Elections 2005: Still Anyone’s Game

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 5, 2005


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Three weeks after the official opening of the campaigning period for the 2005 general and presidential elections whence some 800 candidates will be vying for the presidency and seats in the two legislative houses, things have quieted down somehow. In the first days of the campaign, political parties, notably the Unity Party (UP) of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) created a momentum but things now have fallen into a slower mood. Some parties have adopted a quieter mode of campaigning, staying away from the media and the streets of Monrovia, knocking on doors and targeting specific neighborhoods, places of worship and the rare villages left standing.

Campaign 2005 Posters and Flyers
Campaigning in and around Monrovia has somehow receded to a lower gear, and if it were not for the sporadic convoys speeding through the city with mostly unemployed youth hanging on pick-ups and vans blaring out loud music, one would think that the political season has come and gone. The first set of posters placarded around Monrovia have either been washed away by torrential rains or disfigured by vandals. It seems that political parties have run out of T-shirts… and rice. Even the usual crowd on the phenomenal campus of CDC has considerably thinned, not withstanding the free food and continuous concert. On Sunday afternoon, a soccer match on the premises drew only a few hundreds on-lookers.

Weather and Road Conditions Affect Campaigning
The slowdown of the campaign can be credited to at least two factors. The first is the weather. “One can never imagine how much rain can fall from the sky until you spend a rainy season in Monrovia,” my friend likes to say. Mr. Winston Tubman, the standard bearer of the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) was scheduled to launch his campaign this gone Saturday but it was pouring cats and dogs. Although Monrovians are out in the streets running their errands, it would be hard to imagine anyone standing outside in the rain to listen to a political speech.

Another reason for the slowdown of the campaign may be caused by the conditions of the roads that make any movement in the interior a real nightmare. Beyond Kakata, Harbel and Tubmanburg, it is practically impossible to move around the country. And very few campaigns can afford the 4WDs needed to ravel outside of the capital. It takes more than three days to reach Maryland. But then again, even if the roads were practicable, the great majority of voters – close – to 75 percent of them - live in the Monrovia enclave, the only safe heaven in the country for many years.

Same Campaign Themes All Around
The lack of real policy and political differences between the various platforms put forward by the political parties has reduced the debate to the issue of personality. During each of the first three debates, one or more of the presidential candidates said: “all the platforms are alike, the only difference is to find the person who can best implement the programs.” The issues facing Liberians can be reduced to matters of survival and the need to get the nation on par with other developing countries in the next few years. Every candidate promises to bring pipe born water and electricity in the shortest possible time. They promise free education and healthcare with variances, they promise roads and “development.” Reconciliation is another big theme, along with the eradication of corruption.

A `Volatile Electorate
One of the most devastating consequences of the war was the destruction of villages and rural communities, causing great population movements that led to the breakdown of the “natural” tribal and ethnic power centers. This breakdown and dispersion of ethnic communities has also had an impact on ethnic identities and allegiances. By moving from one place to another and living in refugee camps and in strange places, Liberians became less and less attached to ethnic identities, although such identity served at times used as a shield. For example, Krahns who moved across the border into Ivory Coast and back into Liberia to settle in urban centers –or displaced camps - rather than returning to their villages have established new political and cultural linkages. The same goes for almost all major tribal groups in the country. The uprooting and forced urbanizations of rural people led to the birth of a new culture, where many people feel “freed” from “ethnic obligations.”

The old tradition of tribal chiefs paying allegiance to a political party or candidate on behalf of an entire ethnic group does no longer hold. In the past 15 years, tribal chiefs have become refugees and displaced people as anyone else and their power has all but evaporated. However, in a game of denial, candidates continue to pay for such “supports,” to the great delight of chiefs who have no illusion as to their capacity to bring their flocks to vote one way or another. This breakdown can best be seen in the number of candidates in areas or among ethnic groups that usually put forward a united front by lining behind one candidate like the Mandingoes and the Lofa people, now with the greatest numbers of political aspirants for president and vice-president.

The Youth and the New Culture
Young men and women, in their thirties, who have been subjected to or were active participants in more than three wars in their lifetime constitute now the great majority of the electorate. The first wave of the war hit them in their early teens. The few who have experienced pipe born water, electricity, normal school years and regular classes with real vacations in between are the ones who lived as refugees in the sub-region. Many of them grew up fending for themselves; either in displaced persons centers, in the streets of Monrovia or in war zones. These voters were in their early teenage years when Samuel K. Doe overthrew the government to rule the nation until Charles Taylor removed through war `him to become president. He too was chased from power by the combined forces of two warring factions. As they prepare to go to the polls, these “twenty-to-thirty somethings” have a different take on reality. Their understanding of words such as education, good governance, democracy, accountability and other buzzwords used by the candidates may surprise more than one.

The Lost Generation
The older generation, currently aged 40 – 60s, has by far been more affected by the wars and the quarter of century of instability that the country has been through, since 1980 than any other group of people. Many in this generation had just graduated from college and had embarked on a career when the military coup disrupted all their beautiful laid plans. They grew up in the later ears of President William Tubman and reached maturity under President William Tolbert who was moving Liberia into a modern era, with a more open and democratic political process at the horizon. His death and the irruption of the military onto the political scene caused the demise of a burgeoning middle class. That generation, today in its 40-60s, has been dissipated by the war and exile. Its remaining members are now those running for office, finding it difficult to articulate a political vision, because stranded between two generations it can hardly relate to: the youth who grew up during the wars and the elders, a dying species, who miss Tubman…

When the young people now say they don’t trust “book people”, their words are targeting members of this generation, that has promised so much but never had the chance to put any of its ideas to work. The “lost generation” includes the group that started the intellectual revolution on the campus of the University of Liberia in the 1970s and those who, in other arenas sought to reshape the Liberian state, with names such as Amos Sawyer, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Baccus Matthews, Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Dew Mayson, and the list goes on. Can the “lost generation” not only re-structure its political vision but also connect with the younger generation?

A New Social Environment
The breakdown of families, extreme poverty as a result of the war took a tool on “family values.” More and more Liberians go to church or mosques, if the crowds on Fridays and Sundays out of places of worship are any indication. This new religiosity in the context of the dislocation of the family as the primary center for personal values creates a new psychosocial persona that many of those running for office can hardly relate to.

The inability of the candidates to develop a coherent political discourse targeting identifiable political clients is a reflection of this volatility of the electorate. The only sure thing in these elections is that Liberian voters are desperate and downtrodden. Running water and electricity are promises that sound almost too good to be true to them. Many voters simply say they “don’t buy it.” In the past six years, two presidents – Charles G. Taylor and Charles G. Bryant - made the same promises and never came even close to fulfilling them. Broken promises, hard times, desperation and hunger have instilled a new cynicism in Liberians voters. “Dream big,” said Taylor. “There will be no business as usual,” promised Gyude Bryant. The same struggles continue.

An observer said that if one were to scan “crowd photos” from the different political rallies, many faces could turn out to be the same. It is as if voters are trying to get as much as possible before the season is over. Candidates now have turned into cash machines. They have to pay for everything.

As one candidate said recently, “All I am sure of is that I have to pay everybody… I have to give rice, money and T-shirts to the partisans. Before I go to a community, I have to send rice and money for the cooks. I have to pay for the drummers. I have to pay the traditional chiefs. I have to buy gasoline for every car in my convoy and pay for repairs, including flat tires. I have to provide transportation to my vice-presidential candidate and feed his family because he had to quit his non-paying government job to be on my ticket. I have to pay for every newspaper article and picture… If I don’t get elected, I am on my way to exile… again and for good. How could I live here again?” The mechanics down the road from our house says that he has been collecting as much t-shirts as he can, “for my children when school opens.”

How About A Second Round?
Three weeks into the campaign, there is already a sign of fatigue, both for candidates and the electorate. In case none of the candidates wins at least 51 percent of the vote, there will be a runner off between the top two candidates. This is dreadful situation that no candidate looks forward to. But as things stand, it is hard to predict or even conceive that any of the political party could mount a campaign to ensure a first round victory. May be this aspect of the constitutional should have also been suspended. Anyone of the 22 candidates grapping 51 percent of the ballots cast by the 1,300.000 voters on October 11, could rightly claim to have received a mandate from the people of Liberia.

October 11, 2005th seems so far away. The marathon has just begun.