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Liberia in first democratic handover of power in 73 years

In an election widely seen as smooth and successful, Liberians are taking part in the first democratically elected handover of power in 73 years

The election will also see President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepping down from power, leaving the African continent with only one female head of state.

Liberia has 2.18-million registered voters which is almost half of the country's population. At this stage the percentage turnout has not been released.

Elections chief Jerome Korkoya acknowledged reports about delays and some people not being able to find themselves on the voters' roll.

“There have been some reports that some voters have not been able to be located in the printed voter register,” he said.

“One of the issues was caused by voters joining the queue without consulting the queue controller and going straight to a polling place without checking they are in the right place in the polling precinct,” said Korkoya.

This is an important poll for the country, which is still recovering from a decade-long civil war, stretching from 1987-97. The violent conflict, which left more than 600,000 dead, caused the country's population to dip by 10%.

Since 1997 Liberia has been involved in a rebuilding process which has involved the international community.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia, which includes in its mandate the task of maintaining stability in the country, is in the process of wrapping up.

It is aiming at an April 2018 deadline for the withdrawal of all officers and civilian personnel. Included in the mandate is the objective of aiding the reform of justice and security institutions.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been involved in maintaining peace in Liberia.

In the 2017 election the regional body deployed an observer mission led by former Ghanaian president John Mahama. The body takes its elections missions mandate from its Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy that tasks it with oversight responsibilities.

On elections the protocol includes:

  • Every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections.

  • Zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.

  • Popular participation in decision-making, strict adherence to democratic principles and decentralisation of power at all levels of governance.

  • The armed forces must be apolitical and must be under the command of a legally constituted political authority; no serving member of the armed forces may seek to run for political elections.

The elections are lauded as a success because of overt reassurance from Johnson Sirleaf to hand over power now that her 11-year rule is coming to its end.

There are signs that the election will be free of major incidents, according to Dr Valary Ferim, who heads the political science and international relations department at University of Fort Hare in South Africa.

“Elections in Africa are always a very tricky business as they are generally clouded with ethnic and other forms of factional politics.”

"For starters, the elections commence on a positive note with the incumbent, Johnson Sirleaf, not trying to consolidate her grip on power by accepting to step down peacefully, unlike other African leaders,” he said.

The election is important for the African continent. In similar post-conflict countries such as Rwanda and Uganda the transfer of power from one president to the next have not taken place, a matter which keeps the political climate tense with sporadic incidents of violence.

The AU observer commission in Liberia is led by Erastus Mwencha, former deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission. The 66-member team consists of observers deployed for the short and long term and four core analysts.

“The objective of the African Union Election Observation Mission is to make an independent, objective and impartial assessment of the presidential elections in the Republic of Liberia in accordance with the national, regional and international standards for democratic elections,” the mission said in a statement.

The official website of the country's National Elections Commission estimates that election results could be finalised in 14 days. This delay which could cause tensions among the competing candidates. In the poll the position of president was contested by 20 candidates.

Controversy was sparked when football legend George Weah announced jailed former president Charles Taylor's wife Jewel Howard-Taylor as running mate.

Senator Jewel Howard-Taylor

Charles Taylor was convicted by the International Criminal Court and is serving a 50-year jail term for war crimes. Allegations are that these are his attempts at re-entering and dictating Liberian politics from prison.

Johnson Sirleaf's departure from the highest post in Liberia will leave Africa with only one female head of state in Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib.

Liberia has very few female MPs with a combined nine legislators who are women in its lower and upper houses. Female legislators represent only 8.7% of members in the Liberian parliament.

This election will shrink global female representation among heads of state to just 14 out of 193 countries. At the global level women make up 23% of legislatures.

Mariatu Fonnah, governance manager at Gender Links, says that the lip service paid to gender representation relegates women to mere consumers in political decision-making processes.

“They become secondary in decision making rather than at the core of decisions that affects them," Fonnah said.

“Their exclusion means that their lived experiences and plight are not truly reflected and addressed. Women need to play an active part of decision making and be in strategic roles within politics, parliament local government and all other sectors.”


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