Liberia’s recent elections had all of the elements of a good African news story: a former soccer legend running against a Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, a past defined by war, conflict and division that the nation was attempting to overcome, a boycott by the opposition party, and an overwhelming win that could have undermined the victor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s legitimacy as the democratically elected president of the nation.
But Monrovia’s streets, that had been blocked off for the inauguration and monitored by police and UN tanks, were quiet and calm and the opposition supporters who threatened to demonstrate on the day of the inauguration were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the event took place with all of the usual American-influenced pomp and circumstance in the nation that was founded by freed African-American slaves: a building called capitol hill dressed in Liberian flags and red, white and blue, Christian choirs and brass bands, canons firing, and an inaugural speech threaded with praises to the Almighty and talk of grand destiny.
The opposition candidates of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), standard bearer Winston Tubman and vice-standard bearer George Weah, who had accused Sirleaf of electoral fraud after the first round held in November, even attended.
President Sirleaf pledged to create equality of opportunity for all Liberians, particularly the youth, and work harder towards achieving national reconciliation at the inauguration ceremony that marked the beginning of her second term in office.
“We inaugurate a new beginning a rebirth of our democracy and a restoration of hope,” Sirleaf said. “Liberia is no longer a place of conflict, war and deprivation. We are no longer the country our citizens want to run away from, our international partners pity and our neighbours feared. We have earned our rightful place as a beacon of democracy, a country of hope and opportunity.”
Sirleaf promised to deliver equality of opportunity and work harder at strengthening democracy and reconciliation in the small nation that remains deeply divided after decades of civil crisis and two civil wars that raged for 14 years and killed an estimated 250,000 people.
But Sirleaf’s message was directed at the youth in particular, many of whom rioted in the streets of Monrovia last month to express their anger at the government’s late payment of casual workers’ wages. The opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, that called for a boycott of the second round of elections due to claims of electoral fraud also has a strong support base of unemployed youth and ex-combatants who feel as though they have not benefited from Sirleaf’s government.
“The youth of Liberia are our future and they sent us a message,” said Sirleaf. “They are impatient, they are eager to be rid the years of conflict and deprivation, they are anxious to know that their homeland offers a ground for hope. Let me say to them, we heard that message. It is our solemn obligation to ensure that their hope will not be in vain.”
The event, attended by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and numerous presidents of West African states, went ahead in the capital of Monrovia peacefully despite threats from the opposition party to stage protests on the day of the inauguration and marked an end to the political stalemate between the ruling Unity Party, headed by Sirleaf, and the CDC headed by the Harvard-educated lawyer Winston Tubman, and the vice-standard bearer, soccer legend George Weah, who both attended the event. After a meeting with the president over the weekend, the CDC announced that it would recognise the Sirleaf as president, but is still in negotiations with the Unity Party over the specific role the CDC will play in the government.
When asked why the party leadership had decided to attend the event Tubman said the party leadership was there to demonstrate its commitment to reconciliation and political unity.
“We were invited and this whole exercise is to bring about unity among the Liberian people and because the CDC contributes to that we felt it was the appropriate thing to do,” Tubman said. “Of course as you know we are having discussions with the government on how we would be included,” adding that those in the CDC leadership were being considered for ministerial positions.
But not all are satisfied with the party’s decision to support the Sirleaf’s government. Tubman was chased by dozens of CDC supporters out of party headquarters after his decision to recognise the government, according to a Reuters report.
The CDC headquarters in Congo Town was desolate and empty on the day of the inauguration. About 20 people sat on benches beneath trees. Many of them spoke of their disappointment with their party and sense of betrayal.
Paul Garbo, a 29-year-old CDC supporter who sells shoes for a living, said he would no longer support the party.
“I feel hurt,” Garbo said. “They told us only two days before the inauguration. I don’t support them any more. It’s not good they are supporting the Unity Party because on November 7 they came and killed CDCians. They betrayed us.”
In November, thousands of supporters had gathered to demonstrate against alleged electoral fraud the day before the second round vote, in a protest that quickly became bloody when shots were fired by police, killing at least two CDC supporters.
Sirleaf won the second round vote by 90.7%, with a low voter turnout of 38%, as compared to the first round, which saw a 71.8% voter turnout and a narrower gap between the Unity Party and the CDC.
Sarta Kerta, a 39-year-old secretary, said she resented that CDC supporters were not consulted before the decision was made.
“They could have consulted partisans,” she said. “They should have come back to us and told us what they were going to do. You are our leaders, but you equally cheated us,” said Kerta referring to allegations of electoral fraud the CDC made against the Unity Party.
While some analysts applaud the CDC’s move as a step forward for Liberian democracy, they emphasise that there are many challenges now facing Sirleaf’s government.
“The decision offers prospects for building political coexistence between the opposition and the Unity Party,” said Dan Sayree, director of the Liberian Institute for Democracy in Monrovia. “It offers hope for Liberian democracy and political stability.”
But he added that Sirleaf needed to address some of the concerns of CDC supporters many of who feel they haven’t benefited from the nation’s development.
“Her focus on youth and whether this will take the form of legislation that can be handed on between governments or whether it will be a means for recruiting young people into the party remains to be seen,” Sayree said.
Sayree argues that expectation management will be one of Sirleaf’s toughest tasks as it was after she won the 2005 elections.
“One of the big challenges for the country and the government will be high expectations for jobs and where the $16 billion of [foreign] investment will go,” Sayree said. “If people do not feel like they are economically benefiting and getting jobs the people will agitate.”
Mark Naftalin, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, says Sirleaf’s challenges are similar to those she faced in the nation’s first postwar election in 2005, but says the expectations of her to be able to deliver on her promises to distribute development evenly and foster further economic growth are now much higher.
“Rather thank being judged by her ability to consolidate Liberia’s peace following the 2003-2005 transition period, in addition to post-conflict reconciliation (in which she has only been partially successful), she will be increasingly judged by her ability to provide long-term development for Liberia and Liberians,” Naftalin said. “This will be even more challenging than ‘simply’ consolidating the peace — particularly so if Liberia sees a dramatic decrease in foreign contributions to the government’s budget. (…) How Sirleaf manages this shift in the country’s changing post-conflict environment will be critical.”
While the inauguration may have played out peacefully, it is clear that Africa’s first female president faces many tough challenges heading into her second term, most importantly fulfilling the nation’s dream of being a land of liberty for all.