independent candidates (up from nine in 2011), with no parties apart from the cdc and up taking more than five seats. Nine women were elected, one more than in 2011, but making up only 12% of the House of Representatives. An Equal Representation and Participation Bill from 2016, which created five seats reserved for female politicians in the House of Representatives, as well as one for youth and one for people with disabilities, was not promulgated in time for the 2017 elections.

The three main contenders for the presidency were Joseph Boakei (up), George Weah (cdc) and Charles Brumskine (lp). George Weah, a former international football star-turned politician, won 38.4% of the vote in the first round and 61.5% in the second, making him the president-elect. He had no overtly distinct policies and did not appear at either of the two presidential debates that took place (see below). As a populist candidate with an anti-establishment message appealing to young voters, his campaign stood in contrast to Boakai, who was over 70 years old. Weah was the only candidate to win wide support nationally and not only in his home county and had already carved out a political career, including a stab at the presidency: in 2005, when he lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the run-off, and as vice presidential running mate to Winston Tubman in 2011. He became senior senator for Montserrado County in 2014. This time round, Weah formed unlikely alliances with the National Patriotic Party (npp) and the Liberia People’s Democratic Party (lpdp). The latter was led by the former speaker of the House of Representatives, J. Alex Tyler, who had been the subject of persistent corruption allegations, including legal proceedings. More surprising, however, was his running mate from the npp, senior senator Jewel Howard Taylor (from Bong County), the ex-wife of Charles Taylor. Weah had previously been a strong critic of both Charles Taylor and his party, the npp. Both Howard Taylor and Weah rejected repeated claims that Charles Taylor, serving a 50-year prison sentence in the uk for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, was influencing the election. Weah did, however, admit in March to taking a phone call from him, which resulted in international condemnation of Taylor’s attempt to influence the Liberian election process.

The vice president before the elections, Joseph Boakai, was the so-called ‘pseudo-incumbent’ candidate, a safe choice known for his relatively austere lifestyle and an absence or the corruption scandals that had tainted many other up members. The increasingly visible rifts between him and Johnson Sirleaf, including over who his running mate should be, and the fact that the latter’s own domestic legacy was being increasingly called into question, meant that his incumbency status was not so politically relevant, however. Renowned for napping at public events, the 73-year-old had the nickname ‘Sleepy Joe’ and won 28.8% of the first round votes and 38.5% in the run-off. Charles Brumskine, a lawyer and former president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate under Charles Taylor, came third with a much lower 9.6% of the vote. He had previously contested elections, coming third in 2005, and fourth in 2011. Faced with the prospect of yet again not making it to the run-off, he contested the election results, making allegations of fraud (see below).

Other notable contenders included former Coca-Cola chief executive Alexander Cummings, as standard bearer for the Alternative National Congress (anc), a splinter faction of Weah’s cdc. He quickly gained grassroots popularity, bringing a fresh face to Liberian politics and was the only candidate to attend both presidential debates (see below). He came fifth with just over 7% of the vote and the anc failed to gain a single seat in the legislature. Another newcomer to politics was an entrepreneur, Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party. Though he had not held any major elected office, he had been firmly aligned politically with Charles Taylor. Once the head of the then Bureau of Maritime Affairs, he had been the subject of a un travel ban and assets freeze list for a number of years. Though rich enough to finance a solid election campaign, he had no major campaign bases and only took 1.6% of the vote. Another contentious but politically established face was former warlord turned senator (from Nimba County), Prince Johnson, of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction, who came fourth with 8.2%.

The presidential run-off, originally scheduled for early November, was delayed when Brumskine and the lp brought a formal challenge to the first round election results. When the National Elections Commission (nec) rejected his allegations of irregularities, the lp appealed to the Supreme Court. In what Liberia’s leading newspaper, ‘FrontPage Africa’, dubbed the “bedfellows of political convenience”, Boakai, Cummings and Urey all joined Brumskine in his fraud allegations. The Court agreed to delay the run-off but went on to decide that the claimants had delivered insufficient evidence to warrant new elections, so the run-off took place before the end of the year.

Voting went well in both rounds with no major incidents, though there were long waiting times at a few polling stations, poor crowd control and some issues with the electoral roll because polling staff had received inconsistent training. Turnout was higher than previous elections, at 75.2% for the presidential and legislative elections, and 55.8% for the presidential run-off on 26 December. This contrasted with the 25.2% turnout for the senatorial elections in 2014, which were marred by the Ebola epidemic, and the presidential run-off in 2011, with a turnout of 38.6% due to a boycott by the opposition.

Election observer missions, including ecowas, the au, the eu and organisations such as the Carter Center, all lauded the elections, which, despite some shortcomings including incidents of hate speech and harassment, were generally peaceful and transparent. The Liberian judiciary was seriously put to the test during the election process, with international observers congratulating them for implementing due process, while acknowledging the multitude of challenges they faced, including the lack of preparation (and training) for the lawyers involved, which led to delays in judgements.

The nec also faced numerous challenges, not least due to doubts as to its legitimacy. Previous elections in 2011 and senatorial elections in 2014 had been marred by difficulties caused by an opposition boycott and the Ebola epidemic, respectively. This time round, despite a budget shortfall, continuing challenges in registering and educating voters in some barely accessible parts of the country, the nec managed the process well on the whole, as election observers across the board agreed. Threats that the election process would be derailed included allegations in March that the nec chairperson Jeremy Korkoya was an American citizen, in contravention of the Liberian Constitution. He was sued unsuccessfully several times over this matter, and faced further calls to step down over his handling of the presidential run-off in December, but managed to remain in office.

In addition to such disputes over citizenship and residency rules embedded in the Constitution, another stormy legal wrangle in the run-up to the elections arose over the Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Government Employees, issued in 2014, which inter alia stipulated that all presidential appointees should resign two years (or three for tenured positions) before running for elected office. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Code of Conduct in March. Though the aim was to deter potential candidates from exploiting public office, a widely held perception was that it restricted popular and appropriately experienced candidates from running. Given the division even within the court – with a narrow three-to-two ruling – and the controversies surrounding the implementation of the Code, President Johnson Sirleaf appointed a three-member Ombudsman in April to help enforce implementation. The Code was confirmed by the legislature in June, with some amendments, but by July, further appeals to the Supreme Court allowed some candidates to bypass the Code and stand, despite having held public office during the previous three years.

The nec registered over 2.1 m voters between 1 February and 14 March, an increase on previous elections. Despite some gaps on the final register and technical glitches, related not least to the absence of a civil registry and the difficulty of registering voters because of the terrain and the lack of citizen education and technical capacities, election monitors deemed the exercise credible. The nec allowed campaigning to start on 31 July and to continue until 8 October. Differences in financial resources undermined the equality of opportunity for the presidential and legislative candidates, as rules on campaign finance were insufficiently enforced. This also applied to media coverage, with much of the media sector reliant on political sponsorship in return for coverage. No free airtime was given on the state broadcaster. unmil Radio gave each of the presidential candidates two hours of free airtime, which just over half of them used. In essence, this meant that most media coverage – including print, radio and television – was given to the incumbent up, and to the cdc and the lp, the second and third largest political parties, respectively. Two presidential debates sponsored by Liberian civil society activists took place in August and September, with only a fraction (four and three, respectively) of the 20 candidates attending. Weah did not attend either. Apart from media coverage, financial resources were a constraint in other respects. Financial hand-outs to communities as part of the election campaign, whilst illegal, were noted in complaints made to observer missions, but were rarely sanctioned.

In contrast to the 2011 elections, no election-related violence took place. Twenty political parties signed the ‘Farmington River Declaration’ on 4 June, committing themselves to a peaceful transition of power and violence-free elections, The peaceful election represented a feat for the Liberian security sector, which was solely responsible for the elections for the first time in the post-war period. An election security task force was set up in January and 555 police officers were trained in community policing and election security.

Sporadic violent incidents including armed robberies, land disputes, mob violence and presumed ritual killings occurred during the year, and the Liberia National Police (lnp) was not always able to respond due to limited staff and equipment, especially in rural areas. By June, there were 5,127 police officers, 75% of them based in Montserrado County. The Armed Forces of Liberia (afl), with 2,000 personnel, also struggled to maintain operations beyond Montserrado and Margibi Counties. The relationship between the security sector and local communities continued to be fraught. In one incident in early January, after the discovery of the body of an 18-year-old girl, apparently killed for ritual purposes, around 500 persons stormed the local lnp station in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, demanding that the suspect be handed over. The situation was contained after reinforcements arrived from the Police Support Unit. In May, 17 afl soldiers assaulted a group of civilians in Wainsue, Bong County, injuring over a dozen. Five of the soldiers were arrested and military investigations were ongoing at year’s end.

Overall, Liberia remained stable in the first full year since the official unmil handover in 2016. By the end of February, only 434 unmil military and 310 police remained in the country, mostly in Monrovia, with military observers conducting regular patrols throughout the country. By July, only field offices in Voinjama and Zwedru and a communications hub in Gbarnga remained outside Monrovia. In late 2016, the unsc had requested the un Secretary-General to provide a peacebuilding plan for Liberia, which was unveiled in in March. The plan was developed in close cooperation with Liberian stakeholders and was in its first phase. In addition, a revised national Liberian security strategy aimed at building peace, security, stability and development through the accountable and effective coordination of the security sector was further consolidated and was submitted for review to members of the National Security Council in May. A public expenditure review of the justice and security sector, scheduled to take one year, was launched in the same month.

The human rights record was mixed. The high level of pre-trial detention remained a problem, with over 65% of the prison population awaiting trial in overcrowded prisons. There were at least nine prison escapes during the year. Poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition and limited medical care added to the human rights violations experienced by prisoners. Sexual and gender-based violence continued to be rampant, not least because of widespread impunity. A domestic violence bill was passed in the Liberian legislature, but President Johnson Sirleaf failed to sign it by the end of the year. The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Liberia 107th of 144 countries with the highest gender equality gap, making it one of the worst places for women in the world. Relatively high scores for women’s political empowerment (based on the legislature in place before the elections) and economic participation were pulled down by poor scores for educational attainment, health and survival.

Though not all electoral candidates had equal access to media (see above), there was critical reporting of the election campaigns and elections throughout the year, especially by newspapers. Incidents of harassment of journalists by government officials were sporadically reported throughout the year, and Freedom House continued to rate Liberia as ‘partly free’. Though some newspapers had online editions, excessive costs and poor infrastructure meant Internet access was limited to a small number of Liberians.

Despite 2017 being the final year of President Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure, the Liberian governance reform agenda continued to advance at a snail’s pace. Additional decentralised service centres for issuing documents such as birth certificates and drivers’ licences were put in place outside Monrovia, but a Local Government Bill and Land Rights Bill were not approved by the senate before the year’s end. In her annual state of the nation address in January, Johnson Sirleaf promised to prioritise fighting corruption, but the General Auditing Commission released at least 20 reports implying fraud and/or misappropriation at government ministries and agencies. Several cases were passed on to the Ministry of Justice for further investigation and prosecution. In the meantime, those accused of corruption, including Alex J. Tyler, continued to hold prominent political roles with no obvious restrictions. Since its inception in 2008, the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission had brought just two prosecutions.

Foreign Affairs

In June, the un Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (unoci) rapid reaction force at the border between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire officially ended its operations, and it became up to the two countries to continue to facilitate the return of the remaining Ivorian refugees from Liberia and to carry out joint cross-border security operations. By late August, the two countries had signed several agreements aimed at strengthening cooperation and bilateral relations as well as re-launching a Joint Commission, originally created in 1972, which met for the first time in 39 years. As of August, official figures showed that 11,896 refugees were still living in Liberia (down from over 200,000 refugees in 2011), with voluntary returns still occurring, albeit at a slower pace than in 2016. Many refugees, sceptical about returning to Côte d’Ivoire, were hoping to integrate locally in Liberia.

Elsewhere, Liberia continued to be involved in international peacekeeping operations, by contributing 78 afl troops to the un Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (minusma). One Liberian peacekeeping soldier was killed during an indirect attack on a minusma camp in May.

In early June, Liberia hosted the 51st session of the ecowas Heads of State and Government Summit. President Johnson Sirleaf had been the ecowas chairperson in the year preceding the summit. In her opening remarks, she highlighted the democracy consolidation in the region – particularly referencing the peaceful transition in the Gambia and elections in Ghana, fighting terrorism in the Sahel region, freedom of movement and prioritising agriculture and infrastructure projects. The Farmington River Declaration, whereby 20 political parties had committed themselves to peace (see above), was signed during the summit and witnessed by the regional leaders, a symbolic act highlighting the efforts at maintaining peace and security in the region. During the judicial impasse before the run-off of the presidential elections in Liberia, Guinean President Alpha Condé (as chairman of the au) and Togolese leader Faure Gnassingbé (the new ecowas chairperson) engaged in mediation efforts to make sure the process was not derailed.

Several Liberians were indicted and convicted outside the country for crimes committed during the Liberian civil wars. In June, the British Metropolitan Police’s war crimes unit arrested Agnes Reeves Taylor, another former wife of Charles Taylor, and charged her with torture committed during the first civil war. In October, former rebel leader Mohammed Jabbah was found guilty on four charges of fraud and perjury in relation to his asylum and later permanent residence application by a federal court in Philadelphia. The case included testimonies about his war crimes. Other investigations in Switzerland and Belgium against former commanders remained ongoing. The fact that these cases were only brought to court outside the country highlighted the elevated levels of impunity for war crimes still persistent in Liberia.

The inauguration of American President Donald Trump had the potential to affect the traditionally strong bilateral relationship between the us and Liberia. President Johnson Sirleaf had a close relationship to the previous administration, especially to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Johnson Sirleaf was reserved in congratulating Trump after his election, in contrast to Weah, who was quick to comment positively. As an anti-establishment figure himself, he was sometimes called ‘Africa’s Donald Trump’. By the end of Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure, her domestic legacy was certainly questionable, but internationally she still had much political clout.

Socioeconomic Developments

The lingering impact of the global decline in commodity prices and the Ebola outbreak of 2014/15 continued, albeit it with a slight upturn. The estimated real gdp growth was 2.5%, certainly an improvement from -1.2% in 2016, though still far off the 8.7% of 2013. The unmil drawdown was believed to have adversely affected the surprisingly bad macroeconomic performance in 2016. The fact that there were no major security issues in 2017 (despite the elections), combined with a slight pickup in gold exports, led to the improved growth. Inflation remained a problem, standing at 12.5% by the end of the year. The depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the us dollar continued, rising by over 20% since 2013, and the Central Bank of Liberia took a stronger stance on regulating the exchange rate between the two currencies. Many Liberians continued to depend on us dollars for their daily lives. Dependency on imports (especially rice), coupled with weaker exports of Liberia’s main commodities – iron ore, rubber and gold – further hindered economic development. Efforts to diversify the economy, especially through the Agricultural Transformation Agenda showed only limited results so far. The budget for the fiscal year 2017/18 was signed by the president in July, after approval by the legislature, at $ 526.6 m, a 12.3 % reduction on 2016. At $ 298 m, government salaries accounted for 59% of total expenditure, an increase from 2016 explained in part by payments to election staff. Expenditure on security and the rule of law ($ 86 m) and the health sector ($ 77.1 million) was lower than in 2016.

A newly amended tax law took effect from January, which included an increase in General Sales Tax on items such as telecommunications, as well beverages, such as drinking water. The same law saw tax breaks for members of the legislature and the Supreme Court. The leaked Paradise Papers in November 2017 saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf listed as a director of a Bermuda company between 2001 and 2012. As over 60% of Liberians continue to live below the poverty line, and inequality was one of the main root causes of conflict, economic development continued to be a politically contentious topic.

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