Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Ballot Gone Bad

Liberia's peaceful election has descended into chaos, conspiracy, and violence.

ISSOUF SANOGO
ISSOUF SANOGO
ISSOUF SANOGO

MONROVIA, Liberia – At 10 a.m. on Nov. 8, the day of Liberia's runoff election, there were no voters in the polling station in Clara Town, a downtrodden warren of dirt roads and zinc-roofed houses on the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia. The faces of the incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and her opponent, Winston Tubman, were still on the ballot papers, but amid disorder following a last-gasp boycott by Tubman's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, only Johnson Sirleaf was taking part.

Violence had erupted the previous day, following a mass protest meeting convened by the opposition CDC at the party's headquarters in the Congo Town area of the capital. The scene was chaotic. Young partisans, clad in grubby white T-shirts, held a bloodied body aloft. "He dead! Police shot him!" they yelled. The air was thick with stinging tear gas, as small pockets of protesters darted for cover. Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping troops appeared to be physically repelling armed Liberian police officers from storming the CDC's headquarters. Two people were confirmed dead, but rumors abound about other killings and just how the violence started.

MONROVIA, Liberia – At 10 a.m. on Nov. 8, the day of Liberia’s runoff election, there were no voters in the polling station in Clara Town, a downtrodden warren of dirt roads and zinc-roofed houses on the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia. The faces of the incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and her opponent, Winston Tubman, were still on the ballot papers, but amid disorder following a last-gasp boycott by Tubman’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, only Johnson Sirleaf was taking part.

Violence had erupted the previous day, following a mass protest meeting convened by the opposition CDC at the party’s headquarters in the Congo Town area of the capital. The scene was chaotic. Young partisans, clad in grubby white T-shirts, held a bloodied body aloft. "He dead! Police shot him!" they yelled. The air was thick with stinging tear gas, as small pockets of protesters darted for cover. Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping troops appeared to be physically repelling armed Liberian police officers from storming the CDC’s headquarters. Two people were confirmed dead, but rumors abound about other killings and just how the violence started.

Under a mango tree not far from the polling place, a large group gathered as I asked about the events of the previous day. The atmosphere was muted and tense in this area, where CDC vice-presidential candidate and football icon George Weah grew up. "We had gathered to commence peaceful march, but there was police blockade set up on the road" said K. Nimely Weah (no relation), an elder in the community who attended the protest. "The UNMIL [U.N. Mission in Liberia] commander was still talking to Ambassador Weah and Counselor Tubman, telling them their complaints would be addressed. Then another group tried to come join us, from a road on the side of the blockade." With a finger he drew the intersection in the dirt. "As soon as they saw them coming, [the police] started firing tear gas at us. Then came bullets. All we were trying to do was peacefully protest Ellen’s corrupt election."

But was it really corrupt? "We are pleased to tell the world that the election in Liberia is free, fair, and transparent," declared an emphatic Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, head of the African Union’s election-observation mission, on Oct. 13, two days after the first round of the presidential election. The Carter Center also approved. Under the watchful eyes of 4,800 domestic and international observers, Liberia had just successfully held its second post-conflict presidential election, eight years on from the cessation of its uniquely brutal civil conflict. From a motley crew of 16 candidates, Johnson Sirleaf had garnered 44 percent of the vote. A tight runoff beckoned, with the new Nobel Peace Prize laureate facing down the awkward tag team of Tubman, a former U.N. diplomat and justice minister, and his running mate, Weah. It seemed that the next stage of the election — though all political debate in Liberia tends toward hyperbole and untruths — would come off equally peacefully.

The story of how such a widely acclaimed election could descend to killings and empty polling stations provides an intriguing insight into the vulnerability of the democratic process in places like Liberia. As soon as vote counts began to drip out following Oct. 11’s first round, it was clear that all had not gone according to plan for Tubman and Weah’s CDC party. The landslide they were relying upon winning in the opposition’s Monrovia base, due to Weah’s cult status in densely populated areas like Clara Town, had not materialized. Johnson Sirleaf had surged ahead. And even while votes were still being tallied, a dangerous election "Plan B" began to emerge.

On Oct. 15, only four days after the first-round election, a vague joint statement was hurriedly released by nine opposition parties. It accused the National Elections Commission (NEC) of altering vote counts in favor of Johnson Sirleaf and declared the results "null and void." The claims were widely derided locally and abroad. News then surfaced that warlord-cum-senator Prince Yormie Johnson, whose National Union for Democratic Progress party took a hefty 11.8 percent of the vote, had thrown his support behind Johnson Sirleaf amid rumors of shady deals. This early endorsement of Johnson Sirleaf, from a candidate whose campaign had been based largely upon vitriolic criticism of her, bred desperation and conspiracy within the opposition ranks. On Oct. 17, Tubman was admitted to the United Nations’ hospital in Monrovia to be treated for "malaria." It was widely rumored on the streets of the capital that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Incendiary comments about possible consequences entered the discourse. Unease began to grow, with the public suggestion by a defected member of the CDC hierarchy that the opposition had devised plans to destabilize the post-election period, using ex-combatants to drive protests. The CDC began to issue a series of specific demands: The first-round votes must all be recounted; the NEC must be entirely reconstituted, and its chairman, a former member of Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, must be replaced. Then, having managed the first round of voting to wide acclaim, the NEC promptly shot itself in the foot. In a quite tragicomic botch-up, a routine official communication to the CDC informed the party that it had in fact received the most votes in the first round of voting. NEC Chairman James Fromayan, who had signed the letter, promptly resigned on Oct. 30. Fuel had been poured on the fire.

A rejuvenated Tubman expressed his approval of the resignation, but it was still not enough. With nerves in the region now beginning to fray over a proposed boycott, he was summoned to a last-ditch Economic Community of West African States meeting hosted by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja, Nigeria. This last-gasp attempt to persuade Tubman to go ahead with the runoff election failed. On Friday, Nov. 4, just four days before the runoff vote, Tubman declared definitively that his party was boycotting the election, stating he "would not reward fraud." Not long after, with tensions at the breaking point, the CDC’s fateful "peace rally" in Monrovia was announced.

Back beneath the mango tree in Clara Town on Nov. 8, an irate James Massaquoi, a CDC party member who had been part of the previous day’s violence, told me and the 50 or so people around us what he claims he saw. "The police killed a woman in cold blood, then dragged her away in a drinks cooler." Members of the crowd gasped; eyebrows furrowed. "They killed people on the beach; then Ellen’s yellow chopper came and stole the bodies away!" He told me the police who faced down him and his friends were not Liberians, but what he called a "vanguard force from Nigeria."

It all sounds too far-fetched to be true. But Massaquoi is not a crazy man shouting on a corner. He is an eloquent opinion-maker in a community starved of accurate information. And in Liberia today, people don’t know what to believe. Since the protests, three media outlets critical of the government have been shut down by the police. Near the mango tree, a radio blared in the background, with the tinny voice of the police commissioner denying the previous night that the police fired live ammunition. The claim elicited scornful laughter from those who were at the protest.

Massaquoi and his friends epitomize the challenges facing this country. They are part of Liberia’s huge subclass of undereducated, underrepresented, unemployed young men who hustle on Monrovia’s streets. Some are ex-combatants, but for most, the resentment they foster stems from events since Liberia’s conflicts ended. They express hatred for Johnson Sirleaf because their lives haven’t changed for the better; they idolize Weah because once, long ago before his glamorous life as an international soccer star, he was one of them. These men are Liberia’s dry tinder, ready to ignite. Liberia’s violent history is an opus of manipulation by those with power and information of those, like Massaquoi, who have neither. Future peace depends on the actions of this group and those in positions of authority, like Weah and Tubman, who can benefit from their disenchantment. Despite appearing shaken as the violence went on, the CDC subsequently continued to ramp up the pressure. Tubman went public with his belief that the police were acting under orders to eliminate him, while Weah claimed Johnson Sirleaf personally ordered the shootings.

Massaquoi said he would die for Weah and the CDC. "Listen, war killed my ma, my da, my brothers and sisters. I only got friends," he said sadly. The men around him nodded solemnly.

With UNMIL and police forces watching over quiet streets, polling booths got busier as the day progressed. Even a moderate turnout, however, is unlikely to save Johnson Sirleaf from the growing voices questioning her democratic legitimacy. By evening, skirmishes had once more broken out, this time in West Point, Monrovia’s largest slum, with police on the scene again using tear gas.

As I got up to leave the simmering group in Clara Town, a young man stood up and quietly tried to address the crowd. "Even if it was all wrong, we need to be calm, we must be calm! Liberia cannot afford to have a short memory." The conversations of the departing group drowned him out. His voice, and more like his, will need to be louder in the coming days.

F. Charles Young is a Scottish journalist and lawyer who has lived and traveled widely in West Africa.

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