Liberia’s First Election Since the Civil War: High Turnout and High Hopes

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Liberia holds its first elections since the end of the 14-year civil war two years ago, drawing 1.3 million voters. The first official results show former soccer player George Weah and former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the leading figures in the race. We speak with Liberian Emira Woods, of the Institute for Policy Studies, about voters’ hopes for the country’s future and challenges stemming from the past. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday, Liberia held its first elections since a 14-year civil war ended two years ago. Former professional soccer player George Weah and the Harvard trained former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, have emerged as the frontrunners among 22 candidates for the presidency. If Johnson-Sirleaf were to win she would become Africa’s first female president.

The first official election results taken from a fraction of polling stations declare Weah ahead in the race. He has 27.5% of the nearly 35,000 votes counted and Johnson-Sirleaf has 16.7%, according to the BBC. It may take several days until the full results are in from the 3,000 polling stations because there are few paved roads, no electrical grid and no nationwide telephone system in Liberia.

Modern Liberia was founded by freed slaves from the United States in 1822. Under the rule of former President Charles Taylor, Liberia was immersed in a long, brutal civil war and in conflict around the region. An estimated half-a-million Liberians fled into exile, another half-million were displaced inside the country and a quarter of a million died.

More than 1.3 million people registered to vote in this election, which represents the possibility of a more stable future for the country. Voters waited overnight and in the blaring sun in order to cast their ballots and international observers praised the process as free of violence or irregularities. On the way to casting their ballots, the two leading candidates expressed optimism about the future of their country.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the way to casting their ballots the two leading candidates expressed optimism about the future of their country.

GEORGE WEAH: Well, the election is not about my popularity. What you see on the outside is a true manifestation that the people are tired of being abused, being neglected, and they want a change. And in me, they see hope, they have confidence, and they know because of the love for them and the love for my country, I can bring about a change.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I’m so excited, because Liberian people are really ready to vote. It’s a wonderful feeling. They want to be a part of this historic event, and I think that Liberia is on the way to recovery, to renewal.

AMY GOODMAN: George Weah and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the two top candidates for Liberian presidency. Official results won’t be known for a few days. We’re joined now by Emira Woods. She is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. We’re broadcasting from Washington, D.C. Welcome, Emira Woods.

EMIRA WOODS: Thank you. Thanks for doing this segment, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you talk about the significance of the Liberian elections? You’re originally from Liberia?

EMIRA WOODS: Yes, and clearly this is a historic moment. After 23 years of conflict and coups and chaos, really, the Liberian people have an opportunity to finally participate again in a political process, to help decide the future of their country, so there is a tremendous exuberance throughout Monrovia, throughout the country really, with people trying to really be a part of the process, engaging in debates, engaging in helping to set the national priorities. There is an active press that’s been vibrant over the last few weeks. But really even beyond the press, there is an active citizenry with people debating in the marketplace, debating on the street corners, really putting forward what they see as the national priorities and which of the leaders they think can help put together an administration, put together the leadership to implement those priorities.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about the candidates. George Weah, many people may know as a famous soccer player. What about his run for the presidency?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, it has been really interesting. He has a tremendous following, particularly of young people. He is seen as someone who didn’t have a high level of education himself, but who can really reach out to the former child soldiers, to those who felt themselves pushed out of opportunities, whether it’s educational opportunities or job opportunities, so there is a real sense that he is one of the people, in spite of his tremendous fame and fortune. So he has a tremendous following, particularly within the youth, which is a dominant proportion of the population right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf?

EMIRA WOODS: She is a Harvard-trained economist. She was at the World Bank and the UN, is seen as a technocrat with a lot of contacts in the international community. She is someone who ran in the elections in 1997 against Charles Taylor and has been a part of the Liberia political scene for quite some time. She was Finance Minister under Doe and has really been a part of the process for a very long time. She has a tremendous following, particularly among women throughout the country and is seen as someone who has helped galvanize women in the electorate and is seen as potentially a way to put forward a different voice, a different leadership for Liberia.

AMY GOODMAN: She would be the first female president of an African country. Can you talk about the significance of that, an emerging female leadership in Africa?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, this is an interesting question. She would be the first sitting president. There was an interim president, Ruth Perry, a few years back, but just for a very short time. If she were to emerge as the leader, and we have to say there are still many, many days to go before the official results are out, and there may well be a run-off election between the top two candidates. So we may not know until early November who actually emerges as the leader.

But if Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf were to be the leader, she would be one of many emerging women leaders throughout the African continent. We have to recognize the African Union, newly formed, has the head of its Commission for Africa, a woman, Gertrude Mongella. We have to also recognize that there is new leadership emerging. The Pan-African Parliament, for example, has tremendous leadership from women. If you look at the parliamentary members from many countries: Rwanda, 50% of the members of Parliament are women; South Africa, it’s about 30% that are women. If you look throughout the continent, many, many countries, from to Mozambique to Uganda, have high levels of women’s participation in the political processes. So you see new openings emerging for women leaders.

It is mandated in certain cases. The African Union said that going to the Pan-African Parliament there must be at least two women represented in each of the delegations. Many of the delegations in the Pan-African Parliament have, in fact, three, four or even five women in certain cases. So, you see a new opening. And if you compare many of the parliaments even to the U.S., clearly there is tremendous support for women candidacy, women’s leadership in political processes, that is setting forward a new way for Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: And even in some constitutions, doesn’t it require participation of women in leadership positions?

EMIRA WOODS: You can see both the Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, many of the new constitutions have specific affirmative action clauses that encourage women’s leadership in the political process. So this is often a story, I’m so glad you asked this, because it’s often a story that goes untold when it comes to Africa. But I think it is an important story, when you think about the future political development and the changing political landscape of the continent.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Emira Woods, who is with the Institute for Policy Studies, herself born in Liberia. Liberia, a country of freed slaves. Tell us the history and also the involvement of the United States, the Firestone Company.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, once again, thank you for asking these questions. They’re right on target. If you look at the history of Liberia, the one correction I would say is that Liberia was founded, yes, by the American Colonization Society, but it was a compilation of people who came from America, from the Caribbean and from other African countries that founded Liberia in the 1820s. And if you look at the history of Liberia, clearly America has had a critical role to play since its founding. Of course, we know the capital city, named after James Monroe, the U.S. Speaker of the House, also played a critical role in the 1800s in the founding of Liberia.

But since then, American companies have continued to have their influence in Liberia. 1922 the Firestone Rubber Company went in and set up plantations in Liberia. And you see from 1922 to today not only the exploitation of the rubber, the extraction of Liberia’s vital resources, for pennies. In the 1920s, it was six cents per acre that Firestone paid for extraction of the rubber.

A new agreement has recently been signed, just a few months back with the pushing and pressuring from the U.S. ambassador in Liberia, where Firestone extended its lease agreement with Liberia for a further 37 years. So, the Firestone Company, which is essentially running a plantation, exploiting labor, exploiting particularly child labor, continues to have its way, extracting the resources for minimal amounts, putting the rubber on a ship and sending it off to Indiana, essentially, without helping to bring about development in Liberia.

The Mattel Steel Company, another American company, has recently signed a contract again with this interim government using the space of the transitional period to go in to sign new contracts that further exploit the Liberian people. So the richness of the country, whether it’s the iron ore, or the rubber, the gold, the diamonds have really been extracted for pennies, essentially, throughout history now of Liberia, and really no benefits coming to the Liberian people.

If you look at the conditions — I just came back this past August — you know, no running water, no electricity, no functioning school systems or health care systems. I mean, total breakdown of the infrastructure because of this 23 years of coups and conflicts. There is so much that is needed to help benefit the condition of people’s lives in Liberia. Clearly there should be greater corporate accountability and responsibility, and the U.S. could play a critical role.

The other issue that is relevant for Liberia today is the question of Liberia’s debt. Liberia owes $3 billion to the international community. It is a debt that is hanging like, you know, the shield over the necks of the Liberian peoples. And clearly, with all of the enthusiasm for debt cancellation from the G-8 meeting to the World Bank and the IMF meetings this September, why is it that Liberia is left off the table? Why is it that these countries where the debt was accrued under dictators, under corrupt leadership, have to still bare the burden of that debt now and into the future? These are the questions that really need to be tackled, were we to think about not only a stable and secure path, but a firm economic footing for Liberia’s future.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Emira Woods, I want to thank you for being with us, and we will certainly continue to follow Liberia and also what happens in the presidential election.

EMIRA WOODS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Emira Woods is with the Institute for Policy Studies.

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