Good news and bad news in Liberia

Before we review the highlights of 2017, there’s one last election. The West African nation of Liberia went to the polls on Boxing Day for the second round of its presidential election, with victory going to former soccer star George Weah, at his second attempt.

Liberia doesn’t make the headlines very often. It was the scene of a particularly violent coup in 1980, and then near-continuous civil war from 1989 to 2003. A peace deal and a transitional government then led to the election in 2005 of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female head of state elected in Africa. She was re-elected in 2011, and after serving the maximum two terms she leaves office next month.

In the first round, held on 10 October, Weah (who lost to Sirleaf in 2005) led the field with 38.4%, almost ten points clear of incumbent vice-president Joseph Boakai on 28.8%. Another three candidates had between 7 and 10%, and there were a multitude of also-rans. The run-off was originally scheduled for 7 November, but was delayed while the supreme court heard and dismissed a challenge from the third placegetter, Charles Brumskine.

The second round result was clear: Weah won with 61.5%, a margin of about 270,000 votes (that’s with 98.1% of polling places reporting). Turnout was a modest but respectable 56.0%.

This has been a pretty good year for African democracy. Kenya had a disputed presidential election annulled by the supreme court and re-run; Gambia’s long-serving ruler lost office; Somaliland, despite being internationally ignored, elected a new president; Senegal held peaceful parliamentary elections; and Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, one of the continent’s most notorious autocrats, was finally removed.

And now Liberia looks like managing its first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in well over a century.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Weah has some fairly unsavory political connections. One of the components of his coalition is the National Patriotic Party, the vehicle of former rebel leader and president Charles Taylor, currently serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes. Weah’s running mate, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is Taylor’s former wife.

Sirleaf’s administration has been well regarded internationally and generally seen as a progressive force in the region. Weah is much more of an unknown quantity.

On the other hand, broad coalitions and strange bedfellows are not unusual in Africa (or in many other places), and a successful democratic transition is always to be welcomed. Democracy has been battered a bit in 2017, but it survives, even in some unfamiliar settings.

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