President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) led by Winston Tubman appear to be engaged in serious negotiations about sharing cabinet positions and other government jobs. In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Saturday, President Johnson-Sirleaf spoke positively about the CDC: “We must build space, respect for the opposition.” The Liberian media is speculating that some officials from her own political party may need to step down to make room for opposition figures.
The contest between Johnson-Sirleaf and Winston Tubman was reminiscent of similar runoffs earlier this year in Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and now Congo. Tubman declared that the first round was marked by fraud, and he boycotted the second round, thereby ensuring that Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected by a substantial margin. With its long history of warlordism and civil war, there was the threat of serious post-election violence in Liberia and that progress toward democracy would unravel. But, there is still the possibility of sidestepping more violent options as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appears to be reaching out to an opposition that responds positively. So far there has been no return to the pervasive violence of the last two decades.
All is not sweetness and light in post-election Liberia. On Saturday a small group of youths, apparently CDC sympathizers, burned the Norwegian flag in front of the European Union diplomatic mission in Monrovia. (Norway has no diplomatic representation in Liberia.) The demonstrators said they were protesting the Nobel committee selection of Johnson-Sirleaf because Winston Tubman had done more for peace than she had. It is telling that the demonstrators did not denounce the November elections or her legitimacy as president. Johnson-Sirleaf’s information minister has called for the CDC to “distance themselves” from a series of threatening pamphlets now in circulation. In yet another sign of Johnson-Sirleaf’s extending of the olive branch, the information minister has stated that the pamphlets circulated in the name of the CDC were not approved by the opposition’s leadership. For now, at least, Liberia’s presidential election is contested through threatening pamphlets or burning flags – not killings. And that is a major political achievement for which both Tubman and Johnson-Sirleaf deserve credit.