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Who will succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

Martina Schwikowski
October 10, 2017

Liberians are voting to elect a successor for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The peace Nobelist is stepping down after 12 years in office. The vote is seen as a crucial test for the country’s democracy.

Election campaign propaganda showing candidate George Weah and his running mate Jewel Taylor
Image: Reuters/T. Gouegnon

Colorful placards cover the walls of Liberia's capital Monrovia. All throughout the election campaign, supporters of the various candidates flocked to the streets to take part in demonstrations. 2.1 million Liberians are casting their vote for a new president in the third election since the end of the civil war in 2003.

The poll is a turning point in Liberia's history. After 12 years at the helm, Africa's first democratically elected female president and Nobel Peace laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will not be running for office again. The country's constitution does not allow for another term.

Enthusiastic campaigning

The presidency of the small West African country was hotly contested. Emotions ran high. "Compared to previous elections, the situation is calm. But the election campaign was very energetic," said observer Christopher Fomunyoh from the National Democratic Institute based in Washington, DC. "Liberians hope that these elections will bring on historic change and cement democracy in their country," he added.

Lieberian Vice President Jospeh Boakai on the red carpet of the White House in Washington
President Johnson Sirleaf dod not support the campaign of Vice President Joseph BoakaiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Rynolds

The 20 presidential candidates often made the same promises: more jobs, fomenting the economy and expanding the education sector. The list of candidates is very colorful. There is a former football star, a feared ex-warlord and rich businessmen. Vice President Joseph Boakai of the governing Unity Party (UP) has the advantages of experience in government. But at 72 he is no longer the youngest. Originally, President Johnson Sirleaf had promised to support him. But she failed to turn up to his campaign events. Observers believe there is an internal party conflict. Boakai rejects all speculations: "Our party is united, possibly without the involvement of the president, but that doesn't mean our party is not united. She and I have worked together very well."

The promise of more jobs

In an interview, Boakai extolled the country's development in the last couple of years, though he admitted there was room for improvement. He was especially critical about the lack of roads and infrastructurein the 170 year-old country. It was not possible to strengthen the economy without infrastructure, he added. The vice president promises to create more jobs, further conciliate ethnic groups and improve health services. Talking to DW, he also said that under his presidency, corruption in Liberia would be a thing of the past.   

Another candidate who promises to tackle corruption is George Weah, of the main opposition party Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC).

Candidate George Weah campaigning
Former football star George Weah is running again Image: Getty Images

The 51-year-old former football star and member of parliament lost out to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005. Many Liberians believe that the presidency was stolen from him then. Weah won the first voting round, but lost the run-off. He hasn't been able leave a mark on politics since. He also failed to profit from growing popular discontent with the president, whom many Liberians accuse of not having done enough to fight corruption. 

Only Weah's decision to ally himself with Jewel Taylor caused some excitement around his campaign. The senator from Bong county is the ex-wife of former president Charles Taylor, who carries primary responsibility for the civil war in Liberia and in neighboring Sierra Leone. In 2012 a special court sentenced him to 50 years in prison for his role in the conflict. George Weah denied that his alliance with Taylor's ex-wife was a mistake. "It was a good idea," he told DW. "She is a hard-working woman.  She has the qualification, she is capable. I believe in gender equality. And to have a woman as vice president is a good thing." Weah stressed that everybody who had participated in the civil war had made mistakes. But now the time had come to build peace. 

Unemployment threatens the peace

There is another woman striving to reach the top: 40-year-old former model MacDella Cooper. After a career on catwalks in the USA, Cooper founded a non-profit carrying her name in 2004. She has a child fathered by opposition candidate George Weah. Another candidate with good prospects is 66-year-old Charles Brumskine. The lawyer and economist ran in 2005 and 2011 and is one of the country's most popular opposition politicians.

Opposition candidate and former rebel leader Prince Johnson
Former rebel leader Prince Johnson watched Presdient Doe being tortured to deathImage: picture-alliance/G.Osodi

Two further former allies of Charles Taylor are also in the running. One of them is Benoni Urey, who owns Liberia's biggest mobile operator. The other one is the notorious former warlord Prince Johnson, now a member of parliament. A 1990 video shows him casually sipping beer while watching his militiamen torturing President Samuel Doe to death. Today the 54-year-old says: "Liberia wants peace." In an interview with DW he criticized his fellow candidate George Weah for allegedly only spending his money on good causes outside Liberia: "How many children in Liberia did he prioritize? There is nothing," he said adding: "He wants to be president to sit over our resources. They say that when you mismanage yours, you mismanage ours."

Whoever succeeds President Johnson Sirleaf will have a difficult task ahead. The challenges are many. Liberia is very poor and 85 percent of its youth is unemployed. The outgoing head of state herself has called the situation a real threat to the country. Failing to find a solution for youth unemployment could sink the country into another conflict, she has warned.