“In Africa, we find that the older people do not want to give young people a chance to lead. They always feel insecure around us”, said Jerrylyn T. Garpue, a 28 year old student in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Ahead of next Tuesday’s election the city is awash with campaign posters hanging from buildings and vehicles, the faces of candidates overlooking crowds. Young people are flooding to rallies to collect t-shirts and dance to the latest hit song from their favourite political party.
Garpue is among the young people in Liberia who think it’s time to say goodbye to the old elites that have dominated the country’s political leadership for the past three decades. This is why President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s recent assertion that it’s time for a “generational change” in Liberian politics has been met with so much debate – and for the most part confusion, bearing in mind her deputy, who is running for the top job, is 72 years old.
“At least they are realizing that young people have the potential and we are ready to lead,” said Garpue, who believes the prospects of Liberian youth have been underestimated by their elders.
Life is not easy for the country’s younger generation. Garpue, who is a working as an election volunteer with a local civil society group, said the challenges facing youth include access to education and job opportunities. The student told Raddington Report that at one point she herself had to drop out of her studies due to financial difficulties. But Garpue adds that despite these challenges, youth issues are not on the agenda of many politicians: “I really want to see a young president. It will be a plus for Liberia. It is so frustrating that none of the candidates are talking about the young people”.
It is people like Garpue that the Johnson-Sirleaf was referring to when she spoke about generational change. Locally dubbed “The Iron Lady”, Africa’s first female president is ushering in a new leadership in the small West African Country. The constitution forbids Johnson-Sirleaf from seeking a third term, but her party has chosen her Vice President of 12 years Joseph N. Boakai, age 72, as her successor.
The President is on record saying she supports Boakai as the Unity Party candidate in the elections. But statements made during an address at the UN in New York and in an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN suggest otherwise.
“Liberia is just 22 days away from historic legislative and presidential elections,” Johnson-Sirleaf proudly told her counterparts on the world stage as she delivered her last speech at the UN General Assembly. “It will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another. This paves the way for the next generation of Liberians to lead the country into the future.”
“I’m sending a strong signal. Not only should we respect the constitution and the law, but it also says that it’s time for generational change,” Johnson-Sirleaf told Amanpour the following day in response to a question about African dictatorships – and her decision not to attempt to change her country’s constitution for a third term run.
“We have young people that are vying for leadership; that have the capacity, that have the passion and the capability and it’s time for them to take over. We have to make way for them.”
To the rest of the world, this seems like Johnson-Sirleaf is relinquishing power, but in Liberia she still has the ability to put her stamp of approval on the process – and make innuendos as to who will eventually become the country’s next President.
News of the speech spread like wildfire and social media began buzzing, with many Liberians struggling to interpret what the President actually meant by “paves the way for the next generation of Liberians”. The reaction from across the political divide was mixed.
For some in Johnson-Sirleaf’s own party, the statement may not have come as a huge surprise. Many in the Unity Party have questioned the sincerity of her support of Vice President Boakai. In an interview with a local newspaper Boakai did not seem sure of a solid backing from the President: “how can I say, I won’t need her help – if it’s not forthcoming, well…But I cannot say I don’t need it. I need everybody’s support.”
Stephen Johnson, 36, represents the young generation of leaders that the President apparently wants to hand over power to. Or at least he would – were he not a campaign spokesman of Johnson-Sirleaf’s 72 year-old Vice President and hopeful successor.
Johnson claims the ruling party is the next generation, and is way ahead of the game in terms of youth leadership. He refers to the Boakai’s running mate Emmanuel Nuquay, 48, as a young person, adding that most people spearheading the ruling party’s campaign also fall into this category. He said the party’s youth do not need anyone to tell them who to support.
“When you look among the candidates, there is no one better qualified, experienced and competent, who has the capability, other than Vice President Boakai,” Johnson explained.
But Benjamin Sanvee, Chairman of Charles W. Brumskine’s opposition Liberty Party, disagrees. Sanvee believes his party embodies what the next generation of leadership should look like – even though his candidate Brumskine is 66 years old. He said the Liberty Party supports Johnson-Sirleaf’s call, adding that there is no way the Liberian President could be referring to her deputy because he has held the position of Vice President for over a decade.
“The fact of the matter is that the Unity Party has been given 12 years by the Liberian people. 2017 is a year of change,” Sanvee told Raddington Report. “From our standpoint, we believe that the time has come for the baton to be passed onto a new generation of leaders.”
Truth and reconciliation?
Sanvee and Johnson belong to a generation of Liberians who have not ascended to presidential level for almost 40 years. The last time there was a young leadership in Liberia was in the 1980s, when the then True Wig Party (which had ruled for over a hundred years) was toppled in a military coup led by Samuel K. Doe and his band of noncommissioned soldiers from the People’s Redemption Council.
Doe himself spent a decade in power and was later assassinated in a bloody civil war led by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of war criminal Charles Taylor. The conflict left over 250,000 people dead. Since these events, political leadership has eluded the current “young generation” of potential leaders. The highest political office in Liberia, whether interim or constitutional, has been occupied by the old class of over 60 year-olds.
The effectiveness of the leadership of this old class has been called into question. In May of 2005 the Truth and Reconciliation Act was passed to implement the terms of the peace agreement made at the end of the war in two years previous. Key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report included the establishment of a war crimes tribunal and further investigations and prosecutions into key players in the conflict, including individuals, corporations and institutions. These were never implemented under the Johnson-Sirleaf-led government; the major roadblock being that the President herself was among a list of individuals the commission recommended to be barred for political office for 30 years.
If the report was implemented, Sirleaf and many of her officials who now flood the political playing field could not have run for office in 2011. This would have provided a clean slate for Liberia to start a new political sojourn with mainly new political players.
Prince Y. Johnson is the current Senator of Nimba County and a ruthless warlord, who himself is running for President for the third time. He views Johnson-Sirleaf’s comments as hypocritical considering her age when she ran for office back in 2005, and calls it a clever attempt by her to manipulate the October polls.
“If she decides to support a young man then she should allow the democratic process to be free and fair,” said Senator Johnson at a hurriedly arranged news conference in Monrovia following the President’s comments.
“If the people of Liberia gravitate towards a young man and he is elected, that’s fine”, he remarked, warning Johnson-Sirleaf not to interfere in the elections. He said that the President’s recent call for a meeting with members of the National Elections Commission at her residence is a worrying sign that she wants to tilt the election result in favor of her preferred candidate. He has reason to be concerned: in the past elections in Liberia have been manipulated to reflect the will of the person in power. But the NEC has denied that such a meeting took place.
“If Madam Sirleaf will have a say in our democratic elections, then what is the point of going to the elections – when she will determine who becomes President anyway?”, he asked.
Leaders of tomorrow?
MacDella Cooper is a philanthropist, founder of the MacDella Cooper Foundation, and the only woman among 22 candidates from 26 political parties running for President.
Cooper also admits that though Liberia is on course for generational change, many challenges for young people remain. She believes it is time that leaders paid attention to developing the capacity of youth through education. “There are too many of our young people who are unskilled, uneducated and not equipped and ready for the future ahead of them,” she explained. “If we leave them that way we will have a huge problem tomorrow in every sector across the country.”
33.2% of Liberian youth had no education and 31.1% have had primary education only. The President later went on to call the education system a mess, and her government has since moved to experiment with Public-Private Partnerships through a program involving Bridge International Academies – a private company backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The jury is still out on how this will go, as the three-year program which launched in September 2016 is still in its pilot stage.
This situation has led to a division in the country where the educated class of older Liberians has always claimed the right to lead, arguing that young people are not prepared. The debate heightened during the past three elections with former soccer star George Weah, 50, running for President. Weah remains a formidable candidate whose party challenged Johnson-Sirleaf twice and came close to winning.
Weah is pitched among the top three presidential aspirants and takes pride in his youthful following. Weah did not complete formal education until after the 2005 elections. Though he went back to school in 2007 and later got a Master’s degree, many elites consider him uneducated and unsuitable for leadership. But Weah’s supporters claim the President’s call was in direct reference to the former footballer, who stands a better chance of winning the elections than his fellow young contender MacDella Cooper.
President-cum-international rock star
This will be Liberia’s third presidential poll since the war ended in 2003. Presidential and Vice Presidential seats are up for grabs, alongside 73 seats in the Liberian legislature. The National Elections Commission (NEC) has registered 2.1 million voters, 26 political parties, 2,080 voting precincts and 5,390 polling stations.
Throughout her tenure Johnson-Sirleaf has enjoyed widespread international endorsement, and the race to replace her is being watched by Liberia’s strongest ally – the United States of America.
“Under the leadership of President Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberians have experienced 14 years of political stability,” said Ambassador William Taylor, of the U.S. Institute of Peace at an event last Wednesday at the U.S Capitol. “We hope her successor will continue her important work to consolidate democracy and preserve human rights in Liberia.”
Ambassador Taylor also said the run up to the votes has been orderly and without violence. But there have been pockets of unrest the international community may not be aware of, such as the recent violent clashes in Nimba County between supporters of main opposition parties the Congress for Democratic Change (led by Weah) and the Liberty Party, headed up by Brumskine. Polarization between the settlers (Americo-Liberians) and indigenous people – an issue which was referred to in the TRC report – also remains a sensitive topic, with major parties using the slogan “this is our time” to send a message that Americo-Liberians are still dominating the political decision making process.
The rock star status bestowed on Johnson Sirleaf by the United States and other Western countries has led the world to pay less attention to many of the lapses that occur on the ground in Liberia including high level corruption, nepotism and impunity. This perception could play a role not only on how the poll is viewed internationally, but the outcome of the election itself.
But some Liberians – particularly women – still admire the President’s leadership. “More than anything, her perseverance is really what is more impressive about her. She’s a smart and intelligent human being,” said Mary Williams, former manager of Truth FM, a Monrovia based radio station. “In 2005 you needed somebody who had the clout to be able to invite people to come and help stabilize and make the country function.”
The only female presidential candidate, Cooper, explained that Johnson-Sirleaf’s presidency meant a great deal for many women in Liberia. Cooper believes that it is now time to consolidate on those gains made by creating more opportunities for women to continue in political leadership for the next two decades.
“I give her credit for sustaining peace in our country and for bringing us to this stage,” she said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be able to move back to Liberia. I moved back in 2005 and I continued to live here. My children are in school here and go to hospitals here.”
Word on the street
Miatta Sheriff sells underwear at Duala Market, a busy shopping district in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Amid the sound of her fellow marketers chanting loudly in a bid to sell their wares, and the honking of car horns on the jam-packed street, the 41 year-old said: “I am sick and tired with this government now”.
She’s among many Liberian market women who voted for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005, but today are ready for change. She says that the President has failed to deliver on key campaign promises, and as a result she will not be giving her vote to the Unity Party for a third time.
Sheriff explains that for her the elections are about bread and butter issues for the ordinary person, which she feels let down on by a government she placed 12 years of trust in. “Business is very hard. Everything is expensive. For that reason we buy the goods at a high rate and there is little profit,” she explained.
She said the American dollar exchange rate has resulted in a drop in profits for local business people. When President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took over in 2006 there were around 42.94 Liberian dollars to one US dollar. Today the rate is 117.10 Liberian dollars to one USD. “I spent $250 to buy a sack of used bras and when I sold it, I could only get $200, I lost US $50 in the business,” she said.
The Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) has blamed the fall of the Liberian Dollar by over seven percent largely on the decline in the prices of the country’s major commodity exports, rising import demands and deteriorating terms of trade. The government maintains that the situation is not something they can control – and the World Bank also noted that the country’s “economic stagnation” is also due to the shock of the deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014 and 2015. But critics maintain that the corruption and wasteful spending in government is also to blame for the country’s economic crisis.
With just a few days until the polls, huge crowds close to Sheriff’s market chant various slogans, from “Our ma spoil it, our Pa Will fix it” (Our mother spoiled it, our father will fix it- referring to the President and her Vice President) or “Y’all leave us ooo da Weah we want” (leave us, it’s Weah we want). What remains to be seen is whether Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s call for “generational change” will be realized on Tuesday. But no matter who wins the elections, young or old, that person will have to address the same issues that lie ahead for Liberia – which will be no easy task.