Liberian elections may signal turn toward peace

The people of Liberia, a West African country of over 3.4 million citizens, have suffered dearly from the ravages of internal wars over the past 14 years.

An Oct. 11 election to narrow down a list of 22 presidential candidates has heightened the promise of democratic and electoral stability. Turnout was 74 percent, and results will be declared on Oct. 26. If no candidate wins 50 percent or more of the ballots cast, the two top vote-getters will face a Nov. 8 runoff to determine who will lead the country for the next four years.

It is virtually certain that the two finalists will be a Harvard-educated banker and mother of four children, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, who once served as finance minister, and George O.Weah, 40, a celebrity ex-soccer player turned businessman.

Weah, who has enormous popularity with the youth, including demobilized fighters, has the advantage of possessing a numerically strong core of supporters. He has been criticized, however, for lacking education and managerial experience.

In contrast, Johnson-Sirleaf has held a World Bank position and has a UN Development Program job to her credit.

The legacy of colonialism in Liberia is typical of many other African nations. Underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure have hampered genuine economic growth. Access to electricity is minimal, the telephone system is extremely limited and paved roads are rare outside Monrovia, the seaside capital named after U.S. President James Monroe.

The historical “founding” of the republic of Liberia by former African American “slaves” in 1822, was due to efforts by the American Colonization Society. About 12,000 Black Americans willingly emigrated there over a 40-year time span. They quickly came to dominate the government, which was modeled after a U.S. prototype, including a Senate, House of Representatives, Supreme Court and Executive Branch.

Added to the mix was the exploitative element of U.S. imperialism. The Firestone Rubber Company was central to U.S influence and control of the local economy.

As a result, the indigenous peoples, who comprised 95 percent of the population, were relegated to second-class citizenship and subjugated to a self-perpetuating, Americo-Liberian ruling class that dominated the country until the violent overthrow of President William Tubman in 1980.

This writer, having traveled there in 1974, was astonished to see the use of U.S. currency on the Africa continent, as old, worn and faded as it was. Income inequality was extreme. A wedding celebration at the well-known Hotel Ducor in downtown Monrovia was particularly lavish and extravagant when compared with the city’s widespread poverty and dirt roads.

The last presidential election occurred in 1997 with the controversial Charles Taylor winning 75 percent of the vote, defeating Johnson-Sirleaf. However, Taylor was forced to step down as part of a UN-sponsored comprehensive peace agreement in August 2004. He presently lives in exile in Nigeria.

Taylor has been accused of committing crimes against humanity, including genocide. A ruling of the International Criminal Court through the Special Court of Sierra Leone stated that he has no immunity from prosecution and therefore must be tried in Nigeria or extradited. Under Nigerian law, a fugitive from justice cannot be granted refugee status.

Disarmament of former combatants, particularly unemployed youth who were recruited and compelled to join various warring factions, is a prerequisite to Liberian stability in the short run, observers say. Similarly, eliminating the use illegal narcotics as tools of political control is also a priority.

Liberia is comparable in size to Tennessee. Life expectancy hovers around 47 years. The infant mortality ratio is 128.9 per 1,000 live births, compared to the U.S. ratio of 6.5 per 1,000.

Among leading commercial exports are rubber, timber, iron, diamonds, cocoa and tea. The unemployment rate is 85 percent. Of those who do work, about 70 percent are in agriculture. As of 2000, Liberia’s external debt burden was over $2.1 billion.

Many Liberians currently live in exile, but the cherished dream of returning home to a peaceful country remains strong.