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Soccer Star, Ex-Warlord, Politicians Seek Liberia's Presidency

October 8, 2017 3:31 PM
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Disappointed by the record of Africa’s first elected female president, Kumba Tamba is pinning her hopes on the almighty as Liberia votes for a new leader.

The West African nation, founded for freed American slaves almost 200 years ago, is holding presidential and legislative elections on Tuesday that mark the end of the 12-year tenure of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who’s known as Ma Ellen and whose 2005 victory signaled a breakthrough for female leadership on the continent. Among the contenders to succeed her are the current vice president, Joseph Boakai, ex-A.C. Milan soccer star George Weah and Prince Yormie Johnson, a former warlord during the nation’s 14-year civil war.

“I’m praying to God to help us elect a good president so that this country becomes sweet like before,” Tamba, a 34-year-old mother of four said as she sat in front of her rickety house in the West Point slum in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. “I voted for Ma Ellen in 2005 and 2011, hoping that we will get free education and low food prices. But that didn’t happen.”

With 20 hopefuls in the first round, the vote will probably go to a run-off in November. As many as 986 candidates are vying for 73 seats in the House of Representatives. Johnson Sirleaf is due to step down next year.

“Every Liberian expects a lot from these elections,” Julius Kanubah, a political analyst based in Uppsala, Sweden, said in emailed comments. “Their hope is for the next government to genuinely invest substantial resources in agriculture, education, health and the infrastructure sectors of the economy.”

Seen as part of the political establishment, Boakai, 72, has campaigned on promises to invest in agriculture and guarantee stability. His main challenger, Weah, is especially popular among young people but failed to win in two previous elections: as a presidential candidate in 2005, and as the Coalition for Democratic Change’s running mate for then party leader Winston Tubman in 2011.

Weah, 51, has pledged to create an anti-corruption court and a watchdog program to combat the widespread practice of bribery. His running mate is Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, who’s serving a 50-year sentence in a U.K. prison for atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone during that country’s civil war. The Taylors divorced in 2006.

A third serious contender is the wealthy businessman and former Taylor ally Benoni Urey, who owns poultry farms and a rubber plantation and helped found the country’s main mobile-phone network.

“We want the incoming government to create the environment where the young people will get better paid jobs,” Isiaka Sheriff, a 33-year-old Weah supporter, said at a coffee shop in Monrovia’s city center. “With the massive donor assistance since 2005, I think the government could have done much more than what it did in 12 years.”

Under Charles Taylor, Liberia experienced a devastating civil war that ended in 2003. But the optimism that surrounded the 2005 vote and the first mandate of Johnson Sirleaf, who received a shared Nobel Peace Prize just before her re-election, has dimmed. Liberians complain of poverty, unemployment and endemic corruption. Remittances account for 31 percent of gross domestic product, the highest rate in Africa and one of the highest worldwide, according to World Bank data.

Johnson Sirleaf has defended her administration’s record by reminding critics that she inherited a country in ruins, with little to no electricity in the capital, few passable roads and a health sector that was kept afloat by aid organizations. She managed to get $4.6 billion in debt relief and increased government revenue to about $600 million last year, from barely $80 million in 2006, by bringing in mining and palm-oil companies and facilitating Chinese investment.

Growth averaged 7.5 percent between 2006 and 2013 until the country was hit by the worst-ever regional Ebola epidemic, which killed thousands of people and led to the departure of hundreds of foreign workers. The outbreak came at a time when output of iron ore, Liberia’s main source of foreign currency, dropped sharply. As a consequence, the economy recorded zero growth between 2014 and 2016.

Even the reduction of the United Nations peacekeeping operation has led to job losses for hundreds of Liberians who worked at the mission since it deployed in 2003, according to the government.

While the campaigns have been largely peaceful, the possibility of an electoral dispute or violence shouldn’t be ruled out, Kanubah said.

“It seems that most parties would not likely or easily concede defeat,” he said.


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