When they voted in elections Liberians set a good example to the rest of the world over the Christmas holidays when elections which saw the country’s first peaceful handover of power in seventy years. My former BBC colleague Jon Silverman, now a university Professor, was invited to be an International Observer and was able to witness the polling at first hand as former football star George Weah was voted into office as the new President.
Here is Jon’s story:
Christmas in the heat and humidity of Liberia was not top of my wish list for 2017.
I had been to the West African republic once before as part of my academic research into war crimes justice, media and human rights but I had no plans to return. Out of the blue, an email arrived on December 15 inviting me to join an international mission as an observer for the second round of the presidential election on December 26. The invite came from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and the titular heads of the mission were the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, the ex-President of Kosovo and the foreign minister of Ghana. I was the only Briton in such august company.
Why was it so important for international observers to witness this election? Liberia went through a brutal civil war in the 1990s and there had not been a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another for more than 70 years. The potential for violence, even another fratricidal outbreak, could not be discounted if there were widespread allegations of fraud.
As a former consultant/mentor for a cohort of Liberian and Sierra Leonean reporters covering the war crimes trial of Charles Taylor in The Hague, I was fascinated to travel to some of the places which had featured in the evidence given in court.
There were 28 of us in the mission and I was deployed to the administrative region of Upper Bong, not far from the border with Guinea. Charles Taylor began his long march to power in this region and his then wife, Jewel Howard Taylor (running mate of the election winner, George Weah) has much tribal support here.
We travelled deep into the bush, through villages where massacres had taken place a generation ago. Our task was to observe and report on the polling procedures to ensure procedural fairness (no ballot stuffing or undue interference from party agents, for example) and transparency. Some of the voters walked for several hours from remote hamlets to cast their ballot.
One young woman, with a baby strapped to her waist, whispered to us : “I’m voting for his future”. Liberia is an overwhelmingly Christian country and Christmas is a time spent with family so, understandably, the turnout was considerably lower than for the first round in October. Surprisingly, the outgoing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, appeared to endorse her former party opponent, Weah, by calling for a “generational change” in Liberian politics.
Many young voters gave their support to the former star footballer. Thousands poured into the streets of Monrovia, the capital, when the result was formally announced, chanting Weah’s name and banging on the root of our vehicle as the driver attempted to force a way through to the airport road. The true winner, though, was democracy. The result was not challenged and the country remains at peace. It was a privilege to be a part of the process.
Why Peace In Liberia Is A Real Blessing.
I remember back in the 1990s when the very name Liberia was the watchword for everything that was wrong in Africa – it hosted a war of cruelty and horror for years, when child soldiers dressed in cartoon masks would shoot and kill civilians at random and rampaging soldiers would run through the streets amputating civilians hands and arms at will in a macabre display of bloodlust – As Jon’s report demonstrates those days are gone and Liberia’s young generation can look forward to brighter lives.
My friend Will Smith is a Harvard and Oxford University graduate who emigrated to Liberia to set up the Monrovian Football Academy. It hosts over a hundred children and gives them food and education in addition to football coaching.