Can Ellen Johnson Sirleaf win the trust of Liberia?
In Liberia, loyalty matters. When Weah ran for president in 2005, he said he’d try to seek justice for Doe’s murder. Weah campaigned heavily in the southeast, including Grand Gedeh. At a rally in Doe’s home village of Tuzon, Doe’s sister Edith grabbed the microphone. “We’ll never forget you coming here,” she said. “You’ve got our vote.” In 2011, Weah revisited the same areas as has he had in 2005, making it to towns in Grand Gedeh that Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party ignored.
But on November 8, 2011, the day of the second-round vote, the opposition CDC pulled out of the second round of voting, citing “fraud and irregularities” in the October 11th first round. More viscerally, the boycott came a day after an election eve rally at CDC headquarters turned violent, leaving at least one opposition supporter dead and at least eight more seriously wounded in clashes with riot police. The CDC dubbed it “Black Monday.” It was the worst riot to hit Liberia in years, but a government-backed investigative commission called it “a disturbance” in a report. The opposition CDC still appeared on the ballot paper and the election went ahead as planned – albeit with a turnout of less than 40 percent. With the boycott in place, Johnson-Sirleaf – who, like her former ally Taylor, is part Americo-Liberian – won more than 90 percent of the vote and a second term in office.
In Johnson-Sirleaf’s autobiography the President admitted contributing funding to Taylor’s pre-war rebellion. But she also pushed through an extradition request when Taylor was in exile in Nigeria, facilitating his passage to the Special Court in Sierra Leone at its seat in The Hague. “We must recognise that Liberia is greater than any one person, tribe or group of people,” she said at the time, from Monrovia.
Had it not boycotted the runoff, the CDC was still unlikely to beat the incumbent, even in places like Grand Gedeh where she was unpopular. Among the party’s numerous problems, it was running out of cash. Johnson-Sirleaf’s glowing reputation meant she could attract donors with ease. Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, a fan of his female counterpart, offered up $6 million, while Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos gave $5 million. According to sources within Johnson-Sirleaf’s government who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party had about $20 million to splash out on its campaign. It flew helicopters low over Monrovia’s beaches, sprinkling leaflets onto the sand like confetti. Construction workers barely making thirty dollars a month walked over and watched.
Tubman and Weah struggled to raise funds. They had about $200,000 to spend during the run up to the first ballot, but for the second, they couldn’t hire the stadiums, dancers, and singers that Liberians expect at campaign rallies. Since the boycotted election, Johnson-Sirleaf has rarely visited Grand Gedeh or the southeast. In 2009, during her first term, she left with egg on her face after disinviting a youth group to a forum she was hosting on youth issues. She’d known that they wanted to ask about a promised community college in Zwedru that hadn’t been opened, years after funding was allocated.
“Mismanaged funds, again,” said Jim Gwegwie, a teacher in Zwedru, by telephone after the second round. Under his breath, he muttered the name “Bailey.” Chris Bailey was Grand Gedeh’s superintendent, the top government official in the county and a Johnson-Sirleaf appointee. Wildly unpopular among Grand Gedeh’s ethnic Krahn, he had been accused of—and denied—financial malpractice on several occasions.
“In September, the Liberian education board was decentralized, with a ceremony in Zwedru,” Gwegwie said. “Lots of people were invited, but none of the youth were there. Can you imagine? An education ceremony! With no students!”