Election Special: Liberia

As presidential and parliamentary elections are held on October 11, can Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her UP hang on?

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an eminent ex-banker and UN Regional Development Director for Africa, was elected Liberian president in 2005 there was a collective sigh of relief. Here was a competant, seemingly honest, forthright and patriotic person of worth now in charge of a country in dire need of healing and reconstruction following a gruelling civil war.

Sirleaf has made considerable progress. Although still reliant on foreign aid, the economy grew by 5.1% in 2010. the IMF forecasts GDP growth in 2011 to hit 5.9% in 2011 rising to 9.8% in 2012. The US$5bn debt bill has been cancelled and embargoes on timber and diamond exports lifted. Harvard-educated Sirleaf has moved to stamp out corruption and rebuild or develop infrastructure. Liberia's revised status with ex-creditor countries will make it possible for government bonds to be issued in due course. I notice that major agencies have yet to publish a credit rating for Liberia though. 

Understanding how international markets operate can be a bonus, a quality rare in African leaders. But there's so much more to do, particular in infrastructural development. It must be frustrating for a people hungry for improved living conditions, Yet these things take time. Will Liberians give Sirleaf support to press ahead with her agenda?

Last Tuesday, military and police chiefs from six neighbouring countries met in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to help to avert spiralling violence ahead of upcoming elections - in the wake of the recent Ivorian experience. Reportedly, some Ivorian refugees brought their weapons as they poured over into the border into Nimba County in northeastern Liberia amid post-election violence in the Ivory Coast. Some migrants remain, but recently more guns were transported in from Ivory Coast allegedly.

Liberian politicians of all parties have been attacked of late as intimidation rises due to pre-election jitters as the election date approaches.

Other than Sirleaf, main presidential contenders are:
  • Charles Brumskine, a 60-year old Senator and ex-ally Charles Taylor. An anti-monopolist and small-business champion from the Liberty Party, Brumskine came third in 2005.
  • Chea Cheapoo, a 69 -year old ex-Chief Justice and candidate of the Progressive People's Party. The only Chief Justice to have ever been impeached, Cheapoo was appointed into that job by Samuel Doe. He garnered a paltry 0.3% of the popular vote in 2005.
  • Prince Yormie Johnson, a 52-year old Senator, ex-Nimba County warlord who famously captured and executed Samuel Doe. Standing as candidate of the National Union for Democratic Progress.
  • Togba-Nah Tipoteh, a 70-year old businessman, economist, professor and former government minister. Candidate of the Freedom Alliance Party of Liberia, he got just over 2% of the vote last time round.
  • Winston Tubman, a 70-year old career diplomat and ex-justice minister. Candidate for the Congress for Democratic Change. He came fourth in 2005 with under ten percent of the vote when standing for a different party. This time his running mate is the man who came second at the last election, 45-year old humanitarian and former FIFA World Footballer of the Year, European Ballon d'Or, and CAF African Footballer of the Year 1995, George Weah.
Liberia has a population of 3.8 million living in 111,369 sq km, an area which is a bit bigger than Bulgaria, Cuba or Tennessee. It's pretty urbanised, nearly half the people living in Monrovia or other towns. It's young, with some 44.3% of the population aged 14 or under. But its current per capita GDP (PPP) is just US$500, making it the third poorest country on the planet - only DR Congo and Burundi score worse.

Main exports are rubber (accounting for 61% of the total), timber, iron, diamonds, coffee, tin and cocoa, with largest markets being India (26.5%), the US (17.9%) and Poland (13.9). Just as Ghana gets its own oil production underway, crude oil might assist Liberia as potentially viable offshore deposits have been earmarked.

When you consider that Sirleaf has lifted the GDP per head by 25% in the past twelve months, it's possible to appreciate the headway she's made and low base from which she started.

Challenges remain as unemployment is excessive, with only 15% working in the 'formal' economy. While the country is rich in resources and could be self-sufficient in food, it isn't competitive. Too many people remain illiterate, in poor health, have little access to clean water or consistent electricity and are hampered by dreadful roads and inadequate sewage systems. Corruption remains endemic, despite Sirleaf's initial efforts to contain it. And business overheads rise when private security firms have to be hired to protect plant, machinery, personnel and housing.

No wonder Sirleaf has a fight on her hands to secure a second term.

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