On Friday, the 29th of December, Liberia’s National Elections Commission declared George Weah the 25th president of the Republic of Liberia. The 51-year old, former soccer superstar, the only African to receive the sport’s highest honor, the Ballon d’Or, was swept into office by the country’s youthful population with 61.5 percent of the vote, beating the incumbent vice president.
It was an achievement not just for the opposition politician on the presidential ballot for the third and decisive time, but also a democratic milestone for Africa’s oldest republic.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s post-conflict leader, and the first woman elected to lead an African nation, will be stepping down, honoring the constitution after serving two six-year terms.
Boakai Fofana, Liberia editor for AllAfrica.com, and host of one of the country’s most listened to morning talk shows, Capitol FM, told me:
“George Weah's historic victory tells a broader Liberian success story, that a nation, once torn apart by bloody civil wars, can bounce back stronger and be one of Africa's enviable democracies.”
There is certainly a lot to celebrate in Weah’s victory. The defeat of an incumbent political party (still rare on the continent), the election of Africa’s second female Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, and the clear vesting of Liberia’s youth in the political process.
But for me, it’s the electoral backstory that should be commemorated, as it reveals the true character of the country’s post-conflict democracy. And from this journey, Liberians and their international partners can take the greatest pride, and uphold steadfast confidence in the country’s future.
Here’s how events unfolded.
The first round of the presidential contest conducted on 10 October, went as expected. Given the field of 20 candidates, no one met the 50+ percentage threshold, requiring a run-off between the top two candidates — George Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and Joseph Boakai, the incumbent Vice President, and standard bearer of the Unity Party (UP).
But allegations of fraud leveled by third place finisher, the Liberty Party, and later co-signed by the UP, forced a stay on the 9 November run-off so that the political party petitioners could present their evidence to the National Elections Commission (NEC), with a final determination to be made by Liberia’s Supreme Court.
Many speculated whether the constitutional deadline for the transfer of power, the third working Monday in January, would be met. The ballot challenge tested the country’s post-conflict institutions, its courts, the elections commission, the media, civil society, its security forces, and the political maturity of its politicians and partisans.
International elections observers were put under the microscope. Did they miss the mark again, like they did in August in Kenya, where the Supreme Court overturned an outcome deemed fair by those assigned to validate?
And the efficacy and credibility of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was also on the line. Barely one year earlier, UNMIL had turned over security control to Liberia forces for the first time since the civil war ended 13 years ago. Would the Liberia National Police (LNP) be capable of maintaining the peace and security in a period of electoral uncertainty?
The region waited nervously.
Liberia had always been a bellwether for the sub-region. It’s descent into chaos in the late 1990s had fueled instability in neighboring states, and likewise, its democratic consolidation in 2005 marked a re-birth.
The political party claimants delegated Liberia’s top legal minds to argue their case. The National Electoral commission conducted weeks of highly-publicized hearings. Liberia’s Supreme Court, guarded its judicial independence, took in the arguments, but also gave due consideration to a benchmark, not so demanded in the Kenya court, that the petitioners had to demonstrate that irregularities affected the final results.
The international community, including the United Nations (UN), the Africa Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African Nations (ECOWAS), the European Union (EU), the international missions in Liberia, and the country-based observation missions including the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute were unified and deliberate.
Mindful of the missteps in Kenya, of the legitimate complaints about the efficiency of the conduct of the first round of Liberia’s elections, and the importance of encouraging rule-of-law to be used, and not abused, Liberia’s international stakeholders measured their statements to shore up the country’s institutions.
Liberia’s domestic observation group, the Elections Coordinating Committee, urged calm as the NEC worked to resolve the issues, focusing its interventions on steps that could make the second round more efficient.
True, social media was riddled with conspiracy theories. But the Liberia-run media houses, from the Liberian Observer, AllAfrica.com, Bush Chicken, Front Page Africa, along with national and community radio stations, stuck largely to the facts, investigated the complaints, and kept the public informed. Global media, including the BBC, AFP and the Financial Times were in tune with Liberian media throughout the process.
The LNP and Liberia’s other security forces effectively stood guard as uncertainty loomed, minimized disruption and kept the peace. This left UNMIL concentrating on purely logistical and technical activities in support of the civilian authorities.
But for all that went right with Liberia’s institutions, it is the Liberian people who are the true heroes and heroines in the 2017 elections.
The October 10th election had a strong turnout, 75.6 percent of the eligible voters. When the 9 November run-off was halted for seven weeks, with doubt as to who the next president would be, or if the constitutional handover of power would take place, Liberians waited, maintaining confidence in the government bodies.
No Liberian was injured or lost their life. From the launch of the campaign in July, to the conduct of the first round of elections, the stay in the process, the public hearings, the long-delayed second-round contest, the tallying of the final votes, and the confirmation of the results, the election period was peaceful.
Liberians exercised a level of civic responsibility rarely seen in Africa during electoral disputes. And it made sense. A generation which had to rebuild their country from the ashes of 30 years of conflict, and just recently won the battle against one of the world’s most deadly contagions, was going to closely guard their future.
The election of George Weah closed out a year of remarkable developments in the continent’s democratic evolution from dynastic leaders forced to step down, to the emergence of judicial courage, if not true judicial independence. That being said, we are reminded that democracy’s march is incremental, and that its hold in any one country is relative and not absolute, that leadership matters, but that strong institutions matter more.
K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her on Twitter @rivalevinson.