Liberia held general elections on 10 October 2023 to elect the president, House of Representatives and Senate. The presidential race was contested by president-elect Joseph Boakai, politician and former vice president under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from 2006-2018, and outgoing president George Weah. Following an inconclusive first round and a tight runoff on 14 November, Weah conceded defeat on 17 November, marking the country’s second democratic transfer of power in over seven decades. This reflection considers the significance of Liberia’s election outcomes for the country and the rest of Africa.
Weah’s defeat in the context of Liberia’s political history
Weah’s defeat is nigh on unprecedented in its political history. As Liberian political analyst and director of the Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Bakri Nyei astutely points out in a recent reflection, the last time an incumbent Liberian president lost a reelection bid in Liberia was 1877: Anthony William Gardiner of the True Whig Party defeated President James S. Payne of the Republican Party, largely because the latter was seen as “self-willed, revengeful, and vindictive”. According to Nyei, Payne lost two re-election bids, thus making Weah the second sitting president and the first in 146 years to have lost a reelection. I suggest that this has major significance for Liberia but also holds resonance for pending elections in West Africa and the wider continent.
Why Weah lost
During a working visit to Monrovia to collate lessons learned on security sector reform and governance in December 2022, I was struck but not surprised by the widespread disillusion many Liberians expressed toward Weah’s presidency. People at all levels of society bemoaned what they perceived to be the widespread corruption that had festered during his administration. Juxtaposed with high levels of despondency and restlessness among youth, fed by high living costs, unemployment and helplessness, the 2019 case of the ‘missing’ 16 billion Liberty (roughly US$100 million) struck notes of deep discord in many and led to several protests.
On an earlier trip in 2021, I heard many tales of a bloated and expanding civil service where salaries of professionals had been cut so the government could afford to pay the Weah foot soldiers stuffed in for their loyalty. Then there was the violence of the mysterious deaths of four Liberian tax officials within a month in 2020, not to mention the teargassing of anti-rape protesters by members of the Liberian National Police in 2020 that caused global uproar. I heard mixed opinions about Weah’s chances at the 2023 polls. Some felt that he would win on the strength of his popularity alone, regardless of the state of the country. Others were adamant that his record did not warrant a second term.
The last time an incumbent Liberian president lost a reelection bid in Liberia was 1877: Anthony William Gardiner of the True Whig Party defeated President James S. Payne of the Republican Party, largely because the latter was seen as “self-willed, revengeful, and vindictive”
What Liberia’s election outcome signals for democratic practice in Africa
In the streets of Liberia and across its diasporas and social media, there has been much jubilation by Liberians and other Africans alike, with many commending Liberia’s advancement/coming-of-age in changing a government they felt no longer served their interests. Weah’s loss certainly does defy/upset age-old narratives surrounding the difficulties of defeating incumbents owing to the advantages they wield as ruling heads of states and governments. But Liberia is not the only African country where this has happened in recent years.
In 2015, Muhammadu Buhari defeated Nigeria’s then-incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan in an equally historic election; Jonathan was the first sitting Nigerian president to suffer this fate. Likewise in 2016, Ghana’s current president Nana Akufo-Addo spoiled incumbent president John Mahama’s reelection bid, disrupting what had come to be accepted as the two-term “rule” – no political party had previously been able to succeed itself after the constitutionally mandated two-term limit of four years each. Several other examples occurred in Zambia (2011), Senegal (2012), Somalia (2012), Puntland (2014), Malawi (2014), Tunisia (2015) and The Gambia (2016).
The reasons adduced for this whirlwind of change in Africa’s incumbency politics include deteriorating political, economic and security contexts that color the credibility and integrity of Africa’s presidents. But more telling, in my view, are the indicators of African citizens’ rising awareness of their civic power and their growing willingness/determination to instrumentalize it through protests, votes and public efforts to change negative narratives surrounding African politics and elections. This is the evidence that Africa’s democratic landscape is experiencing a renewal/renaissance.
What the future holds
Liberia’s 2023 election was closely contested, signifying that president-elect Joseph Boakai’s win was no easy feat. Boakai, who lost the 2017 election to Weah, led the runoff with 50.9 percent of the vote against Weah’s 49.1 percent at the time Weah conceded. As has been noted, Weah’s concession marks Liberia’s second democratic transfer of power in over seven decades, the first being when Weah first won in 2017 and took over power from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But Liberia is not the only African country where this has happened in recent years
Liberia has come a long way since I first visited as Crisis Group West Africa Fellow/Analyst in 2011. This election portends brighter days ahead if Boakai is able to uphold his election promises, which include to unite a divided country by running an inclusive government, tackle poverty and unemployment, and redeem Liberia’s image. He will, however, have to tackle several delicate matters, notably the still-pending implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, high levels of sexual and gender-based violence enabled by resistant patriarchal norms throughout the country, and the politicization and capacity challenges faced by segments of Liberia’s security sector.
Liberia’s election outcomes also send a signal to contestants in Africa’s pending elections, particularly those reluctant to relinquish their holds on power in compliance with constitutionally mandated/accepted term limits, that progressive change is inevitable and politics will no longer be business as usual.
Photo credit : senegal24news.com