Liberian elections: on the international agenda?

Refugee housing in Cote d’Ivoire

With the violence in Cote d’Ivoire not so long behind us, I find myself wondering why I have seen so little in the international media about the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Liberia due to take place in just over a week.

For fear of becoming the voice of bleak electoral commentary on this blog, I think it’s important to be realistic about the situation in Liberia and the huge impact that a failure to ensure peaceful elections could have on the broader region. Elections are due to be held in Sierra Leone next year and what happens in Liberia on 11 October will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on its neighbours.

Broader regional stability has already been severely rocked by the events in Cote d’Ivoire and fighting is still reported in border regions. There is also creeping insecurity in Guinea.

Young Liberians were conscripted to fight in Cote d’Ivoire and as a result the flow of small arms in Liberia has increased. The fear is that armed and disgruntled young people could cause real trouble during the electoral period.

Recognising the deterioration of the security situation, six ECOWAS Heads of State from Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal recently called on the UN to intensify joint monitoring and control of the border regions. On 16 September the UN Security Council made the decision to extend the life of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL), stressing the role it could play in “creating an atmosphere conducive to the conduct of peaceful elections” and emphasising the importance of border security.

As well as reports of some localised violence across Liberia, there have been further rumours of an assassination attempt on the President during campaigning in Nimba county. This was denied by the government but some Liberians remain convinced that the attempt on her life was genuine, adding to a feeling of insecurity on the ground.

The President is popular on the international scene and is a strong symbol as Africa’s first elected female Head of State. She also mobilises support at home and, unless the rumoured last-minute alliance of opposition parties comes about, the chances of her re-election seem to be high.

However, the President’s reputation has been hurt by the recent Truth and Reconciliation Committee report that exposed her for making initial financial contributions to Charles Taylor, and recommended that she be banned from government life for 30 years. Her link to Taylor is not necessarily a new revelation to Liberians but so close to the elections the TRC recommendation is not without significance.

The turmoil surrounding the invalidity of a number of votes during the constitutional referendum in August is also probably still fresh in the minds of voters, raising concerns about the handling of votes during the elections. The process also fuelled serious discord between government and opposition parties, many of whom called for a boycott of the referendum.

With all of these different factors, a peaceful process is far from assured. However, given the huge regional significance of the Liberian elections, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

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