Women have been at the forefront to maintain calm in a nation recovering from two brutal wars stretched across over 14 years. For them, peace is nearly as important as electing a new president.
After months of raucous rallies, campaign promises and talks of new beginnings, Liberia has held a historic election. The polls closed with few reports of violence, counting is nearly complete, and the rumour mill is working overtime on bets for who the winner is.
The National Elections Commission is yet to announce results but as trope-like as it might sound, the clear winner is Liberians' dedication to peace. Preliminary results could come as early as October 12 amid some cries of foul-play during the polls. At least one party has called for the delay in results.
For the first time since 1944, Liberians are set to see the democratic transfer of power from one government to the next. The women and the child soldiers who survived two brutal civil wars across a decade-and-a-half were the staunchest advocates of a peaceful transition.
“This is historic for this country,” National Democratic Institute (NDI) regional director for Africa, Chris Fomunyoh told TRT World, speaking from Liberia’s capital Monrovia as he observed the polls on October 10. The non-profit organisation works to support and strengthen democratic institutions globally.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s electoral victory was also historic when she became the first female president in any African country in 2005. She served two six-year terms – the maximum – and has pledged to step down once the new leader takes over.
“Stepping down without trying to amend the constitution to stay in office, as some African leaders have done recently, has created an environment for an open competition,” Fomunyoh added. “This in some ways explains why there are so many presidential candidates in the race.”
Liberia was founded by freed US slaves in 1847 but its last democratic power transfer dates back to 1943.
Sirleaf tried to help Liberia recover after the war which lasted from 1989 to 2003 killed over a quarter of a million people and displaced more than a million others. Rape, murder and mutilation were weapons of choice. Images of drugged child soldiers are seared into the memories of anyone who watched the war play out.
She was elected after a two-year transitional government with a mammoth task to bring the nation back on its feet.
And as she prepares to step down, the spotlight has been on her performance.
ActionAid Liberia Country Director Lakshmi Moore told TRT World Sirleaf assumed leadership of a country “with a history of failure in governance, accountability [and] issues of corruption.”
Sirleaf was expected to deliver basic services to the nation, including health, education, water and sanitation. Jobs, high levels of poverty and the residual effects of the war were top priorities.
According to Moore, Sirleaf made gains but overall, inequality was still too high. About half of Liberia’s population is still living in poverty.
Moore and others also expected – wanted – Sirleaf to use her platform to address female empowerment.
“She didn't address the issue of gender equality in a systematic way which we now see as she exists that some of the gains are being reversed or that women political participation is so low,” Moore said.
About 16 percent of House of Representative candidates in this election are women. Of the 20 presidential candidates, only one is female, increasing the likelihood of a male leader.
Between a warlord and a Coca-Cola exec
The third election since the end of the 2003 civil war, October 10 saw 20 presidential candidates vying for 2.18 million registered voters – that’s about half of the West African nation’s population.
The Commission has until October 25 to officially announce the results even though there are speculations a provisional count might be shared as early as October 12.
To win, a candidate must win at least 50 percent of the votes cast, plus one.
Leading up to the vote, pundits suggested a run-off vote is likely and could pit the ruling Unity Party’s current vice president Joseph Boakai and former football star George Weah, the candidate for the main opposition party, Coalition for Democratic Change. Weah could be carried to a victory on the back of the youth vote.
Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who ordered the murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990, is one of the candidates. Footage on YouTube shows him drinking beer as he watches Doe’s ear being chopped off.
There is also former Coca-Cola executive Alexander Cummings, who campaigned on bringing his business experience to the country.
MacDella Cooper is the only female candidate. Cooper fled Liberia for the US as a refugee and later spent time working as a humanitarian, focusing on child welfare in Liberia, particularly for orphaned and abandoned children.
The women who helped stop a war
For the Women In Peacebuilding Network, this election was overwhelmingly about keeping the gains made after the war.
As a rape survivor, Bernice Freeman saw and experienced the horrors of the war first hand.
Along with hundreds of other women, Freeman canvassed people in the capital to talk about their experience and how to keep Liberia violence-free. Some of these women are now grandmothers but carry the same passion to keep violence at bay.
In the weeks leading up to the election, some of the women camped out along Monrovia’s main road – Tubman Boulevard – praying, fasting and holding up signs for passing motorists to read, urging for calm.
It was the same spot they occupied 14 years ago. Their monumental protests helped end the second war.
“The war was closing in on us and they were killing the women, raping them first,” Freeman told TRT World. “Our husbands were being killed, so the women in this country, we decided we were tired of war and wanted peace.”
Leaders of the women’s network rallied for support from churches, mosques, markets and the street. Thousands of them sat in protest in Monrovia, eventually pushing for a ceasefire, international intervention and peace talks.
Freeman, now 43 and brimming with passion, said they went back to the same spot, worried about violence during the polls.
“We told them ‘We don’t want violence, so sustain the peace, and remember the past – remember where we come from’.”
On Monday, the day before polls opened, the women marched on the streets of Monrovia as a final plea to the public.
Amaze for peace
Pushing Liberians to remain peaceful during a volatile vote were the survivors of a terrible time. And their calls for peace in the months leading up to election day were successful.
Throughout the day, voters and observers told TRT World Liberia remained peaceful.
Liberian rapper Henry Amazin' Toe aka Amaze felt his efforts and those of his Hipco Network to encourage calm on the streets in the lead up to the election have paid off so far. The network comprises of a group of musicians.
Amaze is a hipco artist — colloquial hip-hop.
His Hipco Network, which works on creating “music for change” released the single ‘Know Who to Vote For’ with some other local artists in 2016 to sensitise Liberians on how to vote based on policy and not based on family, tribal or “a bag of rice,” referring to parties which use such methods to influence voters.
“It's been very peaceful so far,” Amaze said as polls were closing on October 10.
His song echoed throughout the Liberian capital of Monrovia, making him “feel very proud.”
Musicians from the Hipco Network spent the days leading up to the election working to get their non-violence, voting on policy message through the nation.
An underserviced youthful electorate
Liberians aged 35 and under comprise about 60 percent of the country’s population. Youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 85 percent – a factor that could spark violence on the streets.
A Georgetown University risk assessment report on the election stated that a “large population of young, dissatisfied and idle people” could increase the likelihood of violence.
While the voting took place without major incidents, the report noted the run-off period was when tensions would likely escalate.
The past two elections had seen violence around the run-off. If there is a second round of voting, it will be in early November.
Whoever is chosen, university student Klayjue N Tukon wants him or her to put youth top and centre.
“When the youth of this country is empowered, development will follow,” he told TRT World.
Focusing on the agricultural sector will help young people find work, boost the economy and decrease high-levels of food imports, he added.
Once the votes are in, and the results are announced, like many Liberians, Tukon wants to see a more unified nation.
“Bringing Liberians back together, making them feel happy, part of the society and making them feel this is our country and all we have — that with one mind we can develop it together — that’s another priority I want the government to take into serious consideration.”