Liberia Holds a Free Election. Make That ‘Free-for-All.’
But any resemblance to American presidential elections ends there.
Liberian democracy means daily traffic jams caused by thousands of people marching through the streets chanting campaign slogans. “Our ma spoil it, our pa will fix it,” is the curious offering of some supporters of the ruling Unity Party. The “ma” in this case is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now feuding with her vice president, Joseph Boakai — he would be the “pa” — over sundry misdeeds.
Liberian democracy means having a chance to leave rural villages and partake in the nightly parties.
“I am here to show that Oppong is qualified to be the next leader of Africa,” announced a cheerful Morris Dwah, referring to Mr. Weah, whom Liberians routinely call by his nom de soccer. Mr. Dwah said he had traveled for two days from Nimba to take part in the festivities.
This battle over which of 20 registered candidates will succeed Ms. Sirleaf, the first woman in Africa to be democratically chosen as president, often resembles a roof-raising party — but it also sometimes seems to be just on the edge of requiring a phone call to the police.
Fights between supporters of Mr. Weah and Mr. Boakai break out routinely; in Kakata last month several people were hospitalized after one fracas. Supporters stage impromptu daily marches, banging on the windows of cars in their way. And the memory of the country’s 14-year civil war, which came complete with child soldiers and rebel fighters wearing wedding gowns and blond wigs, hangs over it all.
In a radio broadcast at the beginning of the campaign season, Ms. Sirleaf urged her would-be successors to keep a lid on things. “We hold them as political leaders who seek the highest office of our land to act with dignity and responsibility that befits that office — to live up to their commitments to ensure violence-free elections,” she said.
But a quick perusal of those potential successors shows that may be easier said than done. Mr. Weah’s vice-presidential running mate is Mr. Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who told reporters last month that although her ex-husband isn’t involved in Liberian politics any longer — he is locked up in a British prison for war crimes — he still has promises that need to be kept. She called for putting Mr. Taylor’s agenda “back on the table.”
Her remarks so alarmed European Union officials in Monrovia that they put out a statement reminding Liberians that Mr. Taylor, who resigned as president in 2003, is in the fifth year of a 50-year prison sentence, and that it is not going to be “overruled because of a change of president in Liberia.” The statement noted that a condition of Mr. Taylor’s sentence is that “he does not attempt to interfere in Liberian politics, and this is monitored closely by prison authorities.”
Also running for president is Prince Johnson, one of the former warlords roaming around town. Mr. Johnson, the standard-bearer of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction, is best known for ordering the killing of President Samuel K. Doe back at the start of the Liberian civil war in which a quarter-million people died.
Back in 1990, Mr. Johnson sipped a beer while ordering his youthful forces to cut off Mr. Doe’s ears; the video is widely available on the internet. But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Johnson’s political progress — he was elected senator from Nimba County in 2005, and came in third when he ran for president in 2011.
Mr. Johnson does not like Mr. Weah, whom he recently called a “drunk” in a radio interview. “His men have gone on rampage injuring people here and there,” complained the former warlord of the former soccer player. “If this guy is elected as president of Liberia, I see the country going back to war.”
Mr. Johnson recently split from an alliance with another candidate, Benoni Urey, who is, yes, another former Taylor ally. Mr. Urey is believed to be the richest man in Liberia — or at least he was, before he started his run for president and had to spend his some of his money.
Mr. Urey, of the All Liberian Party, flirted with a merger with Mr. Johnson back in April, but that quickly broke up over quarrels about who would be at the top of the ticket. Mr. Johnson told reporters that Mr. Urey “may have money, but I have the numbers.” Mr. Urey, he said, should act like Mr. Taylor’s former wife, who “humbled herself to go under Weah.”
Mr. Urey was a close adviser to Mr. Taylor, and spent a decade on a United Nations travel ban list and a United States Treasury Department list that prohibited him from doing business with Americans. United States officials say his ties to Mr. Taylor mean that it is unlikely they would grant him a visa, which could be problematic should he become president.
Then there are Charles Brumskine, a lawyer and perennial presidential candidate, and Alex Cummings, a dark horse former Coca-Cola executive who has raced in recent weeks to catch up with the usual names. Mr. Cummings heads the Alternative National Congress party. He spent decades living and working overseas, but has apparently regained his Liberian accent and has made a big impact on the political scene since his return.
Unlike his opponents, Mr. Cummings is holding off on his own “launching” party until Saturday, just before such events are shut down, in the hopes of staging a big show of support before voters head to the polls. That political maneuver promptly spurred other parties to schedule additional parties, so this weekend is expected to be gridlock in Monrovia.
Mr. Weah’s ex-girlfriend is also running for president.
A model turned philanthropist, MacDella Cooper was once called a “serial husband stealer” in The New York Post’s Page Six column. Back during the salad days of their relationship, Ms. Cooper and Mr. Weah traveled together to Monte Carlo and Mexico. In 2014, she told The Post that Mr. Weah was the father of her third child, and that she was a future Liberian first lady. But things went downhill, as they sometimes do, and now Ms. Cooper is running against her former beau as the candidate of the Liberia Restoration Party.
She is the only woman at the top of a ticket. Ms. Cooper told journalists last weekend that Ms. Sirleaf’s recent statement that it was time for “generational change” in Liberia was, as far as Ms. Cooper was concerned, a “clear endorsement for me, the only female candidate in the ensuing presidential race, because I am the youngest contender among the men.”
She is 40.
Finally, there is Ms. Sirleaf’s vice president, Mr. Boakai, who at the moment is involved in a spat with the president under whom he has served for 12 years. She is mad because of slogans like “our ma spoil it, our pa will fix it.” He is mad because Mrs. Sirleaf said that she was not going to hand him the presidency, and that he would have to work for it.
Whatever the case, the president has not been out campaigning for him, and there are whispers that she is flirting with Mr. Brumskine, with Mr. Cummings, even with Mr. Weah, whom she beat twice.
Such is democracy in Liberia. No one expects anyone to get over 50 percent on Tuesday, so there will probably be a runoff election, and the top two candidates will battle each other.