History Casts a Long Shadow Over Liberia’s Democracy
from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy, Africa Program, and Preparing for Leadership Transitions in Africa

History Casts a Long Shadow Over Liberia’s Democracy

Liberian voters search for their name on electoral lists before they cast their votes during Liberia's presidential election in Monrovia, Liberia on October 10, 2023.
Liberian voters search for their name on electoral lists before they cast their votes during Liberia's presidential election in Monrovia, Liberia on October 10, 2023. Carielle Doe/REUTERS

As Liberia heads to a closely contested runoff election, the possibilities are decidedly limited. 

November 13, 2023 1:56 pm (EST)

Liberian voters search for their name on electoral lists before they cast their votes during Liberia's presidential election in Monrovia, Liberia on October 10, 2023.
Liberian voters search for their name on electoral lists before they cast their votes during Liberia's presidential election in Monrovia, Liberia on October 10, 2023. Carielle Doe/REUTERS
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Liberians headed to the polls last month to vote in their country’s general elections, and they will be returning on November 14 to decide the presidential runoff. With about 5.2 million people, Liberia is both very young—the median age is 18—and very urban (just over half of Liberians live in urban centers). One might expect the country’s political discourse to focus on the future. Young, urban populations in other African contexts tend to drive an almost insatiable demand for change, as they call for more job creation, educational opportunities, and affordable housing. Yet the leading contenders for the presidency—incumbent President George Weah and former Vice President Joseph Boakai—are the same two candidates that vied for the office in the last election, generating little in the way of new ideas. Beyond the personalities, Liberian politics often convey a constrained, muted sense of possibility, because few places have seen their contemporary politics shaped, and in some ways distorted, by the long shadow of history more than Liberia.

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A few months ago, I spoke with a number of young, politically active Liberians in Monrovia about their country’s political and generational divides, and I was struck by how often my interlocutors referenced “normal days.” “Normal days” refers to the period of Liberian history before the civil war that displaced half of the population and killed between 150,000 and 250,000 Liberians. It encompasses the era of Americo-Liberian dominance that began at independence in 1847, collapsed with a 1980 coup d’état, and deteriorated further during the period in which junta leader Master Sergeant Samuel Doe—who was elected to the presidency in the dubious polls of 1985—was in charge. “Normal days” definitively ended with the outbreak of civil war in 1989.

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Distorted nostalgia and collective trauma have stunted political discourse. Young people are constantly being reminded that they don’t understand how things are supposed to work, because they never experienced “normal days.” After all, the country has yet to recover from its staggering losses. Infrastructure, from power plants to roads, was destroyed, and education totally disrupted. The bottom fell out of the economy. As Steve Radelet found, “by the time of the elections in 2005, average income in Liberia was just one quarter of what it had been in 1987, and just one sixth of its level in 1979.” Today, the country ranks 147th out of 150 in the “basic human needs” category of the Youth Progress Index, reflecting the difficulty of accessing adequate nutrition, water, healthcare, and shelter. The road to recovery has been arduous and slow.

Many Liberians I spoke with felt that the generation that never knew “normal days” is too easily politically satisfied, having grown accustomed to a very short-term, transactional political model characterized by a healthy dose of cynicism and little investment in the future. Election years present a one-off opportunity to extract material favors from the political class in exchange for support at the ballot box, with little expectation for significant change in voters’ circumstances beyond that. This ephemeral moment builds neither a sense of responsibility on the part of electoral victors, nor a sense of loyalty among voters. Indeed, there appears to be little advantage to incumbency for legislators in Liberia, who are regularly limited by voters to a single term. The episodic, limited gains offered by this political model represent a ready contrast with the “normal days” of popular imagination.

Yet at the same time, many thoughtful Liberians are frustrated by the reminiscing about “normal days” and ahistorical romanticizing of a period of Liberian history in which a small elite flourished and a large majority of indigenous Liberians were neglected. The governing model was so unjust as to be totally unsustainable, leading to a popular uprising in the 1979 rice riots and the fragility that created the context for Doe’s coup d’état, after which a different flavor of ethnic politics and economic mismanagement began to eat away at the integrity of the state. Invoking history is unlikely to provide much of a blueprint for the future. 

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In other circumstances, the persistent suggestion that current conditions are abnormal—that the way things are is not the way they are supposed to be—could be galvanizing, especially as young Liberians digest media content from around the world, where economic development and opportunity are in more plentiful supply. It suggests that Liberians could be demanding more from their leaders, lifting their aspirations for the country, and imagining a future more just and equitable than the past and the present. But dissatisfaction with these seemingly endless abnormal days coexists with another historical shadow—that of the terrible civil wars that brought the country to its knees from 1989 to 2003.

The Liberians voting for the first time in the 2023 election don’t have memories of the fighting, although their early childhoods were shaped by the immediate aftermath of the country’s collective trauma. But they have heard, throughout their lives, a constant mantra about how very important it is to “consolidate the peace.” There is no question that peace is essential for the country to achieve any positive trajectory. But for Liberians, thus far consolidating the peace means accepting that many architects and perpetrators of the brutal violence the country experienced will never be held accountable for their crimes. Both of Liberia’s elected post-war presidents have declined to champion calls for a war crimes court while in office, warning that it could destabilize the country and distract from the development agenda. Some prominent figures from the conflict, including former warlord Prince Johnson, remain politically active and influential.  

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Consolidating the peace might, in some quarters, be understood to mean that accountability, even for more recent and less violent transgressions, is too dangerous to pursue with rigor. Indeed, Liberia’s record on upholding the rule of law and fighting corruption is lackluster at best. Shipping containers of cash have allegedly gone missing from the county’s port, and alleged cocaine smugglers have been mysteriously acquitted by courts despite copious evidence of their guilt. In 2022, the United States sanctioned three senior Liberian officials for their involvement in corruption. But while they lost their government jobs, they have not been prosecuted in Liberia.  One of them, Nathanial McGill, ran for a senate seat in the 2023 election and won.

Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that trust in government is in short supply.  Polling shows that Liberians distrust their governing leaders and institutions, reserving confidence only for the military and for religious leaders. Over 75 percent of urban Liberians believe that a citizen reporting corruption risks retaliation or negative consequences for speaking out. This helps explain some Liberian oddities, like the rather strange spectacle of Liberians appealing not to their elected leaders, or their legal authorities, but rather writing to the U.S. ambassador, demanding that corrupt Liberian officials be exposed and subject to consequences for their actions. 

If accountability is only found through external powers, and calling out injustice is dangerous, it’s no wonder that political agency feels elusive. Trying to move forward politically in a country with very low levels of social trust, in which accountability can be framed as a destabilizing concept and is often outsourced to external powers, is an awfully tall order. Polling has found that some 70 percent of the youngest politically enfranchised Liberians (ages eighteen to twenty-five) think their country is moving in the wrong direction. Liberian politics seem to walk a tightrope between a manifest dissatisfaction with the present and an overarching emphasis on avoiding the violence of the past, with outcomes that promise little for the future. 

Yet paradoxically, young people are the deciding factor in Liberian electoral politics. The incumbent president, George Weah, owed his 2017 victory to first-time voters, the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old Liberians who remember very little of the war and certainly have no experience of “normal days.” They found his personal rags-to-riches story, and his global success on the soccer pitch, irresistibly compelling; his very persona is inextricably linked with material success. Young voters were also far less inclined to search for the “safe pair of hands” than voters in previous elections had been. Criticisms of Weah’s lack of relevant experience and policy chops were dismissed with the rhetorical question, “Da book we’ll eat?” indicating that young Liberians were skeptical of technocrats in government. These voters sought leadership that could change their immediate material circumstances, and Weah’s main opponent, Joseph Boakai, who served as vice president in the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, represented technocratic continuity.  

Because Liberia was founded by Black Americans in the 1800s, who modeled many state institutions on American ones of that period (and replicated some American social injustices of the era as well), and because a large and politically outspoken diaspora community resides in the United States, the United States looms unusually large in the Liberian consciousness. But for policymakers in Washington, Liberia is often an afterthought. In the past two decades, Liberia has gone from a front-burner crisis that merited a brief 2003 Marine deployment to stave off further fighting in Monrovia, to a 2014 venue for combating Ebola lest it spread more widely, to a rarely discussed development partner today. Many Americans see Liberia through the lens of those past emergencies, and while concerned about corruption, sigh a sense of relief that nothing so dire is on the horizon in Liberia today. 

But that means that Washington’s thinking, too, risks being distorted by the past. When the United States stresses the importance of “consolidating the peace” in Liberia, young people with no lived experience of the war may hear a message suggesting that external actors believe their desperation and frustration are a reasonable price to pay to avoid armed conflict. When Washington rightly emphasizes the importance of free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections, it could be understood to mean that a technically clean exercise that delivers no real change in how governance works is reason to celebrate. In the worst case, this emphasis can make the United States seem oblivious to Liberian needs. At best, it is uninspiring. Liberia is not at war and leaders are chosen at the ballot box. But this is not enough.

It is clear that the administration is aware that all is not well in Liberia. The most recent U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, demonstrated a sense of urgency and alarm during his tenure in the country, speaking out about corruption and Liberian officials’ failure to prioritize citizens’ needs. In addition to the Magnitsky sanctions deployed in 2022, the State Department recently announced visa restrictions for Liberians undermining the country’s democracy. These steps all make good sense, but are unlikely to change the political landscape.

In a region beset by coups d’état and terrorist threats, it’s unsurprising that Liberia is not at the top of its external partner’s priority list. But Washington should take note, because the country—so closely associated with the United States—illustrates one of the many ways that democracy is struggling in the region. Liberians are resolutely committed to democratic governance, but in the absence of a rule of law that applies to the powerful and powerless alike, the regular elections they hold are unlikely to deliver much in the way of transformational change. Liberia going on like this indefinitely will suggest that citizen’s faith in democratic governance is misplaced. Liberia’s young people cannot be expected to satisfy themselves with transactional politics constrained by the past that do not change their prospects for the future.

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