TCS Daily

Liberia: From Barbarity to Hope

By Richard S. Williamson - November 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Liberia, like too many other African countries, has gone through a long period of violence, mayhem and tragedy. But last month, Liberia held its first free and fair election, which offers the people an opportunity to leave their grisly nightmare behind and begin their long, difficult path to building a substantial peace where good governance, transparency and accountability supplant cronyism, deception and graft.

As an international election observer to this Liberian vote, I was inspired to see the hope of Liberians casting their votes for a brighter future.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in 1847. Liberia continues to be divided by the Americo-Liberian minority comprising only 5% of the people and the overwhelming majority of indigenous Liberians that come from 16 different ethnic groups. For over a century, Liberia was dominated by the Americo-Liberian True Whig Party that directed Liberian politics from 1871 to 1980.

In April, 1980, indigenous Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe seized power in a coup d'etat in which President Talbert was butchered in cold blood and 13 ministers were stripped to their underwear, staked to posts on the beach and executed.

A civil crisis flared up and the ensuing 25 years of conflict have led to senseless violence, four transitional governments, and a non-functioning state apparatus.

One observer described the past quarter century in Liberia as a period of "public executions on the beach, drug crazed young thugs terrorizing citizens at roadblocks, rampant theft of national resources, corruption, nepotism, abuse of human rights, tribalism, blood diamonds and warlords."

Many indigenous Liberians believe in a spiritual world of unseen forces and the visible world of everyday life. In war, when killing occurred, the victor could take on the power of his enemy by ingesting part of his body, his heart or liver, and thus his spirit. During periods of intense violence in Liberia there were regular reports of "ritual killings." Witchdoctors were reported to have scrutinized potential victims prior to ripping their living hearts out of their bodies. Then the person who "commissioned" the deed consumed the heart in whole or in part to gain the power of the victim and to intimidate others.

During this past quarter century the quality of life grew more bleak. Competent civil administration and the rule of law disappeared. The infrastructure deteriorated, the economy collapsed and, today, most of Liberia has no electricity, no running water and no public health services.

Liberia's life expectancy is 47 years. Illiteracy is near 85%. Unemployment in the formal sector is over 70%.

Liberia's last authoritarian leader was the warlord Charles Taylor who not only terrorized his own country but supported rebel activities in the neighboring states of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. For his misdeeds in Sierra Leone he was indicted by a U.N. sponsored Special Court on 17 counts of "crimes against humanity." Facing rebel advances at home and growing international pressure to account for his crimes, Taylor fled Liberia for asylum in Nigeria in August, 2003.

For over two years the international community through the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has worked to keep peace and support a transitional government in preparations for elections.

Stability in West Africa and the quality of life in Liberia depended on a free and fair election.

The specter of Charles Taylor and the threat of violence hang in the air. As one observer said to me days before the vote, "Many worry about Charles Taylor, but few dare mention his name."

In the run up to election day there were many unanswered questions. Would there be violence? Would the turnout be large enough to give the election legitimacy? Would the mechanical burdens be met for the 10% of polling stations so remote that no cars nor even helicopters could reach them and ballots would be delivered and later retrieved by porters walking four days through the jungle? Would the ballot boxes be secure and would every vote by counted? Would the losers accept the results?

The hopes of many Liberians were captured in Yomitown, a small village of mud huts with 143 voters. In the middle of Yomitown, the villagers came together to build a Palaber Hut, a round structure with a thatched roof and open sides. They built it to be their polling station for election day. It was a source of pride. The chance to vote was a reason for hope.

As Steve McClein, a Liberian policeman told me when I visited the Peynesville Town Hall Center in the outskirts of Monrovia, "We've had a long conflict. We don't want it to happen again. We want peace. Our new president must unify the people by going to their aid: healthcare, education, salaries and roads. This is our dream, to have a new day."

Or, as Bishop David Daniels of the Liberian National Methodist Episcopalian Church told me just before the vote, "Guns will not free you. Lay down guns and go to school. That is the only answer. This election brings hope. The time for hope is now."

By the time polling stations opened there were long lines waiting to vote, some having arrived at two and three in the morning to be among the first to cast their ballots.

Fahnguor Rogers got in line at 5:45 a.m. He told me that he wanted government transparency so the new government would not be corrupt like all the others he had known. And he wanted "education and training for the young people, especially the former child soldiers who hang around with nothing to do and no skills but killing."

In Harbel town the lead election official was Thomas Howard, a 34 year old with four children ages 19, 14, 9 and 2 ½. He told me, "I hope our new President brings real education where people can learn to read."

At a polling site in the Monrovia Free Pentecostal School, Samuel Goweh, 38, told me, "A good result (in the election) will leave us a peaceful country and move us forward. The ex-combatants need to be sent to school, retrained and become useful citizens. We need water, electricity and education."

Prince Jacob, a Nigerian soldier serving as a U.N. Peacekeeper in Liberia who had served in Rwanda after the genocide there, told me, "Even though the genocide in Rwanda was large, Rwanda was a short war. So it was easier to reintegrate (ex-combatants), In Liberia it was a long war. Here it is harder to integrate."

Sumuwoo Harris, a Lutheran minister, said to me, "The warlords like the young people. They only are taught to do violence. They do not have any skills. They are disgruntled people. The politicians have played upon the disgruntled to give themselves power. That must end. We must re-establish institutions to help the youth get out of the streets. They need education. They need training. We must give this to them or they will remain disgruntled to be played upon and used."

About the election, Minister Harris went on to say, "The people who do not win are not losers. They should be partners. ...It is not the responsibility of one person to deliver this country. We need unity to rebuild this country. The task is monumental. It will be a difficult and long road forward. It will take cooperation and it will take patience."

The Liberian people, traumatized by 25 years of turmoil, conflict and violence went to the polls in large numbers: casting their votes. Liberians gave voice to their hopes and dreams by engaging in the first "free and fair" election in their nation's history.

I was encouraged by the thoughtful comments of Julliet Cooper, a 22 year old poll watcher at the Wells-Hairton School in Monrovia. I asked her what she thought would come from the vote. She told me, "There is a lot of work for the new President. He must bring water. He must bring light, electricity, roads. ...The expectations of the Liberian people are very high so he will have to work fast. In 6 months they expect something. After 6 months there will be a lot of noise." But, she said, "the Liberian mind is mature. If the results are not there in 6 or 12 months, the president will have to explain. He will have to keep the people informed on what progress is being made." That sounds like the prescription for any healthy democracy anywhere in the world. Only time will tell whether the roots of sustainable democracy are taking hold in Liberia.

As Tom Gbrngbara told me, his hope is that this election will "end the nightmare once and for all."

Liberians went to vote in large numbers. Liberian political parties, civil society and international observers all declared the voting "free and fair." In a few weeks the two leading presidential contenders, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George Weah, will have a run off election. And then the new president must seize the opportunity to form an inclusive government that will work for the Liberian people and not primarily to enrich themselves as so many that have done before.

Democracy is not just voting. It is a process. As Sumnwoo Harris told me days before the election, "People who do not win are not losers. They should be partners. It is not the responsibility of one person to deliver the country. We need unity to rebuild the country."

The voters are selecting their new leader. The democratic process provides a legitimacy for the new Liberian president to unify the country and lead. For the sake of the people who have been traumatized by war, live in desperate conditions with no running water, no electricity and few jobs, hopefully the new President will begin to rebuild Liberia's torn society.

That is the hope and that is the opportunity of Liberia's first free and fair elections.

The author served as Ambassador and Alternate Representative to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs, 2002-2003.



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