Monrovia, Liberia – Liberians will turn out to vote on Tuesday in a poll as current president George Weah seeks a second six-year term.
On October 10, Liberians will vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections.
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There are 15 seats in the Senate and 73 seats in the House of Representatives that are up for grabs on Tuesday but attention is mostly focused on the presidential poll.
Current president George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), elected in 2017, is contesting against 19 other candidates including former Vice President Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party (UP) and businessman Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Party (CPP).
This will be the country’s fourth post-war presidential election but the first one without the presence of the United Nations mission which provided support to the country’s elections commission.
Analysts say the election is a referendum on the ruling party’s stint in power so far.
“In this election, most people will be more voting primarily for or against the ruling party and its policies as opposed to voting based on the strength or quality of the opposition,” said Joshua Kulah, a lecturer of political science at the University of Liberia.
As Liberians head to the polls, the country is battling with increased drug use.
According to the United Nations Population Fund in 2022, two in 10 youths in Liberia use narcotic substances. Liberia has also seen multiple seizures of illegal drugs in recent times. In October 2022, security forces seized 520kg of cocaine – estimated to be worth around $100m – imported into the country. Four men were arrested and tried in connection to the drug seizure, on charges of trafficking and criminal conspiracy. However, the courts ruled that the men were not guilty.
The government also admitted to losing track of the suspects after their acquittal while the judgment was under review by the Supreme Court, prompting a debate around the state’s handling of the issue.
All candidates have recognised the rise of drug smuggling and spoken about it on the campaign trail.
Speaking during a radio appearance in June 2023, Boakai said that the country was “fast gaining notoriety as a transshipment country for illicit narcotics”. He added that the handling of the drug scandal showed “failure of national leadership, a weak and criminal justice system, and crucially raises suspicion about the probable complicity of some higher-ups in the drug affair”.
President Weah has also acknowledged the situation, stating in his manifesto that the government “will treat drug addiction as a national health emergency like COVID-19 and the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD)” and promising to strengthen the security sector “to intervene robustly in drug interdiction”.
This August was the 20th anniversary of the end of the second civil war in which half of the country was displaced and as many as a quarter-million people reportedly died.
In its final report in 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that several individuals – including then-President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – be banned from holding public office and a war crimes court be established, but those recommendations were never implemented.
CPP’s Cummings has committed to establishing one. Weah, whose running mate is the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, has also promised to support the creation of a war and economic crimes court.
In his manifesto, Boakai who is now in an alliance with Prince Johnson, a warlord-turned-senator promised to organise a National Peace and Reconciliation Conference to “pursue a genuine path for total reconciliation and recovery for victims, survivors, families, communities, ethnic groups and citizenry”.
But Johnson has condemned the establishment of the court and had promised not to campaign for anyone who supports a war crimes court on multiple occasions.
Widespread corruption has long been an issue in Liberia, constantly reducing trust in government. Furthermore, Weah’s first term has been littered with multiple corruption scandals.
In 2018, news reports of a container of $100m (18 billion Liberian dollars) going missing and the alleged mishandling of a $25m cash injection scheme to mop up excess Liberian dollars on the market sparked protests.
Johnson was also sanctioned by the United States for being “involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organisations for personal enrichment” and for offering “the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money”. He is running for re-election on Tuesday.
In 2022, the US also sanctioned Weah’s chief of staff, the solicitor general, and the head of the country’s port authority. The officials were initially suspended and later resigned.
Weah and his supporters say a new law in July 2022 granting the anticorruption commission prosecutorial power, is evidence of his administration’s fight against corruption. However, opponents point out that two of the officials sanctioned by the US in 2022 are running for parliamentary seats on the platform of the ruling party.
The economy remains the principal issue for many voters. Figures from the Central Bank of Liberia show that inflation stood at 12.36 percent in June 2023, and while there is no reliable data on labour, an estimated four in five Liberian workers are informally employed, according to the 2022 United States Investment Climate Statements.
“Corruption is an unending story and will influence votes, however, the deciding factor will be the issues around the economy which affect Liberians directly,” said Kulah.
The removal of subsidy on rice, a major staple in the country, led to a subsequent increase in its price and opposition-led protests in December 2022. But even before then, a 2019 wage harmonisation exercise reduced the salaries of government employees.
All of this has led to increased costs of living, as the ripple effect from global events continues to impact the country.
“Liberia’s economy has not had the best outlook in the past few years due to external and internal factors which include the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and domestic policies,” said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, researcher and director at Monrovia-based Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research. “Security and corruption also affected the government’s ability to attract adequate foreign direct investment which affected their ability to provide jobs. Consequently, this will have implications at the polls” he added.