Building Democracy: An Historic Transition in Liberia With a Helping Hand From the U.S.

January 22, 2018 By USGLC Guest Contributor

Liberia has reached a critical milestone of progress. Today’s inauguration of President George Weah, succeeding President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, marks the first time since 1944 the country has seen a peaceful transfer of power.

As with any democracy, the process was not flawless and major conflicts remain — but the transition represents a victory for the world with the emergence of a more stable democracy in Africa.

From Crisis to Democracy:

Liberia has seen tremendous progress in the last 15 years. Following the most recent civil war, the country elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 — the first democratically elected female leader in Africa. Over her 12 years in power, the country worked to expand opportunity and build its economy.

Sirleaf’s tenure was far from problem-free, with accusations of corruption and nepotism and criticism over insufficient poverty reduction clouding her legacy. Still, peacebuilding efforts led her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and her work alongside President Obama helped combat the Ebola epidemic that plagued the country in 2014.

While the election marks a turning point for the country, it also casts a shadow on Sirleaf’s legacy, as she was expelled by her own party just this month for what they viewed as election meddling that contributed to their party’s 2017 defeat.

Weah also stirred controversy around his running mate, Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of warlord Charles Taylor who started the country’s most recent civil war. Following a legal battle and much controversy, Weah went on to win a resounding victory, with over 60% of the vote.

Weah, a former soccer star, challenged Sirleaf on two occasions without success, but with Sirleaf stepping down, he finally received the support he needed. Weah defeated the sitting vice president and several others. He takes over the presidency with only minimal experience in public service, but with a large margin of victory as a possible mandate for making change.

Despite dissention and controversies still hovering over last year’s election, today’s transition is a monumental step towards sustainability in Liberia’s democratic governance.

U.S. Democracy Support:

While credit for this historic achievement rests with the Liberian people and their quest for democracy, we must also acknowledge the impact of U.S. development assistance and democracy support.

Liberia’s election was carried out by the Liberia National Elections Commission, but USAID-funded programing helped provide the backbone for a successful election, paving the way for the smooth transition between democratically elected governments.

Programing ranged from essential election monitoring services, to technical assistance for political parties, to promoting civic engagement and supply assistance for poll watching and debates prior to the election. Much of this programming was carried out by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a group that has been in Liberia since 1997, when it began election monitoring and education programing. Following the country’s civil war, the institute set up a permanent Liberian presence to support democracy building and progress towards civic engagement.

Following the election, NDI also released its statement of findings and recommendations to the people of Liberia, congratulating the country on its success and giving the Liberian people suggestions for the future.

Throughout the process from start to finish, this U.S. funded programming helped provide some the support and assistance necessary to make this transition possible. It is impossible to know how this process may have unfolded without U.S. investment, but the success illustrates how investment and partnerships with emerging democracies can help lead the way to a more peaceful world.

The Road Ahead:

President Weah will face tremendous challenges as the untested politician works to lead Liberia forward.

This task was summed up by President Goodluck Jonathan, a leader of NDI’s Liberian election observer delegation and the former President of Nigeria, in his post election statement. He said, “Democracy goes beyond Election Day, and if Liberia succeeds, West Africa succeeds, Africa succeeds, and the world succeeds.” NDI’s presence in Liberia will remain to monitor the electoral process and provide support, but the ultimate responsibility will rest with the people of Liberia.

Indeed, the challenges ahead of Liberia are vast, but the successful peaceful transition of power for the first time in well over a generation is no small feat. It is a resounding testament to the resilience of the Liberian people and yet another example of the tremendous impact of U.S. foreign investment.

photo description: A Liberian woman submitting her vote in a ballot box.
photo credit: Brittany Danisch