Not many people care about what goes on in Liberia but those that do were probably shocked this week by the images of UN Peacekeepers trying to wrestle guns away from the Liberian National Police who were intent on shooting into a crowd that was rallying in opposition to Tuesday’s Presidential election.
The UN has confirmed two deaths and several wounded and serious questions have to be raised whether the police were acting on their own initiative or whether they had been ordered to use maximum force to intimidate the forces of the opposition. Several international human rights organizations have already announced plans to investigate.
The other shocking fact is that the called-for boycott seems to have worked as voters for the opposition stayed away from the polls giving the incumbent Ellen Sirelaf a clear victory, but not a convincing one. Just weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, her world-wide supporters are undoubtedly shocked that what was supposed to be a shoe-in election for her second term has turned into a fiasco with not only Monday’s shootings and Tuesday’s boycott to blot her mandate but also the incompetent behavior of the National Election Commission in the months leading up to Tuesday’s polling. On top of that the Administration is also under fire for shutting down opposition media houses and prosecuting a number of station managers and journalists.
So what’s wrong in Liberia? A good place to start is with the Police. They are underfunded, undertrained and over anxious to use their authority. The UN forces have had to rein them in on several occasions because of their predilection for ultra-violence and the people of Monrovia are certainly sick of the harassment and corruption which occur at their hands on a daily basis. Prior to this election, the Sirleaf administration was apparently tempted to bring in troops from other West African nations to deal with election-related violence -probably with the suspicion that Liberia’s own police could not be trusted to keep the lid on themselves or the protesters. Last Monday’s events proved those suspicions correct.
Another place to look is with the entire political culture in Liberia. Like in many impoverished countries with low literacy rates politicians campaign by handing out money from the back of their SUVs. This is retail pork, nothing to be shocked at, but it does make the need for campaigning about issues almost irrelevant. There have been very few concrete statements from any of the opposition candidates about what they would do differently from what Sirleaf is doing but they seem to suggest they could do it better. As for President Sirleaf, her campaign theme seems to have been premised on the notion that she is a wily ‘monkey’ and that her opponents are clueless ‘baboons’. You don’t have to be a primatologist to figure out the implied meaning of this metaphor but it hardly suggest a bold vision for the future.
The third element in Liberia’s current problems is the unresolved issues coming from the Truth and Reconciliation process. After the issuance of the 2009 report that called for the banning of Sirleaf and several others from holding political office the recommendations were largely swept under the rug. It has been suggested that one of the reasons that the former warlord turned presidential candidate Prince Johnson threw his endorsement towards Sirleaf was precisely because of her disregard for the TRC’s recommendations, one of the most bold calling for the prosecution of Johnson as a war criminal. To add to the disgrace of the TRC process, its Commissioner, the lawyer Jerome Verdier, has been sending out internet messages to his supporters saying that his life and that of his family have been threatened and that his house in Monrovia was torched by his political enemies.
So where does Liberia go from here? There are no constitutional reasons why President Sirleaf cannot claim victory and keep on governing. But as we have seen throughout the continent once the opposition gets to a critical mass they start to demand extra-constitutional power sharing agreements that start to look like spoils-sharing rather than genuine desires to represent the citizenry.
Many in Liberia feel that the actions of William Tubman, Sirleaf’s main opponent in Tuesday’s run-off is trying to delegitimize the election so that the international community will step in and call for an interim government that will give power to all the main factions, many of which are still ethnically and regionally biased. To many citizens in Liberia, Sirleaf’s administration is starting to look like the same old Americo-Liberian elite that plundered the country for over a century prior to their violent overthrow in 1980 – the first event in Liberia’s devastating civil war.
In the short term the Sirleaf administration needs to deal with the fallout from the botched election, it needs to find jobs for the thousands of volatile young people who are marching against her and she needs to take a serious look at Liberia’s constitution which is not at all suited for the country it wants to be.
Michael Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston with a special interest in the Mano River countries of West Africa.