Liberia welcomes a familiar face

After incumbent ruling parties were re-elected in the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean presidential elections, in Liberia, the Congress for Democratic Change of President George Weah was defeated in Weah’s bid for a second term. The contest was a rematch of the 2017 elections, and Joseph Boakai became the first post-Civil War candidate to defeat an incumbent enroute to victory. The peaceful transition of power signals that the country may have successfully shed its old skin and can begin to consolidate democratic practices.

Weah, best known globally as a football icon, was already in a tight race against the weight of expectations following his victory six years ago. During that insurgent campaign, he cast himself as a person away from the political establishment and convinced Liberians of his ability to coordinate state affairs effectively. Then Vice-President Joseph Boakai lost the support of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, whose party expelled her for tacitly supporting Weah, and was roundly trounced in the run-off. After Weah lost to Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005, lost as a vice-presidential nominee in 2011, and served as a senator prior to his election, for Liberians, he was ready to assume leadership at a testing time for the country. But, as many former opposition politicians across the region have often discovered, governance is different from opposition.

One of Weah’s biggest challenges was his inability to stem the rising trend of corruption in his government. His administration was repeatedly linked with several scandals, including a process that resulted in several key members of government – including his chief of staff – getting sanctioned by the United States government. Soon, this disillusionment spread to the public. According to a June 2023 Afrobarometer report, 93% of Liberians surveyed believe that most/all or some of the officials in the presidency are corrupt. The same survey showed that 88% of Liberians think the government’s performance is fairly bad/very bad, with an exponential rise since the Weah government took office. His long sojourn away from the country, during which he spent a period watching his son play football for the United States, did not help change the perception of a president out of touch.

Another challenge this government faced was the economic uncertainty aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite different initiatives, the economy could not rebound as strongly as touted, and the failure became associated with Weah’s governance. During this year’s presidential campaign, Boakai and other opposition politicians were effective in tying the president to the economy, and frustrated voters were no doubt drawn towards the rhetoric against the ruling party.

But while the elections marked a repudiation of Weah, they were no more a glowing endorsement of Boakai and his party. The soon to be opposition Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) retained the most seats in the House of Representatives, with 25 seats, and gained four seats, whereas the now ruling Unity Party (UP) lost nine to return eleven representatives. Similarly, of 15 seats up in the Senate, CDC gained three to win six, while UP lost 3 seats and only won one. This points to the possibility of an already divided governance arrangement in Monrovia, one that could doom Boakai’s government before it even starts.

Even the results show a divided nation with no clear agreement on allegiance. During the 2017 election run-off, Weah beat Boakai in all but one of the 15 counties in Liberia. This year, Boakai only managed to win seven but was able to leverage turnout in the “voter banks” of Montserrado, Nimba, and his base of Lofa. Collectively, those three counties account for roughly 56% of the vote. Weah’s inability to maintain his support bases, especially in the capital, played a major role in his upset.

However, the major difference between 2017 and 2023 was the organisation of a unified opposition front in 2023. Ahead of the elections, former warlord turned Senator Prince Johnson had pledged to support Boakai in the elections and ensure a Weah defeat. This coalition brought the populated county of Nimba into play, and the alliance was bolstered by Boakai naming Jeremiah Koung, a known Johnson protégé, as his running mate. As always, alliances played a major role in determining the outcome of the elections.

But Liberia’s elections provide a welcome tonic after fairly contentious polls in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Weah has earned plaudits for his quick and gracious concession, a welcome difference from recent unconstitutional transfers of power on the continent. The election management body has also received plaudits from observers, especially since it was the first election conducted without United Nations observers and external funding, despite having to conduct a run-off election. Such moves will no doubt help in shoring up faith in democratic processes. Liberians also bucked trends by improving the voter turnout – with 78% voting in the first round and around 66% in the second, compared to 75% and 55% in 2017. Furthermore, unlike the criticism that has trailed the conduct of elections in the other countries, there has been praise for the conduct of the elections in Liberia. International observers, such as those from the European Union (EU) and the regional bloc ECOWAS were encouraged by the relatively peaceful process and the manner that Liberians interacted with the electoral process.

Yet this round of congratulations and goodwill can easily dissipate if the incoming government is not mindful of its responsibilities to its citizens. Boakai’s victory also adds to the list of new presidents in the region, following Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu and forthcoming successors to Senegal’s Macky Sall and Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo. His background as a former vice president should help support necessary regional efforts in addressing insecurity and ensuring a collective economic response to the crises many citizens face. Fewer than 2 million citizens might have made the choice, but in an ever-connected world, the impact will likely affect millions more.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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