By Bullet & Ballot

War and democracy in Liberia

Ballot counting in Liberia

Ballot counting in Liberia. Photograph: Brittany Danisch // Flickr. License: CC BY 4.0.

“[Charles] Taylor’s war destroyed most of my generation, and you expect me to vote for him? Never.” – A Liberian bookkeeper in the New York Times in 1997

“He killed my pa, He killed my ma, but I’ll vote for him” – slogan for Charles Taylor’s 1997 presidential election

There were an unusual number of prominent political elections in 2017: France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Iran, Austria, and more all had their most important national elections during the year. Equally important, though certainly not an election, was the 19th National Congress in China, which solidified Xi Jinping’s hold on China’s political system. I don’t have any hard data to put it in perspective, but it seems very likely that 2017 was one of the most significant years for electoral politics in the world, perhaps even more than the shocks of 2016. There was, however, one smaller election, tucked away from these more major ones, that I took particular interest in: the Liberian presidential election.

So I began at first to write an analysis and background of the 2017 Liberia election as a short article, but I quickly realized that to truly appreciate the situation for voters and of a political moment like an election, you have to understand more about a country. Therefore, I have instead penned a longer article on Liberia that culminates with a look at democracy in the country in the past twenty years and of the most recent election. In the first part, I offer the reader a broad overview of Liberian history and of the bloody civil war that culminated in the 1997 election. The second part will build from this and cover Liberia’s peculiar and uneven turn to democratic order, particularly the elections of 2005 and 2017.

Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, Liberia has remained a curious and unique country in Africa. Founded by freeborn African Americans and freed slaves returning to Africa, Liberia has always held close to the United States, even if often the USA, both citizens and government, did not realize or notice. Despite being sandwiched between two European colonial powers in Africa—France and the United Kingdom—Liberia avoided ever being colonized by either; however, in many ways, the indigenous population still underwent a form of colonization at the hands of the resettling black population from America. Like many of the colonized African nations, there would also be a revolution in Liberia to depose the ruling elite, and unfortunately also like many African nations, there were periods of brutal civil war in the country.

At the end of the first civil war in the 1996, came the 1997 presidential election, an election that was strange and remarkable, even by African standards. For one, two of the main contenders in the large field represented wildly different versions and visions of Africa. The frontrunner and eventual winner, Charles Taylor, was the warlord who initiated the country’s civil war in 1989 that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, a war in which he presided over indiscriminate killings both by actual soldiers under his command and by bands of child soldiers that caused international uproar and spectacle.

His main opponent was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard educated UN official and one-time financial backer of Charles Taylor. She ran on an anti-corruption platform and was known for her women’s and human rights advocacy, and much later she would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism and leadership. Despite losing, she would later go on to win the Liberian presidency after Taylor’s abortive attempt at leading a functioning democratic government predictably resulted in another civil war.

Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the 2017 election, has Liberia finally achieved a peaceful democratic transfer of power, from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the former soccer star George Weah. The outlook seems hopeful for Liberia, especially for a country that has only recently survived brutal wars, emotional reconciliations, economic crises, and a deeply scarring Ebola epidemic. However, false hope is a common ailment for the region and there are some reservations I have over the coming Weah presidency.

Page from the 1839 "Anti-Slavery Almanac"
Page from the 1839 “Anti-Slavery Almanac”, detailing some of the racist overtones in the movement to send freed slaves to settle Liberia.

A Brief History of Liberia until 1989

In the early nineteenth century, as part of a broader movement that supported resettling free-born blacks and former slaves in America back to Africa, the American Colonization Society began taking black volunteers from the United States to the West Coast of Africa with the goal of forming a new land for them. At first, they attempted to go to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where other freed slaves rescued from European ships had already been repatriated. However, they were not welcome in Freetown and journeyed further south along the coast, eventually forcibly purchasing land from King Peter of the Dey tribe. I say “forcibly” because the king was also a slave trader and was not interested in having a community of freed slaves interrupting his business, but when a gun was put to his head, he acquiesced.

Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances of how they gained their land, the black and mixed-race settlers would come into frequent conflict with the native tribes of the area, auguring a long period whereby the settlers essentially subjugated and governed the native people in an apartheid society. Having consolidated their control and established the capital city of Monrovia (named after James Monroe), Liberia declared independence in 1847. The country then carefully managed to avoid being colonized during the late nineteenth century, when European powers partitioned almost the entire continent of Africa among themselves. Thus, Liberia is the oldest independent republic in Africa.

Kru Town, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia.
Early twentieth century photo of Kru Town, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia.

For over a century, Liberia was a one-party state under the rule of the True Whig Party. The members and leaders of the party were almost entirely from the settler population (after the initial settlement period, they would be known as the Americo-Liberians). The party was also explicitly Protestant Christian, and education in Liberia would essentially involve adoption of the religion. Though they often had trouble administering the hinterlands of the country, rule under the True Whig Party was repressive. The Americo-Liberians lorded over the native population in a manner not too dissimilar than the colonialists in other African regions. It is not surprising then that in 1980, a century after their rule, Liberia would also experience a revolution for liberation. Unfortunately, for whatever ethnic elitism the Americo-Liberians enforced, what came next was even worse.

Independence did not mean that Liberia was not exploited or untouched by Western imperialism, however. Firestone Tire & Rubber Company came to Liberia in the 1920’s, noticing that the country had perfect conditions for rubber production. Naturally, they managed to negotiate a land deal that was well below market value and lasted for a century, making the world’s largest rubber plantation. Worse, however, was that they made the deal dependent on Liberia accepting a large loan from Firestone. Despite the controversy of such a clause, under pressure from the US State Department, Liberia accepted, and thus the country became indebted to a foreign corporation that also owned a large chunk of the arable land. Firestone demanded authority over the country’s finances while the loan was outstanding, making Liberia, essentially, a “rubber” republic.

The last True Whig Party ruler was William Tolbert, Jr. He offered a change to many of the policies that defined the regime over the previous century: opposition parties were allowed, Firestone was actually audited and ordered to pay taxes, and Liberia became more cooperative with left-wing governments across the world. This last part irked the CIA and US State Department, and they began to withdraw support from Tolbert. More reform attempts created more demands and more unrest, including full scale riots. By 1980, it became clear that drastic change was coming to Liberia, and the coup of Tolbert was not a question of if, but of who would lead it. Would it be the opposition, or the military?

The actual coup was not terribly eventful; a band of soldiers led by Sergeant Thomas Quiwonkpa, including a man by the name of Samuel Doe, simply murdered Tolbert after they rushed into his office to find him asleep. Doe was installed as the head-of-state, Quiwonkpa believing that the two of them would rule in essence as co-ruler: Doe on the civilian end, Quiwonkpa in the military end. The streets erupted in jubilation as the promise of a government led by indigenous people, instead of the oligarchical Americo-Liberians, was at hand.

Samuel Doe, though not terribly literate and completely out of his depth in many ways to manage a country, had adept skills in navigating the turmoil of the early aftermath. One lesson he shrewdly picked up on was that by submitting to the American view of foreign policy he would curry favor, especially since others in the broader movement held more leftist views. Quiwonkpa, fearing what Doe might do to political rivals with his increasing power, fled the country. In 1985, Doe would win a completely fraudulent election, one which probably should have gone to his rival, a man named Jackson Doe (no connection). The fraudulent election was nonetheless hailed in America as a superficial reason for them to continue supporting their preferred guy.

Sensing perhaps that the divisions in Liberia were advantageous, Quiwonkpa returned from exile to lead an attempted coup in 1985. However, Doe was tipped off on the Quiwonkpa’s invasion by the US embassy, and Quiwonkpa’s coup ended in abject failure, with his desecrated corpse not only being paraded through the streets, but also consumed by some of Doe’s men. The battle lines of the conflict underpinning the coup, however, were ethnic, and in response to the threats he felt on his presidency, Doe was ruthless: he divided and persecuted Liberians on ethnic grounds far beyond what the True Whig Party pursued in their reign. If the overthrow of the True Whigs was about bringing justice and representation to Liberia’s indigenous population, it instead brought conflict and division, and it would only compound after Quiwonkpa’s failed coup.

However, Doe was not long for his rule. Around the time Quiwonkpa originally fled, several of those close to him in the administration also fled, including two men by the names of Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, both of whom bring about the regime change that Quiwonkpa failed to achieve.

Charles Taylor

“‘Taylor is like an onion,’ a United States State Department official said to me. ‘You peel and peel, and you think you’ve gotten to the core, and you have to keep going.’”New Yorker article

Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor is one of those fascinating characters you often encounter in history, the kind with a sensational and fated dramatic arc. He is both an enigma and a familiar figure. While strongmen often have similar characteristics: narcissism, hunger for power, ruthlessness, et cetera, but one of their most important traits is often charm. And Taylor was remarkably charming. Even after presiding over scores of atrocities, he commanded the friendship of people like Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson, who still believed that he was, at heart, a visionary man who believed in democracy and could bring leadership and peace. But any belief or hope ever placed in him was never repaid in kind.

Taylor was brought into the Doe administration through Quiwonkpa (they shared the same ethnicity), and he quickly earned Doe’s trust and became an important player behind the scenes. However, as the political winds began the change, Taylor and Quiwonkpa fled Liberia. Taylor fled to the US, but he was arrested in the US for an extradition request to Liberia on the accusation that he embezzled money while in the administration. It’s not clear whether he actually did or not, and perhaps it does not matter, but at that moment it appeared that the US was happy to work with Doe on the accusations. However, in a very curious turn of events, Taylor would escape from his prison cell in Massachusetts.

Taylor would eventually wind up in Libya and Burkino Faso, training under Gaddafi in order to eventually start an invasion back into Liberia. The circumstances as to how Taylor was able to break out of a high security prison, flee to Mexico, and then fly across the Atlantic Ocean has never been made clear. There is an “official” story, wherein he saws through the prison bars and flees to meet up with an escape team. The conspirators who helped free him were all caught, but Taylor was not. Perhaps this is indeed how it all played out, but the official story seems quite suspicious.

Taylor would sensationally claim later that the CIA assisted him, a claim that ends up being perhaps less sensational when, years later as he was first marauding into Liberia, he kept close communication with the US State Department, who was, at least internally if not publicly, supportive of the offensive against Doe. By the time Taylor escaped, the opinion of Doe both internationally and in America was beginning to sour. Regardless of how he ended up back in Africa, Taylor would leave Gaddafi’s tutelage into the Ivory Coast in order to build the coalition that would join him in his invasion and coup to unseat Doe.

Liberia’s Civil War

On Christmas Eve of 1989, Taylor and around 100 soldiers crossed over the border from the Ivory Coast into Liberia to begin his invasion to depose Doe. Shortly after entering during that holiday period, Taylor would begin a continuing habit of calling into the BBC World Service and giving updates from the frontlines and stories on the future for Liberia that he envisioned, all for BBC listeners to enjoy. Regardless of Taylor’s idealistic visions, once across the border, the violence from the invasion would swing from traditional armed clashes to macabre murders and atrocities. Violence became commonplace and random, traumatizing the population; for example, after an initial spate of decapitations (something that would become common during the war), some Monrovians would take to darkly and humorously greet each other with phrases like “Glad to see you’ve still got your head!”

Over several months, Taylor’s forces would make progress further into Liberia, often initiating slaughters on ethnic lines. His forces, drawn mainly from the Gio and Mano tribes, directed their violence on ethnic Mandingo and Krahn civilians, with several massacres numbering deaths in the hundreds. These ethnic divisions would eventually fuel further fragmentation and factionalism as the conflict continued. However, despite gaining territory quickly as he entered, Taylor was not to control the capital outright for quite some time, as a coalition of neighboring countries, led by Nigeria, sent an ostensibly neutral peace-keeping force, referred to as Ecomog, into Liberia to secure Monrovia.

Prince Johnson (remember that he was another one to flee with Quiwonkpa) was an independent commander of forces rivalling Taylor’s, and eventually he would enter Monrovia before Taylor. Johnson at first cooperated with not only Samuel Doe but also the Ecomog forces, who viewed him as a counterweight to Taylor’s larger forces. Johnson, however, would betray and capture Doe, whereupon he was tortured and killed. Doe’s murder contained a touch of the bizarre as Prince Johnson decided to film the ordeal and proudly send copies of the video to many Western journalists. The footage can still be easily accessed today, and it shows Johnson seated and dressed in military fatigues, calmly drinking a can of beer and being fanned by a woman next to him whilst interrogating Doe, before ordering Doe’s ear chopped off and his execution.

A Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 idles on the flight deck of the tank landing ship USS Barnstable County

A Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162 idles on the flight deck of the tank landing ship USS Barnstable County before departing for Freetown, Sierra Leone, with a load of civilian evacuees from Liberia during Operation Sharp Edge, 9/7/1990. Photograph: National Museum of the US Navy.

Following Doe’s murder, Monrovia became the capital of a puppet interim government, under the guidance of the Ecomog forces. Taylor retreated into his vast territory and set up a second capital, Gbarnga, in the interior of the country. From there came a protracted stalemate that lasted for years. By controlling the large majority of the country, including the airport, the Firestone plantation, and some the largest ports, Taylor held tremendous leverage in peace talks. The talks were rarely fruitful, however, although there were often long lulls in violence.

While ethnic divisions fueled part of the factional loyalties, for the leaders of these factions economic control of resources like the timber or diamonds was a principal motivator. Taylor overran the Firestone rubber plantation, giving not only better access to rubber for smuggling, but also to better infrastructure for radio communications and military repairs. The war made Taylor and other factional leaders very wealthy and very quickly; this unfortunately also applied to the peace-keeping Ecomog forces, widely accused of corruption and smuggling throughout the war. Completing this war economy, the warlords forged various alliances to foreign governments and foreign crime syndicates in Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast, all of which exacerbated the armed stalemate of the early nineties.

Eventually, rival ethnic forces, the ULIMO, would challenge Taylor. The ULIMO was formed in 1991 by Liberian refugees in the war raging in neighboring Sierra Leone. They would cross back into Liberia and do the seemingly unthinkable: gain large territory back from Taylor. The ULIMO comprised of Krahn and Mandingo fighters, and these two ethnic groups essentially broke down into two factions: ULIMO-J for the Krahn, and ULIMO-K for the Mandingo.

With the ULIMO now pinning him in on one side, Charles Taylor would lead another abortive attempt to wrest control of Monrovia from Ecomog. The attack would fail spectacularly, and gave Ecomog the excuse to use the full force of their power. Dropping bombs and napalm, not only in the capital, but in a blitzing attack on many of Taylor’s strongholds. This drastically weakened Taylor and reduced the territory he controlled. Over the next few years, in this vacuum, several factions took arms. This left a morass of fighting that failed to reach a decisive victor. As fighting went on, more splinter groups formed, and organization broke down such that peace talks would not even be possible.

The final battle for Monrovia began on April 6, 1996. The ULIMO-J had been tricked by Taylor into antagonizing Ecomog and other factions, giving pretext for Taylor to intercede on grounds that he should arrest the ULIMO-J leader, Roosevelt Johnson, in order to uphold order. Johnson was pinned in Monrovia, and a vicious battle broke out. While an organized operation could have won the city for Taylor, instead his brigades, many of whom were children, referred to the final offensive as Operation Pay Yourself, a not-so-subtle indicator that its main purpose was to loot and pillage. Not surprisingly, Monrovia was consumed by orgiastic violence. By the end of the fighting, Taylor had increased his control but not decisively. Despite the failure of many talks before, the scale of the violence and the length of the war led to a renewed discussion for peace, which would lead to a democratic election in the next year.

The dark side of the war

“One night I had a dream and something came to me that night and said that if I want to be a powerful and strong man, my grandmother has to die. As soon as day broke I ran straight to our house and asked for my grandma, they say she gone on the farm so I waited later when I came I saw the place… I killed her, so my father say, ‘Oh why you do this kind of thing?’ I say ‘Papie, the revolution has started.’” – Testimony during the truth commission concerning a child’s experiences in the war

The child soldiers in the Liberian civil war attracted the most coverage from Western media, and indeed they remain the enduring image of the conflict. This is not only because it involved children being used as fighters—unto itself that is not a particularly unique feature to this conflict—but also because of the surreal and brutal details of how they operated. The child soldiers, many of whom were not even teenagers, were supplied with and hooked on drugs, ranging from cocaine and amphetamines to sugar cane juice mixed with gunpowder. Superstitions and amulets, common as they are in certain cultures of Liberia, were magnified to extreme degrees, with child soldiers donning Halloween masks, wedding gowns, and other absurd outfits, all while armed with AK-47’s.

Cannibalism, especially the hearts of the dead, from babies to enemy combatants, was relatively commonplace in order to mark manhood and ensure good fortune in battle. It is important to stress, however, that the cannibalism and ritual violence were not just carried out by children but also adults as well. Although the scale of cannibalistic practices is hard to know, ritual killing and ritual cannibalism have a long history in Liberia, especially in certain secret societies, called poro in Liberia. Besides their use in esoteric religious ceremonies, cannibalism was also previously used in conflict: Doe’s soldiers, for example, were seen eating Quiwonkpa’s body after killing him.

Both child and adult fighters would often adopt colorful noms de guerre, such as General Fuck Me Quick, Nasty Plastic, Gorbachev, Babykiller, General Tupac, Dead Body Bones, General Peanut Butter, et cetera. The most famous in Western accounts is General Butt Naked, the commander of the Butt Naked Brigade, which operated against Charles Taylor for the ULIMO-J. The Butt Naked Brigade, as their name would suggest, would often fight butt naked, adorned only with amulets, weapons and boots. They believed that fighting naked would bring them good luck and shield them from bullets. While obviously untrue, given that the regular clothing of other fighters would also do little to shield them from bullets, firing Kalishnakovs while naked at least has a definite thrill and shock factor on the battlefield.

It would be tempting, I suppose, to view these details of the conflict and choose to frame the Liberian civil war (and other similar African conflicts in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, et cetera) as anomalous barbarism and absurdity, to surmise that they are aberrations from “normal” conflict and “normal” purposes/processes of warfare, instead being driven solely by warlords and tribalism. As I see it though, when you move past the colorful accoutrements, macabre displays, and unconventional demographics of some of the fighters, you arrive at human warfare as it always is. The Liberian civil war was driven by men seeking power and profit, exploiting division and identity to get it. Far from unique, this is a near-ubiquitous reason for war. In its wake, hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children died: again, a common result. The aesthetics of War may shift through place and time, but its soul remains the same.

A short detour on George Weah

In the mid-nineties, Liberia had surprisingly become internationally significant for two very different reasons: one was obviously the violent civil war raging in the country; the second reason was a Liberian soccer player named George Weah, who was tearing up European soccer leagues, culminating in the award for FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or award in 1995. George Weah had an unconventional route toward greatness in Europe. He played as a teenager neither in Europe, nor in an African soccer power like Nigeria or the Ivory Coast, who had better infrastructure and domestic academies. Rather, he grew up in the slums of Monrovia and began his career as a striker in Liberian league, playing for a couple different clubs as a teenager and performing admirably well, if the statistics are anything to go by. After that, he moved to play in the capital of Cameroon, Yaounde.

With some fortune, at the age of 22, Weah was scouted and invited to join AS Monaco in the French League, then under a young, intrepid manager named Arsène Wenger, who would also go on to have his own boundary-breaking career in England. Weah saw the pinnacle of his career in the mid 1990’s, when playing for the European club AC Milan. Winning the World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or (he was the first non-European to win) rocketed Weah to international fame.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Weah in Liberia, especially in the nineties. In a country ravaged by conflict, where institutions were nonexistent, corrupt warlords carved up the land, and the economy was in tatters, that a boy from the slums of Monrovia could become biggest soccer star in the world, not only provided an inspiration for Liberians, but also something to be fervently proud of. To many young Liberians, who grew up in the horrors of war and a divided country, George Weah was almost equivalent to a god. Recognizing his status in his homeland, after his retirement from soccer in the early 2000’s, Weah almost immediately started a new political party in Liberia and announced his ambition to run for president in 2005, following the cessation of the second civil war.

Market in Monrovia, Liberia

Market in Monrovia, Liberia. Photograph: US Peace Corps.

Liberian election of 1997

“Nobody can bring war against me. I’m war itself! There will be no more war in Liberia.” – Charles Taylor during the 1997 campaign

The first Liberian civil war ended oddly, without a decisive victor and with foreign peacekeeping forces occupying the country. Many of the arms were turned over as part of the peace process, though given the sheer number of arms in the country, many would remain. Even stranger was that the stalemate resulted in a genuinely democratic election in 1997 that even featured actors from the war itself, including the warlords who led it. Despite it being a fair election according to international observers, the political environment was far from normal. After years of bloodshed and fractious fighting, what the voting population sought far more than political viewpoints and platforms was stability and safety. With this backdrop, it becomes easier to understand why Charles Taylor, the man who essentially started and perpetuated the civil war, was the favorite and eventual winner of the election.

Charles Taylor always wanted a real, sanctioned election to legitimize him, instead of simply ruling by might. He certainly said as much back during his first invasion in 1989, stating: “There will be elections when the time is right… it’s easy to make a dictator in Liberia and I’m not going to let myself be one.” But that’s a pretty obvious statement for a would-be dictator who is trying to court Western support, especially at a time when the US was clearly becoming the only superpower. Rather, it’s Taylor’s behavior after he got what he wanted in 1997 (an election he could stand in) that suggests he genuinely wanted to win properly, or at least in a way that would satisfy international observers. He certainly campaigned aggressively, but it was the fact that he allowed the democratic process to unfold that suggests he genuinely did not want to be only a military-style dictator. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, his main rival in the 1997 campaign, remarked:

[There were fears] that at some point Taylor would get desperate and try to eliminate the competition. I never worried about that possibility. The truth is, Charles Taylor knew he had the means to win that election, and he wanted the legitimization it would confer.”

Taylor had not only significantly more funds, but also substantially better infrastructure. Taylor was able to campaign in and mobilize the countryside to vote for him. He had the radio airwaves thanks to communications infrastructure from capturing the Firestone rubber plantation. He had planes, helicopters, and trucks with loudspeakers to spread his message. He had lots of free campaign materials and rice to give away for free. He had throngs of young volunteers (many were former fighters) to rally for him. However, his biggest asset was the war-weariness of the population after years of fruitless fighting.

Taylor even received substantial support from those who were negatively affected by his forces and by his war. An enduring slogan of the Taylor campaign was “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him.” It’s a shocking slogan: not only for the suggestion Taylor’s victims would vote for him but because it also says that the central premise of his candidacy was that a man who helped destroy the safety of the country and hundreds of thousands of lives should be publicly trusted to lead it because of this. The fact that Taylor was the most powerful warlord from the civil war was not a burden but rather his appeal.

Johnson Sirleaf writes in her autobiography that she encountered voters in the campaign who told her, “I believe you are the better candidate, and I believe you would be the better leader. But we just can’t take that chance. We want peace, and this is the only way we’ll get it.” While taking some caution with the quote since it is self-serving in an autobiography, it matches with every contemporary account of the election that I’ve read. While he absolutely had a strong base that supported him, Taylor drew a lot of voters who did not believe he was the best candidate per se, but thought that the country would plunge into violence once more if he were not elected.

Why would they think that? By the time of the election, Taylor was the wealthiest and most powerful of the warlords in the country. The civil war had a plethora of factions and groups that would form and take arms, but only one leader lasted and battled the entire war: Charles Taylor. There was little expectation that further conflict would result in anything other than a stalemate or a Taylor victory. Taylor, for his part, desperately sought democratic legitimacy; however, were someone else chosen as president, violence would likely have restarted. In this way, the election was not “fair”. One candidate brought with him the not-so-subtle threat of violence if he were not freely elected; thus, while the people had a legitimate say in choosing the president, there was really only one option.

In such a political environment, allowing warlords to run for president may have been the only way to truly end the hostilities. While acknowledging that their prominence in an election is unnerving, given the level of power and support that these strongmen had meant they needed incentives to preserve democratic peace; allowing a legitimate chance at democratic power was one way to provide that. In Liberia, this was even more the case. Taylor had so much wealth and had so much direct control of many parts of Liberia for so long that he was in essence an incumbent; his participation was requisite, and his victory almost unavoidable.

In the end, Charles Taylor won the election in a landslide, with more than 75% of the vote. While some voting irregularities were reported, a large international contingent of election observers concluded that the election was run fairly and properly. No other candidate even received 10% of the vote. Taylor thus became the first freely elected in Liberia for decades. Unfortunately, despite Charles Taylor’s dreams of being a legitimate President of Liberia, his administration was a failure. His term in office descended in corruption and then, perhaps predictably, into another fractious civil war within a matter of years.

The 2005 election

I won’t go into too much detail about Charles Taylor’s presidential term and the resumption of the civil that followed, except to note that President Taylor played a large role in inflaming a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone by selling weapons to rebels in exchange for blood diamonds. More than a decade later he would be sentenced to prison by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity for this role, becoming the first former head of state to be convicted since the Nuremberg trials. While Taylor was certainly guilty of the crimes he was sentenced for, it is also true that such justice by the International Court is selective: an African with no allies left in the international community can be brought to justice before an international court; other, more powerful criminal heads of state would never even be considered.

As I have indicated before, that Taylor proved an ineffectual and corrupt president is not surprising in the least, and given how fractured Liberia was when the people elected him, it is also not surprising that his failed presidency led to fractured conflict anew. The second Liberian civil war also strongly resembled the first: same ethnic fault lines, child soldiers with wigs and guns manning checkpoints, Nigerian peace-keeping forces, et cetera. The war would finally come to an end in 2003 when, seeing the writing on the wall, Charles Taylor finally resigned. The man whose dream was to be the president of his country, by bullet and ballot, had finally ended the nightmare he begot.

The 2003 peace agreement led to the two-year interim National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL). The NTGL was, like previous transition/interim governments, both corrupt and incompetent. Ironically, however, one conclusion was that the corruption actually was able to hold the fragile peace among transactional factions in the rebel forces, the Taylor government, and the civil society. With the scheduled October 2005 election set, a welcome development was that no major warlord or rebel was running for president. Unlike the 1997 election that, while free, was tainted by the participation of a powerful and violent candidate, the 2005 presidential election was both civil and civilian.

However, figures from the war and Taylor’s regime were still running for election to public office, albeit not for president. In a country wracked by divisive and violent factionalism, in local elections the various leaders of those factions draw from even stronger bases of support. So it was that the former first lady and ex-wife of Charles Taylor, Jewel Howard Taylor, was running for Senate. Prince Johnson, the general involved in the execution of Samuel Doe, was also running for Senate. Running against Prince Johnson was a former fighter and commander who went by the nom de guerre General Peanut Butter; in keeping with the Liberian tradition of electoral dark humor, his slogan was “Let him butter your bread.”

Thus, the 2005 Liberian election was essentially one of the first open Liberian elections: no oppressive True Whig party, no dictators like Samuel Doe, nor powerful and threatening warlords like Charles Taylor. Thankfully, two of the frontrunners for president were not involved in the wars or directly tied to Charles Taylor at all. One was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the human rights advocate who had lost to Taylor in the 1997 election. The electoral favorite though was George Weah, who had only recently retired from soccer and recruited to run for office. His candidacy electrified much of the youth, and as Liberia’s constitution forbids foreign money from influencing campaigns, he had a cash advantage due to his lucrative career in sports. Johnson Sirleaf at time would feel her election campaign was futile: she recalls in her autobiography remarking upon seeing a massive demonstration in favor of Weah: “My goodness. He really is too popular, and our country is too young.”

Weah won the first round of voting, but with less than the majority threshold needed for outright victory. This forced a runoff against Johnson Sirleaf who had come in second. Here, however, Weah’s base of support turned from advantage to disadvantage. His loud and youthful supporters had a tendency to alienate voters who had voted from someone else. Then Weah started to play some dark tricks: he began suggesting that there was fraud and he actually had won the first round of voting, and that only fraud could deliver a loss to him in the runoff. Given his fervent support, such a tactic would risk inflaming conflict in the country once more.

Johnson Sirleaf would win the runoff election over Weah, and she won by nearly twenty points. Weah and his supporters immediately challenged the result, protesting the result was invalid. He maintained this charge for some time, creating anxieties domestically and internationally that the delicate peace could crumble and violence could flare up again. International observers and the election commission did take some second checks at the ballots and processes in part to diffuse the situation. Eventually, seeing the futility in his tactics, Weah withdrew his charges and Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia.

It is hard to understate the enormity of the burden that Johnson Sirleaf’s new presidency was under immediately after inauguration. She needed to lift up the victims and oppressed people from the near decade-and-a-half civil war, as well as balance reconciliation and punishment for the volatile fighters who had participated in the wars. Western powers would also pressure her to take forceful public position concerning Charles Taylor, then under exile in Nigeria, a task that also had potentially dangerous ramifications domestically as there were still pockets of support for Taylor. And beyond all of these political concerns lay the more universal issues of any impoverished country: there was hardly any infrastructure in the country and barely any civic institutions.

Johnson Sirleaf would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for human rights advocacy and gender equality, but it would be a mistake to view her as an idealist or solely as a human rights advocate. It was no mere accident she earned the nickname Iron Lady in Liberia. She is a stubborn and pragmatic leader, and knows deeply how to play politics through a realist lens. She was the first elected female leader of an African nation, and she accomplished this in a country where power had been held illiberally for decades in the hands of violent men. She managed to hold the country together and command respect across all political factions, even in such turbulent actions as Liberia’s remarkably honest reconciliation and truth commission into the crimes and injustices of the two civil wars.

Still, she is by no means a perfect leader nor a perfect political advocate. Corruption, for example, was still rampant during her administration. Government officials received excessive salary raises. She also engaged in nepotism in a blatant way, giving important posts to her sons and family. While peace and stability were maintained, growth and institutional ethics were slower to take root.

Billboard for Johnson Sirleaf's re-election campaign

Billboard for Johnson Sirleaf’s re-election campaign in 2012. Photograph: Ken Harper // Flickr. License: CC BY 4.0.

The 2014 Ebola epidemic

Before discussing the most recent 2017 Liberian presidential election, it is important to briefly touch the Ebola epidemic that the country suffered just a few years previous. Ebola outbreaks had broken out several times in Central Africa, but its emergence in completely new areas of West Africa, where local people had no real knowledge of its effects, was devastating. There was an understandable fear in many Liberians not just of this deadly and mysterious disease but also of the alien appearance of foreign medical workers, who would come into their communities donned in hazmat suits to protect themselves in order to carry out the corpses of the deceased.

Just before the outbreak began to ravage Liberia and West Africa in 2014, I began managing a survey research project for the World Bank in Liberia and Guinea (who was also deeply affected by Ebola). I remember the dread during the initial days of the project with juggling both the project set-up remotely and keeping a close watch over the slow but ominous updates of the early cases. The reality with disease epidemics is that they do not actually explode from nowhere; there certainly is an exponential outbreak at one point, but the early pre-epidemic stages include handfuls of cases that could dissipate before the spike. At first, the Ebola outbreak was fairly isolated toward certain communities, and the story was only but a concerning bit of news in the small corner of the paper. However, the disease sparked and reached the urban centers, rightly becoming the front page story.

The cost of the Ebola epidemic was significantly damaging, not just economically but on a human level. Nearly five thousand people in Liberia died from Ebola, and the figures could be higher. Thousands more survived, but they bring the trauma of the disease’s effects with them far into the future. The already-fragile economy was severely harmed, with unemployment spiking, hundreds of businesses shuttering, and even major sectors like the mining industry sharply decreasing the economic output. While eventually international aid did come to Liberia to assist with these economic effects, such aid naturally came years later and with the typical budgetary strings attached. Politically, Ebola battered Johnson Sirleaf’s administration, and emboldened political opponents who could promise the economic and institutional change that her administration was struggling to manage in the wake of the epidemic.

A sign outside the Monrovia Medical Unit, recognizing survivors of the Ebola epidemic.
A sign outside the Monrovia Medical Unit, recognizing survivors of the Ebola epidemic. Photograph: US Government.

The 2017 election

Looking at Liberia now, twenty years after the end of the first civil war and the subsequent presidential election in 1997, the political actors look disappointingly familiar. The recent 2017 Liberian election was to determine the successor to President Johnson Sirleaf after she had won another term in 2012. The major candidates were:

  • George Weah (again)
  • Joseph Boakai – former Minister of Agriculture under Samuel Doe in the 1980’s and Vice-President in Sirleaf’s administration
  • Charles Brumskine – former Pro-tempore of the Senate in the 1990’s and ally to Taylor in the 1997 election
  • Prince Johnson – the former rebel leader who filmed the execution video of Samuel Doe

Even the cloud of Charles Taylor, from his prison cell in Durham, England, loomed over the election, as George Weah’s running-mate (and therefore the newly elected Vice-President) was Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor during his elected term in office. Charles even married Jewel in a lavish wedding in the lead-up to the 1997 election. After Taylor was deposed, she divorced him and went on to have a successful political career of her own. Howard Taylor represented Bong county in the Senate, an interior county that includes Taylor’s former capital of Gbarnga, and a county in which Weah had dismal results in the 2004 election. Without impugning her political acumen too heavily by suggesting her position comes solely because of her relationship with Taylor, there still exist pockets of support for Charles Taylor in Liberia, and the inclusion of Howard-Taylor on the ticket was a shrewd way for Weah to court that constituency in a way that other candidates could or would not.

Like many African countries, Liberia is a relatively young country. Over 40% of the population is under the age of 15, a continuing trend in Liberia as the population has grown rapidly since the 1990’s. It is a disheartening signal that, despite half of the population not even being born by the first civil war, there has been little turnover major political figures in Liberia. The promise of republican democracy is ostensibly that power turns over, and each generation not only seizes control and the ability to change circumstances, but also learns how to govern themselves. Democracy in Liberia has instead preserved power in a cadre of people, often forming new parties and shifting their positions in ways that continue to maintain that power.

On the other hand, perhaps this has also helped to stabilize a nation previously wracked by war. As seen in the 1997 election, what the Liberian electorate has desired perhaps more than anything is for peace and stability. The constant electoral turnover in a turbulent democracy often can be, as the cliché goes, quite messy. There is a temptation also to be skeptical toward democracies in underdeveloped nations with poor infrastructure and lower literacy rates. Certainly, such an environment makes it easier for demagogues to seize power. Liberian voters have been quite rational though; in 1997 they voted in a strongman and a warlord, but as mentioned previously he was the only option that could bring peace. I do not see any necessary history of the electorate toward demagogues, though; in 1985, it is very likely that Jackson Doe received more votes than the dictator Samuel Doe, despite Samuel Doe’s attempts to rig the election. Furthermore, President Johnson Sirleaf is certainly not a demagogue. That such a democratically elected president has peacefully governed the country for over a decade is reassuring.

To her credit as well, Johnson Sirleaf seemed to recognize the ossified politics in Liberia during the 2017 election, in which she remarkably declined to endorse her own Vice-President Boakai in his candidacy. Boakai was under no cloud of controversy or corruption, but he would draw support from the same older base that elected Johnson Sirleaf. To the best of my knowledge, she never explicitly said so, but her actions were a signal that she preferred that the voters, particularly a different class of voters, could pick the next leader. In truth, also, Boakai also wanted to keep some distance between himself and Johnson Sirleaf. However, for her sins in failing to tow the party line, Johnson Sirleaf would be expelled from her party following the election.

Indeed, as broadly expected, after his third attempt seeking the higher office, George Weah easily won the runoff election for president; this initiated the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Liberia for several decades. Weah was inaugurated as president in January with relatively large fanfare and international recognition.

So what do we take away from Liberia, a country where war and democracy were and are so closely entwined? From its inception, similar practical issues have confronted ruling powers: literacy rates are low across the population, the countryside is difficult to navigate and to manage, and the infrastructure to administer a government is quite poor. One first impression is the disheartening scale of violence and corruption by those who continually sought to exploit vacuums of power create by such issues. This was true in battle, true on the campaign trail, and true in public office.

However, another impression is more hopeful. For all the wreckage and trauma of war, Liberians have been able to maintain an admirable sense of civic engagement and a desire to reckon with their past. That Johnson Sirleaf, an educated and headstrong woman who preached a genuine and credible message of peace and reconciliation, would be twice elected is evidence of that. Though her presidency did not necessarily have the transformative economic change some may have wished, she helped restore order and some institutional trust to Liberia’s government and society.

Liberia’s future is now in the hands of George Weah. There are apprehensions I have about Weah: he has at times engaged in worrying political acts (his challenging of the 2005 election foremost) that might portend a presidency that threatens the current order. His famous history in soccer has made sure that his election had ample news coverage and goodwill in Europe and all across the world. For now, he has the support of not only the people, but also other politicians, and the international community. There will likely come a day where one of these three bases of support is no longer there: how will he react? So far, there are hopeful signs at the beginning of Weah’s presidency (I write this article only a few weeks after his inauguration) that he may have the leadership to strengthen institutional trust, and perhaps even economic development. If nothing else, there is hope for the future. But will it be another case of false hope?

References & further reading

Ellis, Stephen. The Mask of Anarchy Updated Edition: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War. NYU Press, 2007.

Sirleaf, Ellen Johnson. This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President. Harper Collins, 2009.

Waugh, Colin M. Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State. Zed Books Ltd., 2011.