Liberia prepares for its first democratic exchange of power in 70 years

Joseph Duorto, sorts voting bins in the National Elections Commission headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia in preparation for the country's national elections in 2011. Photo by: Andrew Hida / CC BY-NC

ABIDJAN — As President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 12 years in power in Liberia comes to a close, it not only marks a milestone for Africa’s first-elected female president, but it also raises questions about her country’s future development trajectory and ambitious plans to emerge as a middle-income economy, development experts believe.

Roughly 4.3 million Liberians will queue up on Tuesday to participate in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in 70 years. So far this election cycle has been characterized by open press, successful voter registration efforts, civic education campaigns, and a robust participation of candidates — an open playing field that has supported the registration of 20 political parties.

Since the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003, the country has made notable progress in a number of areas, development experts and Africa watchers told Devex, which will be crucial to maintain and expand. These areas include civil service and public financial management reforms, infrastructure rehabilitation, a vibrant media landscape, and active civil society.

“Some people tend to forget how far they’ve come [and] it’s the basis of what’s at stake and the risks,” explained Steven Radelet, a Georgetown University professor and economic advisor to the Liberian government. “What’s at stake is continuing the progress already made, which slowed down in [Sirleaf’s] second term due to extenuating factors outside of their control: commodity prices and Ebola.”

The challenge, Radelet said, will be expanding economic growth, which requires improved infrastructure — notably, increased access and fair pricing for electricity and roads to inland cities. For the immediate future, the Liberian economy will continue to be fairly dependent on iron ore, palm oil, and agriculture, along with some urban services and construction, he said.  

“The country continues to face numerous development and economic growth challenges, as Liberia’s human development index indicators remain among the lowest in the world,” Cheryl Anderson, USAID acting assistant administrator for Africa, recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization. “Public institutions remain weak and often corrupt, contributing to a sense that civil and political rights have not led to more effective governance or economic gains.”

Post-conflict countries are most at risk of backsliding during the 5-10 years following their first elections, so recent USAID activities have focused on strengthening the rule of law, while also building capacity within government and in the education, health, and economic sectors to deliver services, Anderson explained.

With a peaceful transition in 2018, Liberia will serve as a strong democratic role model for other countries emerging from conflict. One highlight, she noted, has been ongoing improvements to governance and management of the economy, which has been successful in helping the Liberian government control its public finances. In this area, a newly elected government must continue to identify opportunities to enhance transparency, strengthen checks and balances, and support Liberians both inside and outside of government institutions.

“If Liberian institutions, citizens, donors, and partners focus our collective efforts, we can help end the pervasive corruption that threatens to undermine democratic progress, weaken citizen trust in state institutions, and hamper overall development across the country,” Anderson said.

Liberia’s large exile population could also help foster progress. Easter Tarlibo, a Liberian teacher who fled to Cote d’Ivoire during the war, said experiences abroad actually stimulated development in some ways as exiled Liberians encountered different ideas that helped create a “fixed mindset of how we want the country to be in the future.”

“Liberians [who] fled as refugees had the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world and have seen developmental aspects and have references from different countries about how societies operate and how our country can improve,” explained Tarlibo.

As Tarlibo watches many fellow Liberians return home, he said they have brought businesses and ideas on how to establish a better Liberia for the next generation. “The first thing that will bring an opening to investors and allow the economy to have a positive means of growing is infrastructure development: roads, reliable water systems, and electricity,” he noted.

In 2013, the Liberian government released its “Agenda for Transformation,” which outlines the financial plans, macroeconomic policy, and medium-term growth and development strategy that would push Liberia to become an emergent economy by 2030. However, Tarlibo argued that the plans are not widely visible to the average citizen.

Large-scale infrastructure investments will be expensive and take time to rebuild, Randelet argued. The civil war completely destroyed the national electricity grid and made many roads impassable. “As a result of that, electricity is still very expensive and with that it will be very hard to get into manufacturing and create jobs,” he said. “One of the very highest priorities economically for the very next term for the next president is to continue access to electricity and reduce the price. It’s very hard for companies to compete when they are paying such steep prices for electricity prices.”

In the short term, Liberia should focus on areas where it is already competitive — such as producing commodities — and then develop plans to rebuild the infrastructure needed to expand agriculture commercialization and industrialization efforts.

During campaign season, candidates in general have not discussed succinct development strategies, leaving many to speculate candidate priorities. Some candidates have even failed to show up to presidential debates. While many of the 20 candidates don’t possess a background that would indicate an in-depth understanding of economic development and economic strategies, current Liberian Vice President (and presidential candidate) Joseph Boakai is familiar with the foundations laid by Sirleaf and is well-positioned to continue it if elected, experts said. Other candidates such as Alex Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive, have discussed increasing budget revenues and investments in infrastructure.

“As the years progress, Liberians are getting more clarity and understanding in what they want [and] are not ready to do anything that will bring setback again,” Tarlibo argued. “Liberia became poor because of the crisis, so this time we are positive because we know what the fighting will cost, we know the consequences, so we are being very careful.”  

If no candidate garners the absolute majority, or 51 percent of votes, a runoff will take place in November, when there will likely be more in-depth scrutiny of policy propositions from the top two remaining candidates.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.