Liberia gears up for an election

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AS LIBERIA prepares for a general election on October 10th, people are making their preferences known. Some wear T-shirts with the faces of candidates on them. Crowds of exuberant supporters block roads. The country was devastated by civil war for the best part of 14 years until 2003. But aside from a few scuffles, the campaign has been peaceful. People feel excited, not adversarial. Liberia is set to have its first transfer of power from one elected president to another since 1944.

It is still not clear who among the 20 candidates will succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president, who won a Nobel prize for securing Liberia’s peace. “Continuity” is the message of her Unity Party (UP). Its candidate is Joseph Boakai, Ms Sirleaf’s mild-mannered vice-president, who is seen by many as a safe (and uncorrupt) choice. But although Ms Sirleaf has said she backs Mr Boakai, she did not appear at his campaign launch. And in September she told the UN General Assembly that her stepping down “paves the way for the next generation of Liberians to lead the country”. Mr Boakai is 72. “Perhaps she wants to be neutral,” says Patrick Worzie, a senior official in the UP.

War-weary Liberians give the UP credit for maintaining peace and stability. But they also complain of rampant corruption and a shockingly bad education system. The economy has struggled to recover from the Ebola epidemic, which killed almost 5,000 Liberians between 2014 and 2016. The UP’s incumbency, therefore, may not be an advantage for Mr Boakai. In 2014 only two of 12 senators seeking re-election kept their seats. “We are struggling,” says Catherine Borbor, who sells drinks in central Monrovia, the capital, and voted to re-elect Ms Sirleaf in 2011. “So we decided to look for another person.”

The person she found is George Weah, who is best known for having once been a great footballer. A national hero, he lost the election to Ms Sirleaf in 2005 and was also on the losing ticket (as the vice-presidential candidate) in 2011. But the former slum-dweller trounced Ms Sirleaf’s son, Robert, in a senate election in 2014. He won 78% of the vote in Liberia’s most populous county, Montserrado, which includes Monrovia.

Hope, change, whatever you want

Like most other candidates, Mr Weah is running on a vague platform of improving education, employment and health. “I have been very successful. I have done so well,” he told Radio France Internationale when asked to defend his poor record in the Senate. His slogan is the clunky, Obama-esque “Change For Hope”.

Mr Weah’s star power means he probably will not need to say much in order to retain his base of devoted supporters. But his choice of Jewel Howard Taylor as his running-mate may prove a misstep. Ms Taylor is the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the former president and war criminal. Mr Taylor is still popular in some places—and reviled in others. Ms Taylor says Mr Weah chose her because of her tribe, sex and the fact that she lives in Bong county, the third most populous, where she has been senator since 2005.

Ms Taylor’s frankness highlights a truth of Liberian politics: ethnicity and geography matter. Tension between the descendants of Liberia’s founders, who were former slaves from America, and its native population calmed as indigenous politicians rose to prominence (Ms Sirleaf, Mr Boakai and Mr Weah are all natives). But candidates still play regional politics. Even Ms Sirleaf, in 2011, won the support of Prince Johnson, a former warlord known for overseeing the torture and murder of the former dictator, Samuel Doe, in 1990. More important, from Ms Sirleaf’s perspective, he was popular in Nimba county, Liberia’s second most populous.

Other contenders in this year’s race are following her lead. Charles Brumskine, who served as president of the Senate under Mr Taylor until he fled in 1999, is running with Harrison Karnwea, a former official from Nimba county. Benoni Urey, a wealthy businessman, had reportedly hoped to team up with Ms Taylor but settled for the son of a slain Nimba politician. More such manoeuvring will occur before the second round of voting, probably next month, when the field is narrowed to two candidates (assuming no one gets 50% of the vote this time around).

Whoever emerges as president will undoubtedly reward political backers with plum jobs and patronage. But Liberia’s recent economic woes may lower the gains from corruption. As one international official puts it: “Even if you’re the most corrupt leader going, you’re not going to make vast amounts of money in Liberia.”