Liberia Elections: How a Former Warlord’s Endorsement can Make or Break Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

It’s been a big week for Liberia. Following Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Nobel Peace Prize last week, the country went to the polls to elect their president. This is the first time that Liberia’s National Election Commission organizes the presidential election – in 2005, that responsibility fell on the United Nations. By all accounts, election day was peaceful and no major incidents were reported. People lined up early, for hours, in the rain, to cast their vote. Even Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stood in line – in an uncharacteristic baseball cap –  to vote.

Yesterday, the National Election Commission released preliminary results, based on roughly 10% of the precincts reporting. As it stands, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s party, the Unity Party, leads the way with 44.5%, followed by the main contender, Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change party, who garnered 26.5% of the vote so far. To win the election outright, a candidate needs at least 50% of the vote, and given that there were over 15 candidates in the running, all signs point to the possibility of a run-off, which would take place on November 11.

One candidate, Prince Johnson, a former warlord and current Senator, won about 13% of the vote, effectively putting him in the position to be the “kingmaker” in this election. He told the Associated Press: “I will be happy to be the kingmaker […] And where we will put our support will depend on what our supporters say. … We will not put our votes into someone’s hands blindly.” Prince Johnson headed the Independent National Patriotic Front during the war. An early ally of Charles Taylor, he was responsible for the gruesome murder of Samuel Doe in 1989 – something which he has no regrets about. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission “names him the No. 1 most notorious individual perpetrator and recommends that he be prosecuted for gross human rights violations and war crimes, specifically mass murder, extortion, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, and rape.” For background on Prince Johnson, I highly recommend reading Glenna Gordon’s 2009 interview with him (and his pet eagle).

Johnson’s thought to have never completed high school, and has received no university education. But in the same way that Liberians are distrustful of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s educational and professional accomplishments, Johnson offered some insight into why his lack of education doesn’t matter to lead the country – “In Liberia, 99 percent of our leaders who have a university degree do not represent their home county. The framers of our Constitution did not make education a criteri[on] for political office. Don’t look at anyone [as] ignorant because you have [a] master’s degree.”

Johnson’s strong showing in the first round of the election is key to consider, given that who he decides to endorse has a strong chance of winning overall. But what should we make of the fact that thousands upon thousands of Liberians voted for a (admittedly, non-convicted) war criminal? Clearly, the nearly unanimous endorsement of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf internationally isn’t reflected in the recent vote – even in the unlikely event that she garners over 50% of the vote in this first round, we’re not seeing a huge majority of Liberians casting their ballot for her. For The Independent, Daniel Howden offers an analysis of the view that Liberians are skeptical of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, that she has not stamped out corruption and cares very little about the plight of ordinary Liberians.

It’s a tough spot to be in for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Her early support of Charles Taylor, while it should not be excused, must be considered in light of Samuel Doe’s 10 years of brutal rule. Sirleaf was imprisoned in Liberia during that time, and she saw how badly her country was being mismanaged and run into the ground. This helps us understand why she would support someone like Taylor, who promised to get rid of Doe.

Regardless of these mitigating factors concerning her role in the civil war, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s accomplishments as president in the last five years are important to consider to try and understand why she doesn’t have a huge mass of public support behind her. What may be considered some of her most significant achievements as president – getting Liberia’s massive debt canceled, attracting foreign investment, getting financial support from the international community for reconstruction – are not necessarily felt by Liberians in their day-to-day life. Ordinary Liberians still struggle with poverty, lack of access to education and health care, poor infrastructure and formal employment remains out of reach for a huge majority of the population. Ordinary Liberians watch Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf meet and greet with the international community, jetting off to Harvard for a speech, or to Davos – there is a sense that she’s out of touch with the reality of what’s happening on the ground.

This makes her re-election bid a difficult one. As the Liberian National Election Commission continues to count the votes of the 1.8 million registered voters, we’re likely to see this election go to a second round, where Prince Johnson’s endorsement may make or break Sirleaf.