Twenty-two in race for presidency

Out by Monrovia’s crumbling airport is a ramshackle settlement known by the Liberian people as Smell-no-taste. The older people still remember when United States soldiers were stationed there during World War II, tantalising hungry locals with the smell of their rations cooking.

More than 50 years later, the people are still hungry and there is still no electricity, but there is a different smell in the air. After decades of brutal dictatorships punctuated by even more brutal civil wars, Liberia is about to hold elections.

The election commission has cleared 22 presidential hopefuls for the contest, including Roland Massaquoi, seen as a protégé of the disgraced Charles Taylor; former rebel leader Sekou Conneh; and two lawyers—US-educated Charles Brumskine and corporate high-flier Varney Sherman, who is close to the transitional government.

However, the two faces most frequently seen peering from cracked taxi windows and plastered on to walls are those of George Weah—former world footballer of the year who played for Chelsea and AC Milan—and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank official and political veteran.
If elected, 70-year-old Johnson-Sirleaf would be Africa’s first female president.

Surrounded by jostling fans and youths in dark “security” T-shirts and police-style vests at the formal launch of his campaign this Tuesday, Weah shouted: “I have a dream to call you Monrovia city. I have a dream to educate your children. I have a dream to make you all like George Manneh Weah. When I came from the ghetto, they said I would never make it. They told me it was impossible. I say this because you are in my shoes.”

Earlier he promised, “I don’t need political experience to give you schools. I don’t need political experience to give you lights and water, or to see that the roads are bad. I know where you come from.”

In a country where there has been no electricity for 14 years and literacy only just tops 50%, the footballer’s popular message and lack of formal education only enhance his popularity. Born one of 13 children in a shanty town outside of Monrovia, and raised by his grandmother, Weah is now a multimillionaire, and has ploughed much of his money into charity work and Liberia’s national soccer team. Supporters say that his current wealth proves he is not seeking to plunder the national coffers, the traditional pastime of leaders.

But, other candidates have seized on his lack of political experience or university education. “This is not the time for someone to learn on the job,” Johnson-Sirleaf insisted in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

While Weah’s speeches are eloquent in identifying the problems facing Liberia, Johnson-Sirleaf articulates solutions—pruning a bloated civil service, labour-intensive infrastructure repairs, and a mandatory code of conduct for public officials. Johnson-Sirleaf, who supported Taylor in the early years of his presidency but later ran against him, acknowledged that Weah had a record untainted by corruption but said his inexperience meant “you have to look at those around him, and that’s where the questions come, because you see a lot of shady characters”.

Mike McGovern, the West Africa director of the International Crisis Group, echoed that warning. “Every single candidate in these elections is surrounded by people who want to enrich themselves. There’s definitely room for caution, real caution, in his [Weah’s] case and all the other candidates,” he said. “Personality is often emphasised in politics but what Liberia needs is widespread institutional reform in the security forces, judiciary and economy.”

Weah is learning the political game, however, and has been nicknamed “African pride” by Nelson Mandela. He kicks off his speeches with the clenched fist salute and shouts of Amandla!

Whoever wins October’s contest, the next head of state can hardly do worse than their predecessors. The previous president, Taylor, is indicted for war crimes and in exile in Nigeria; Samuel Doe, who came before, had his ears chopped off while being tortured to death; he had succeeded William Tolbert, who was bayoneted and disemboweled in his bed.

The elections are required by the peace deal, signed in August 2003, which pushed Taylor into exile. Altogether, 15 000 United Nations soldiers, the world’s largest peacekeeping force, currently patrol the country. Liberia, founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago, has been governed in the intervening two years by a transitional administration led by Gyude Bryant, a popular entrepreneur who is not allowed to stand.

The capital, Monrovia, is still badly scarred from years of a civil war in which heavily armed children—often dressed in bizarre wigs and dresses—slaughtered one another. At least a quarter of a million died in the conflict. Weah’s own family house was burned down in 1996 and Johnson-Sirleaf was twice imprisoned by the Doe regime.

After a scuffle with Johnson-Sirleaf supporters on the first day of campaigning, some observers are worried that Weah’s popularity has attracted opportunists and youths with a history of violence. It is a charge emphatically rejected by the footballer, who told supporters “even if someone slaps you on your right jaw, turn your left jaw and do not engage in violent acts”.

Yet, in a country with an unemployment rate of 85%, which has seen its national budget fall from $500-million to $80-million in 25 years, and where no candidate is entirely free from tainted loyalties or allegations of shady allegiances, electioneering has been surprisingly peaceful. The international community is feeling upbeat. Democracy seems close—so close the Liberians can nearly taste it.

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