Liberia’s emerging democracy – political governance, 2017 Election and the youth bulge

Democracy is one of the most contested concepts in the world and gradually becoming the norm to ensure that the ‘choice’ and ‘preference’ of the majority is respected in political governance. Following 132 years of one party rule, ten years of military- semi democratic rule and countless transitional, factional as well as interim arrangements, Liberia adopted pluralistic democracy since 2006 thus putting an end to ad hoc governance processes. In an attempt to prevent a relapse to conflict, various interim arrangements were established to incorporate and accommodate different factions, opposition parties and leaders into the political theatre. The winner takes it all structure of Liberia’s political electoral system renders the process ‘a do or die’ endeavour. Aspirants campaign not on the basis of ideological principles but exploit the ignorance of the vulnerable populace. A country with a high illiterate population, politicians conveniently prey on the gullibility of the people and push for political marriages of convenience, like interim government, to satisfy their personal aggrandizement. Like in most post crisis settings, such political accommodation is seen as a way of mitigating and limiting real and potential violence. But the paradigm is shifting with the presidential and legislative elections in October 2017.

Democratic elections rather than factional government

Elections after wars pose unique challenges. With the cessation of Liberia civil war in 2003, the international community supported Liberia’s quest for electoral democracy by disarming, demobilizing, reintegrating both displaced population and warring factions, setting up an interim administration and most importantly setting up electoral system.

All these interventions led to the election of Africa’s first female president, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 and two subsequent democratic elections, which bolstered Liberia’s democratic credential. Compared to the manner in which leaders were chosen since Liberia gained independence in 1847, the 2006, 2011 and October 2017 elections clearly demonstrate adherence to democratic practices because the latter processes promote free political participation and competition. Yet having these processes in place are not the only sin qua non for democratic governance because the failure to appoint credible people to manage electoral process can also undermine the legitimacy of the process and create reasons for violence and chaos.

As we continue to see in the 2017 elections, there have been several allegations of elections irregularities and if the National Elections Commission (NEC) does not take swift actions to correct some of these claims, there is high possibility that weakness within NEC could potentially contribute to undermining its own credibility. It can be recalled that the current NEC boss has been embroiled in several malpractices. In 2014, Members of the House of Representatives summoned Chairman Jerome George Korkoya for allotting US$1. 9 million for car rental in the budget of October 14, 2014 Special Senatorial Election. The law makers said the decision by Korkoya was wasteful spending. Meanwhile in the same year, a senior member of NEC finance team alleged that NEC was in the practice of inflicting costs for almost every election related matter. Recently, it was also alleged that NEC recruited family members and friends to carry out CVE rather than using groups that have better understanding and experience of civil voter’s education process. When Cllr. Korkoya was accused in 2014 of misapplication of financial resources, he expressed his apology and took blame but he was never reprimanded. Again recently Cllr. Korkoyah extended apology for several blunders in the electoral process. As earlier stated, the legitimacy of NEC and efficiency can help to create a level playing field or create room for confusion and violence.

Election allows electorates to decide who they want to rule them and also provides a forum to discuss issues of importance to the nation. Indeed, Liberian 20 presidential aspirants and 986 representative candidates utilized every opportunity publically and privately to convince more than 2 million voters why they should be elected. The common theme for most opposition candidates focused on the weaknesses of the ruling government, which include the failure to curb corruption, bad road network, inadequate drugs at the hospitals, messy educational system, dual currency market, high taxation and poor economy policy, lack of policy that prioritizes and gives Liberians economic opportunities, nepotism, cronyism, high youth unemployment, low representation of women in politics, high cost of living, etc. In contrast, the incumbent vice president and standard-bearer of the ruling party is coerced to defend 12 years of Unity Party rule and the same time convince a disenchanted electorates why he should be elected. Vice President Joseph Boakai struggled to exemplify himself as credible leader with 40 years of experience in government and as somebody who cuts across the political divide because of his difficult upbringing –serving as janitor in high school to fund his education. His experience, despite liability inherited from the ruling party, resonances with what many Liberians are presently experiencing and therefore he sees himself as the best person to lead the nation; promising to unite the country and correct the wrongs of his boss.
During the debate, his key message was ‘think Liberia, love Liberia and build Liberia’

While the importance of elections in building and consolidating political governance is inevitable in pluralistic democracy, it is equally important to note that good elections are directly linked to the independence of the election Commission, the judicial system, a competitive media environment, the ability of civil society to be involved in public life and a political landscape that allows free expression of diverging views.

Contrary to popular opinion that it is difficult to unseat ruling establishment in Africa because elections are intended to entrench the ruling institution, in the Liberian context, the political discourse according to analyst is about “right hands” and “wrong hands”. Voters are not only divided but it is clear that elections are no more conduits to legitimize ‘strongmen’ and incumbent leaders. As the former president of the Republic of Congo, Pascal Lissouba, once said “one does not organize elections to end up on the losing side.” It implies that incumbent uses election to perpetuate their rule. However, the October 7, 2017 elections in Liberia signal a new dawn as we are seeing from all indication that democracy is now taking a new trend. Indeed, after more than a decade of Unity Party rule, the tie seems to be swinging with a former footballer and current lawmaker, George Weah trying to boot out the incumbent. Results shows that the ruling Unity Party (UP), candidate Vice-President Joseph Boakai received 28.8% in the first round while the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), represented by Ambassador George Weah got 38.4%. This suggests that elections are not merely window-dressing exercises aimed at legitimizing the status quo of the incumbent but way of exercising democratic franchise.

Furthermore, democracy also entails an understanding of its complex dynamics such as the need to evaluate and analyze the past, the present, and the protracted future. We are also witnessing that the Liberian electorates are no more contend with rhetorical claims by politicians but are looking at what candidates have done, will offer and capable of doing to improve their living standard.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) produced a comprehensive report highlighting critical issues that need to be considered to heal the wound Liberia suffers. Although the current leadership tackled some of the TRC’s recommendations, Madam Sirleaf admitted recently in her State of the Nation address that her government had failed to reconcile Liberians and corruption has proven difficult to fight because it is a “vampire”. What this means for young electorates that make up close to 70% of Liberia’s 4.5 million population?

Youth and Unemployment

As in most fragile states, traditional concepts of ‘employment’ as a singular state do not apply in Liberia. Instead, because of 14 years of brutal civil war, which deprived most young people of the chance of pursuing their dreams and ambitions, young people navigate complex livelihoods, earning income from multiple sources. The implications of the dilemma young people find themselves in are expressed through their voting preferences and choices. As most analysts note, youth unemployment are among the major causes of social and political disorder. While the issues of employment, unemployment, and/or underemployment underlined the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and most of what has come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’, resulting in Youth Uprisings and the toppling of Governments, it is said that “no society can survive for long if close to 20% or more of its youth, with lots of energy are unemployed. Similarly, it has also been stated that “no society can endure 25% youth unemployment rate for long, without inflicting serious long term damage.” Depending on who one speaks to, youth unemployment in Liberia is between 85% to 3.7%. Whether the 20,000 jobs promised by the current administration have been created is not my preoccupation but the nexus between vague promises and youth votes is a lesson for all aspirant leaders. It must eagerly be noted that while the issue of youth unemployment is crucial in terms of who they vote for, this issue remains a threat to our fragile peace and democracy because no degree of focus on employment and empowerment can by themselves result into any positive dividends, if these interventions are not tied in with and focus on Education and Training. With the nation’s educational system being a “mess”, it is no wonder that youth are looking for alternative even if their perceived choice is not capable of meeting their expectation.

Although the age difference between the two candidates could serve as pull factor, particularly in favour of George Weah, however most of Liberian youth are soccer fanatic hence gravitate to Mr. Weah who is a former, Africa best, European best and World best. The question is despite all the accolades and iconic status; does Senator George Weah have any existing investment in Liberia like other successful footballers in Africa? Does he have a history of creating jobs for youth? Is he tolerant, forgiving, a reconciler, patriotic and ready to think Liberia, build Liberia and love Liberia, if he becomes president? Is the current euphoria among the youth only out of nostalgia and the legacy of his success on the soccer pitch, decade ago?

Responses to these inquires will help us understand what is informing youth political choice. Be it as it may, it is however important to note that the youth in Liberia are not a homogeneous block. To the best of my knowledge, there is yet to be any comprehensive study that disaggregates youth for example on their proximity to violence and their different needs- in terms of sex, social status, physical and mental capability, geographical location: rural and urban, etc. The fact that youth constitutes a diverse segment of our population, some people in their mid-thirties and forties may still be in school and without jobs and therefore there is a need for any government that wins the pending election to critically look at the needs of this group in a much holistic way rather than the current focus on educated and semi educated youth. Undertaking a comprehensive research to understand which segment of the population is more prone to violence and formulating appropriate strategies will be essential in addressing Liberia’s youth problems and mitigating violence.

Today we see a large portion of Liberian youth supporting the CDC out of solidarity and feeling of being marginalized by Unity Party led government. However, the reality is neither Boakai nor Weah will be able to address the youth problems if there is no strong investment in important sectors, including health, education, the economy and good governance. While Liberia has made considerable gains since the civil war ended, the youth agenda is still confronted with deep challenges. It goes without saying that the youth need to be largely educated, healthy and productively employed and appropriate policies are put in place to support a sustained productive employment and investment potentials associated with the condition. Moreover, those youth, who are sometime called the “New youth” because of the complexity of their challenges example-no basic education, skills, drugs addicts, former child soldiers, Zogos, etc, will need more interventions and supports to improve their status or overcome certain hurdles. This is not to mention the common variances both in aspirations and needs according to gender, age, and disability, among other variables.

In other words, deficiencies in our youth agenda implies that whosoever wins will have to assert concrete effort and engage real time experts to tackle the youth issue because over a third of the 169 SDG targets highlight the role of young people and the importance of their empowerment, participation, and well-being.

*Jimmy Suah Shilue is the Director of Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP) & Chair CSO Consortium, National Resource Management (NRM) in Liberia.