"In the Cause of the People:" Liberian Voters Plainly Reject the "Congo-Country" Divide


William E. Allen, Ph.D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 14, 2005


Dr. William Allen
The result of the November 8, 2005 Liberian run-off election strongly indicates that the voters' choice of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was made undeniably "in the cause of the people." Voters from across Liberia’s diverse cultural landscape spurned the temptation to select a candidate based solely on his or her ethnicity, or in other words, they refused to choose someone because he or she was entirely "Congo" or entirely "Country." At the time of this writing, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has won by more than 50 percent in ten of the fifteen counties. In two of the remaining five counties that her opponent Mr. George Weah carried, the president-elect had a strong showing; she received roughly a third of the votes in Grand Kru and a third in River Cess. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this tremendous cross-cultural support for Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the genuine voice of the Liberian people. Mr. Weah’s rant about election fraud and conspiracy remains loudly unsupported, as not a single one of the nearly 4,000 international and domestic observers and journalists that monitored the election has corroborated his claim of fraud. Moreover, last Friday the Liberian Supreme Court rejected Mr. Weah’s petition that the vote count be halted; the court instead sent him back to the National Elections Commission. The Liberian electorate has sent a clear message: This is a new day in Liberia, a day when competence and character should determine one’s place in society, not whether one is "Congo" or "Country." By their unselfish act, the voters placed national interest above narrow ethnic and regional concerns. Truly, the electorate acted "in the cause of the people," a popular revolutionary slogan that some of the political losers, who are now supporting Mr. Weah, used in the past merely for rhetorical advantage.

Brief Background to the "Congo-Country" Divide
Since its inception nearly two centuries ago, the Liberian polity has been strongly influenced by ethnicity or the "Congo-Country" dichotomy. From 1822 when Liberia was established, the minority settlers from the United States monopolized political power to the exclusion of the vast majority of indigenous Africans such as Kru, Bassa, Kpelle, etc. The minority called itself Americo-Liberians. But in the mid-1900s, the indigenous majority began to refer to the Americo-Liberians as "Congo." The name was derived from of a smaller group of Africans, who were relocated to Liberia in the 1800s after being freed from slave ships; most of the Congoes claimed to have originated in the region of the Congo River in central Africa, hence the title "Congo." The Congoes lived in the homes of prominent Americo-Liberians, where they assimilated the culture and social attitudes of the settlers. Together, the "Congoes" and the Americo-Liberians dominated and exploited the much larger indigenous population. To the indigenous people, both groups were the same, hence, they called them "Congoes." It was not until 1980, more than a century later that the monopoly the "Congoes" enjoyed was brought to an abrupt end.

The man who ended that monopoly was Samuel Doe, son of an indigenous African of the Khran ethnic group who are found mainly in Grand Gedeh County. Indigenous Liberians celebrated Doe’s ascent by dancing and singing "native women born soldier," expecting him to improve their lot and end the divisive ethnic divide. Sadly, Doe's economic policy was not only ruinous, but he perpetuated the ugly "Congo-Country" division. Key positions in his government were reserved for his Khran kinfolk or select members from the allied neighboring Grebo- and Kru-speakers. Moreover, to gain political advantage, Doe employed the old "divide and conquer" tactic and revived age-old rivalries among the indigenous people. For example, he succeeded in stirring tension among the Mano\Gio on the one hand and the Khran on the other; the feud between the two sides is still simmering. Also, as recently as 2003, the "Congo-Country" divide was brought to the fore during the peace negotiations in Accra that gave rise to the present interim government of Gyude Bryant. Given the opportunity to select the new interim chairman, representatives of the LURD warring faction, who were primarily descendants of indigenous Liberians, selected Mr. Gyude Bryant supposedly because he was "Country." But in the runoff election of November 8, Liberian voters proved their political savvy by refusing to play the jaded, antiquated, and destructive "Congo-Country" game. Consequently, they chose neither a "Congo" or a "Country" person. Instead, the voters selected the most competent Liberian for the nation's highest job.

October 11, Presidential Election: Voters Send Message, Losers Miscalculate
Because none of the twenty-two candidates that participated in the October 11th presidential election received the "50 percent-plus" votes required to win, the runoff between the two front runners was set for November 8: Mr. Weah and Madam Johnson-Sirleaf had won 28 percent and 20 percent respectively. Both candidates fit the perfect stereotype of the "Congo-Country" divide. Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is generally considered "Congo," while Mr. George Weah, of Kru and Bassa ethnicity, is obviously "Country." In the October 11, election, Mr. Weah had obtained most of his votes in Grand Kru, Sinoe and Grand Bassa Counties, places where the Kru and Bassa, his ethnic groups, are in the majority. He also did well among the Krahn and Grebo, two groups that are culturally and linguistically allied with the Kru and Bassa. As the result of his strong showing in those areas, the conventional wisdom was that Weah's victory was driven by Liberia’s age-old "Congo-Country" schism. And given that "Country" people constitute the vast majority of Liberia’s population, Weah was expected to easily win the runoff election. This partially explains why most of the presidential candidates that voters rejected in the October 11th election hurriedly joined the Weah bandwagon. But these political opportunists misread the message that voters were sending.

A closer analysis of Weah's triumph in the October 11th election reveals that voters did not base their choice solely on his ethnic origin, for Mr. Weah also won among non-Kru and non-Bassa groups. For instance, he carried Montserrado with its ethnically diverse population, and he had the largest votes among the Mano and Gio of Nimba County. He came second in several counties including Bong with its Kpelle-speakers, in Bomi and its mainly Gola-speakers, and in Cape Mount where the Vai live. Therefore, Weah’s victory was not dictated solely by his Kru and Bassa background. The second place winner in the October election, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the so-called "Congo" woman, also won in predominantly "Country" counties. She carried Lofa County with its large Lorma and Mandingo population, took the ethnically-mixed Gbarpolu County, won in Bomi County with its Gola people, and bagged Margibi, home of mostly Kpelle- and Bassa-speakers. Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was also an impressive second among the Krahn in Grand Gedeh, ahead of the late Samuel Doe's NDPL. She was also second in River Gee and Cape Mount and came a strong third in Sinoe and Bong, all of which are supposedly "Country" counties. Voters had sent a clear signal in the October 11th election. If the politicians, who rushed to declare support for Mr. Weah in the runoff election had listened attentively, they would have heard this one message from the electorate: The choice for the next president of Liberia is not based solely on the old destructive politics of "Congo-Country." Supporters of several political parties, whose standard bearers had unilaterally joined Mr. Weah, publicly denounced that action and jettisoned their old parties. Thus, as a result of their shortsightedness and inflated egos, these tribal politicians set the stage for Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s overpowering victory on November 8.

Voters' Choice: Experience over Uncertainty, Not "Congo" or "Country"
In the crucial runoff election, the voters once again denounced the so-called "Congo-Country" division and embraced the concept of a single national identity. Rather than use the divisive "Congo-Country" tradition as a litmus test, voters chose experience over uncertainty. In so doing, they chose Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Mr. Weah certainly deserves credit for energizing the democratic process; he brought momentum to an otherwise lethargic campaign. However, when the critical question of leadership arose, Liberians were uneasy with Mr. Weah. His story of rags-to-riches and his celebrity as an international football player were indeed heartwarming. But beyond his celebrity, Liberians know nothing about his morality, his mental fortitude, his analytical capacity, his commitment to the tenets of democracy, and his ability to act under pressure. These are just few of the elementary qualities that a national leader must possess to succeed. Voters rightly concluded that electing Mr. Weah would have been a huge risk, particularly at a time when leadership was certain to make the difference between rebuilding Liberia and carrying on business as usual. In Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberians saw experience, competence, and a clear vision for rebuilding Liberia. After Mr. Weah swallows the disappointment of his crushing defeat, he might try to acquire some training and return in 2011 at the ripe age of 46 or so to contest the next presidential election.

Liberian voters gave president-elect Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf a compelling mandate. Her victory is convincing and reflects a national consensus. With 99 percent of the votes counted, she has won in ten of the fifteen counties, carrying eight by 60 percent or more, and two by 55 percent. Here is the breakdown: in Nimba she received 77 percent, 67 percent in Grand Bassa, 70 percent in Bong, 76 percent in Margibi, 62 percent in Cape Mount, 79 percent in Gbapolu, and 60 percent in Lofa. As further evidence of her broad national appeal, the president-elect won the ethnically diverse Montesarrado County by 55 percent, Maryland also by 55 percent, and took a third of the votes in River Gee. Unlike Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s broad national appeal in the runoff, Mr. Weah’s win is confined to the tiny southeastern region of Sinoe, Grand Kru, Grand Gedeh, and River Gee Counties. His only victory outside of the southeastern territory is in River Cess, and he carried that county by a razor-thin 51 percent to Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 49 percent. She certainly merits the title of "Iron-Lady."

I congratulate president-elect Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for her impressive victory; an overwhelming majority of Liberians from Liberia's sixteen ethnic groups have empowered her to lead the nation in its post-war reconstruction. I also extend my deepest appreciation to the Liberian people who wisely sidestepped the old "Congo-Country" gulf and cast their vote for a new day. In the new Liberia, all will be judged not by ethnicity but by their character and their qualifications. By refusing to embrace the stale politics of "Congo-Country" the voters have set Liberia on a new course. God bless Liberian voters, God bless president-elect Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and God bless Liberia. In the cause of the people, the real struggle has begun!
About the author: Dr. William E. Allen teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at weallen@theperspective.org.