Liberia's 2017 election will see 2.1 million Liberians heading to the polls as the country says goodbye to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Liberia is a small country of over 4 million people. It is the oldest state on the continent, but is probably better known for its brutal civil wars that left hundreds of thousands dead from the late 1980s until the early 2000s.
Today, after over a decade of relative stability, but with a struggling economy to contend with, Sirleaf’s successor will inherit a country that’s in a healthier position than any time in recent memory. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first leader of the country following 14 years of civil war.
Plagued by rampant corruption, with a shell of an economy which owed almost USD5 billion to various creditors, Sirleaf had her work cut out for her.
A Harvard-trained economist, many biographers have noted her Januslike ability to find the appropriate face for a given audience. Her peaceful tenure has as much to do with her ability to pacify and stamp out dissent among local leaders as it does charming the international donor community in vernaculars both parties can understand.
At the same time, the country is still suffering from lack of development, only 2% of the country has electricity. It ranks 177th out of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index.
She oversaw steady GDP growth for the best part of a decade, but in 2014 the country was hit by the double whammy of the Ebola outbreak and low commodity prices. Today, its economy is 20 times smaller than neighboring Ghana and nearly 200 times smaller than that of Nigeria’s economy.
This issue is unsurprisingly at the top of the agenda as the country struggles to recover. Many wary commentators point to the fact that half of the government’s USD1 billion budget comes from donors, the largest of which is the US.
High-level corruption has also become a hot issue under Sirleaf. She has been widely criticized for giving senior government positions to members of her family, and a plethora of graft scandals have graced the news headlines over the past few years. There are 20 candidates in the election, almost all of which promise similar-sounding solutions to these problems, making it a tough choice for electorate.
The most likely candidate is the enigmatic former-footballer George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) who intends to add president to impressive resume. This is the second time he has applied for the post.
He is lionized by many after winning the Ballon d’Or, one of football’s top individual honors, in 1995, when Liberia was in the midst of its fierce civil war. He has won over strong support, particularly the young people in the capital of Monrovia.
However, his running mate is Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of the warlord and former president Charles Taylor, currently serving a 50-year sentence in Durham prison in the UK.
The representative from the ruling Unity Party is the unassuming Vice President Joseph Boakai, who interestingly hasn’t been endorsed by Sirleaf, much to his bemusement. Boakai’s election pledges have centered on road infrastructure, but otherwise his platform differs little from the common election themes of stamping out corruption, financing infrastructure, and supporting agriculture.
Two other candidates in the running are MacDella Cooper, a former social worker who has made a strong impression by saying that if she becomes president she will take a salary of USD1 for the whole year.
Although policy has not featured prominently in the public discourse, hope can be found in the televised debates that have forced candidates to articulate their platforms and invite public scrutiny.
Almost all candidates continue to echo the gospel of economic revitalization, promising reform and responsible governance.
However, Sirleaf did little to bring perpetrators of crimes in the civil war to justice, and human rights organizations are naturally pessimistic that any prospective administrations will do anything to address the lack of accountability for war crimes, the harsh libel laws, or the culture of impunity for rapists in the country.
Discouraging economic forecasts for the country represent the biggest threat peace, and it remains difficult to predict whether the election results will express a vote for continuity or for change.