Boston University

A Post-Sirleaf Liberian Democracy by Rohan Joshi @ Boston University

The long period of peace and relative stability which the country of Liberia has enjoyed over the past decade, is something few other African countries can take pride in. After the country’s hard-fought civil war concluded in 2003, the newly formed government took unprecedented strides towards a more democratic state. This action was spearheaded by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who made history in 2005 after becoming the first female president in Africa (of Liberia) after the conclusion of its brutal civil war, during which over 250,000 Liberians were killed, 1 million fled the country, and 75% of Liberian women were raped.

Using her international connections from her time in the World Bank, and her time as director of Africa in the UN’s development program, she was able to raise Liberia’s international standing, and raise over 2.9 billion euros to assist in reconstructing the country. Nevertheless, her administration grew plagued by significant criticism.  Critics claimed that Johnson Sirleaf’s globalist approach to solving Liberia’s problems forgot about the common people, an observation exemplified by an estimation that 64% of the country still lives in poverty. The gender gap in Liberia has only gotten worse while Johnson Sirleaf and her Unity Party were in power, with Liberia ranked as 114th in the world (out of 144) with a Global Gender Gap Index of  0.652/1.000 (1=parity). The administration is also notable for its corruption, exemplified by a scandal involving bribes from a British Mining Company.  All of this is possible evidence that Johnson Sirleaf’s rule may have subversively set the footholds of democratic erosion, which is remarkable considering that many do not consider Liberia an established democracy.

The year 2017 marks the final year of Johnson Sirleaf’s governance, as the Liberian constitution limits presidents from serving more than two six-year terms. The ongoing elections to elect both a new president and legislature, which started on October 10, have already proven contentious. Over 20 presidential candidates and 984 legislative candidates from numerous backgrounds are in the running, all claiming that their purported agendas will bring the country back to its people. The presidential candidate seeing the most attention is, of course, from Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party: 72-year old Joseph Boakai. Many see Boakai as a safe choice; however, his potential competency has come into question, as Johnson Sirleaf herself publicly endorsed him in his political rallies. Regardless of party affiliation, nearly all of the candidates share similar campaign values: to reduce corruption in the government, expand and reform the tattered education system, and further improve the health care system (which catastrophically failed when tested by Ebola and HIV). While these liberal goals sound promising, none of the candidates has an explicit plan on how they will enact this, but Joseph Duo, a former army commander turned poster child of the Liberian Revolution, may be the man who marks a change in the political status quo.

Many will recognize Duo from the famous picture depicting the chaos of the Liberian civil war (the header image of this piece). Ecstatically jumping into the foreground wielding a rocket launcher in his right arm, the gung-ho commander has proven to be one of the most popular candidates in the legislative race for his district. His strategy is markedly different from one taken by the Johnson Sirleaf administration: Duo focuses on direct interaction with the people and subsequently their interaction with the government, even going so far as to give them rides to voting centers. This direct interaction with his constituency is possible evidence of a birth of a new generation of Liberian politicians; politicians who are more directly trying to interact with the voting populace, and placing the populace above themselves to show why they deserve to wield power, and more importantly, effectively serve them. This exchange, which occurred during one of Duo’s political rallies, exemplifies this trait:

“If you people make mistakes every time you elect people, if you elect the person automatically, he becomes what?” Mr. Duo asked the crowd.

“A failure,” one man replied.

“If you elect me,” Mr. Duo asked, “you become what? My boss, my bosses.”

The non-acknowledgment of this political hierarchy (recognized above by Duo) was a major criticism of Johnson Sirleaf’s administration by political analyst Fonteh Akum, who claimed, “President Johnson Sirleaf [and her administration] failed to involve citizens in a meaningful way in the process of societal [and political] change”. This shift in political hierarchy, a sort of decentralization of power understood by Duo, is powerful evidence in favor of a future democratic Liberia. Unfortunately, this belief is not universal; establishment politicians such as the previously mentioned Boakai from the Unity Party will likely try to keep power amongst the upper echelons of government.

What does this fundamental polarization between politicians mean for the future of Liberian democracy? Political scientist Adam Przeworksi, currently teaching at New York University, would claim that this polarization is irrelevant to Liberia’s democratic future, which will be shown when the conclusion of the ongoing presidential and legislative elections are successful in conceding power between old and new officials. However, Przeworksi fails to acknowledge whether or not these newly elected government officials truly enact necessary liberal democratic change. Until the current elections conclude and a new administration formally begins its governance, the impact of the new officials is not measurable. One thing is for certain- the next president and legislature of Liberia will have an enormous weight on their shoulders, and both will need to work hand-in-hand to both bolster democracy and prove that their governance stays true to the desires of the Liberian people.


(Photo by Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

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