Africa rising as election in Liberia deepens democracy

George Weah (L) Joseph Boakai (R) Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI and SEYLLOU / AFP

Months after military coup d’etats in Niger Republic and Mali that blighted Africa’s democratic credentials, last Friday’s concession of defeat by Liberia’s incumbent president and football legend, George Weah, to the opposition leader, Joseph Boakai, after a fiercely-contested presidential election, has indicated the deepening of democratic culture on the continent despite the setbacks.

Boakai reportedly beat Weah by just over 28,000 votes after counting of votes in the runoff election conducted on November 14, this year, by the National Elections Commission after the initial poll held on October 10 failed to produce a winner.

Weah had failed to secure enough votes to avoid a runoff in the West African nation’s elections, with almost all the results counted. He had garnered 43.79 per cent of votes in the October 10 poll, while former Vice President Joseph Boakai polled 43.49 per cent, according to provisional results released by the Commission.

The results indicated that none of the contenders could get more than 50 per cent of votes cast — the threshold required to be declared winner.

Results of last Tuesday’s runoff poll published by the electoral commission after tallying the ballots from the polling stations gave Weah 49.11 per cent of the votes cast while Boakai polled 50.89 per cent. Even before the commission could formally announce the results, Weah conceded defeat to Boakai in a national broadcast last Friday evening, thereby strengthening democracy in the country and setting the pace for other African democratically elected leaders.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, the CDC (party) has lost the election, but Liberia has won. This is the time for graciousness in defeat, to put national interest above personal interest.

“The Liberian people have spoken, and we have heard their voice. However, the closeness of the results reveals a deep division within our country,” Weah said in his speech.

A public affairs analyst, Mr. Jide Ojo, while noting that it is one of the rare occasions when a president of an African country will be defeated at the polls and will concede defeat, emphasised, “this is the kind of thing we need in Africa.”

He stressed: “This is the kind of thing that can stabilise our polity. This is the kind of thing that can checkmate military adventurism in politics. Liberia has a history of violence from the civil strife that they faced in the 90s, with Nigeria wading in to stabilise the country through ECOMOG. So, this is the kind of thing that can stabilise the polity.

“If former President Goodluck Jonathan hadn’t conceded defeat in 2015, you knew how much threats the Niger Delta militants made in the press ahead of that election. You saw Elder Godswill Orubebe trying to disrupt the collation of votes at the INEC collation centre in Abuja. So, if Jonathan didn’t concede defeat, I’m not sure whether we would have had Nigeria by now. But his conceding defeat really doused tension and helped the country to stabilise. So, we should celebrate George Weah for conceding defeat; for putting the country first; for not trying to rig himself back into office.

“The outcome of the first ballot showed that Liberians were tired of him; they really didn’t want him again. He was more or less trailing. I wish the President-elect well but he must know that the cane used to beat the senior wife is on the roof top for the younger one.”

Ojo commended the Liberian voters for making their choice very clear by voting out an incumbent but urged them to moderate their expectations because the challenge to turn things around in any of the African countries is enormous.

On the import of the outcome of the election on democracy in Africa, Ojo stated that it shows that democracy is getting rooted in Africa.

He added: “Now we can cite this example of George Weah conceding defeat; we can cite the example of Goodluck Jonathan conceding defeat in Nigeria. We can also cite the example of Ghana, which has become bastion of democracy in Africa. We can also cite the example of Kenya, where William Ruto, even against the wish of his former boss, Uhuru Kenyatta, was able to defeat Raila Odinga, an old warhorse and was backed by Kenyatta.

“So, we need to celebrate these baby steps that show that elections in Africa and the ballot is still the best way for a change of government. The moral lesson is that military take over of power is not the best way; it’s still better to have change of government through the constitutional means of having elections. It shows that the votes of the people of Liberia have counted just like the votes of Nigerians counted in 2015. And it is not only when the opposition wins that we should say the votes have counted. So, it shows that democracy is maturing in Africa and that if the military keeps to the barracks, we will right all the wrongs.”

Recall that Africa has experienced eight coups since August 2020, some as a result of poorly conducted elections that threatened the stability of the countries. For instance, on August 30, this year, a coup d’état occurred in Gabon shortly after the announcement that its former president Ali Bongo Ondimba, then the incumbent, had won the general election held on August 26. Before the Gabon coup, there was the overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger Republic on July 26, this year. Bazoun was elected president two years ago in the nation’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960.

Also speaking on the development in Liberia, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Port Harcourt, Dr. Obinna Nwodim, described the concession of defeat by Weah to the opposition leader as a mark of political maturity, which other African leaders should emulate.

Nwodim, however, stated that political observers saw the defeat coming because Weah had gone out of favour from the people, as the citizens were not favourably disposed to his government and therefore needed a breath of a fresh air.

According to him, “there was nothing he could have done than to subject himself to the will of the people.”

Nwodim noted that Weah’s defeat at the poll has sent a signal to other African leaders that they need to perform and deliver dividends of democracy to the people otherwise the people would reject them.

“This is a big lesson to him and other African leaders. What he has done could be likened to what former President Goodluck Jonathan did in 2015. Jonathan conceded defeat to former President Buhari; he displayed elements of statesmanship and political maturity where he (Jonathan) affirmed that no blood of any citizen is not worth his ambition. So, Weah has joined the league of statesmen like Jonathan because if he didn’t concede defeat, there would have been political instability in Liberia.”

Nwodim, however, observed that Weah’s action was a complete shift from the current prevailing situation in Nigeria “where the nature and character of politics is that anyone who captures power captures strength and wealth”, noting that that is why politicians are desperate to get into power just to access the nation’s treasury.

He added that Nigerian politicians do anything possible including instigating violence and engaging in vote buying just to win elections.

“Political position is like an investment here and when they get there, they need to recoup their investment. This is happening because many Nigerians are very poor; so, once they give them food, they sing their praises. But I urge Nigerians to be politically conscious, rise up to the occasion and elect people who have the people at heart.

“It may not be easy at the moment due to the level of poverty in the land but if we are intentional, steady and focused, we can get the right leaders. Also, the leaders should work and endeavour to write their names in gold,” Nwodim said.

A public policy strategist, Jude Ndubuisi, also stated that Weah’s action sends a message that democracy is stabilising and has come to stay in Africa.

He added that the step taken by the Liberian president says a lot about the organisation and acceptance of election results in that country.

Speaking in similar vein, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to go and understudy its Liberian counterpart on how to conduct a free, fair and transparent poll.

HURIWA’s National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, stated that the resolve by Weah to concede defeat to his rival in the presidential poll is not only salutary but it’s also worth emulating by African leaders.

He noted: “The Liberian president has shown remarkable faith in democracy and he has demonstrated that political office is about service to the people and not about self. His decision to accept the result of that hotly contested poll is excellent and should be celebrated in Africa and everywhere that democracy reigns.

“This exemplary attitude is what we need in Africa’s largest democracy which is Nigeria but the problem we have in Nigeria is that the election management body known as INEC is populated by opportunistic appointees of politicians and these persons who are either the Chairman or the National or Resident Commissioners have by their past misconduct and mismanagement of the elections, showed that they are not patriotic and they are not professionals but are only involved to the extent of what resources they would be able to amass. The case of Liberia is different.

“The election management body in Liberia is not populated by persons who are ethically challenged or people with moral deficiencies. The Liberian election organising body has by the transparent, fair, free and peaceful ways they conducted both the first presidential poll and the run-off election, demonstrated that they mean well for Liberia and not like what obtained in Nigeria’s past elections whereby the election managers, often sell the results to the highest bidders.

“Perhaps, after we reform the legislative and constitutional frameworks that are the enabling laws of INEC, we as a country should send INEC officials to Liberia, to undertake a study of how they conducted these last two elections with minimal disputes.

“Basically, the case of Nigeria is such a notorious case study of how not to organise election due to the bribery of voters and the officials of INEC; so, they manipulate the outcomes of the election. And due to impunity and lawlessness, those who manipulate elections in Nigeria often aren’t prosecuted and punished.

“What has happened in Liberia is symbolic. It is essentially a lesson to the world that all is not totally bad with democracy in Africa. The Liberians have shown the world that democracy works in Africa, but the problem of democracy is with some greedy politicians who are so unprincipled, indisciplined and corrupt.”

HURIWA emphasised, “Africans should and must celebrate the Liberian people for telling the world that contrary to what has happened in some few West and Central African nations, whereby badly rigged polls made the military to seize political power, the people of Liberia have demonstrated that they have made democracy to work for them and that election management must incorporate the virtues of patriotism and adherence to the principles of the rule of law.”

To the National Publicity Secretary of Youth Party, Ayodele Adio, an incumbent congratulating the winner of a free and fair election should not be a cause to celebrate.

He, however, noted, “this is West Africa, where several countries in the last few years have fallen into dictatorship.”

Adio stated while Weah may only have only conceded defeat, he has inadvertently given democracy a timely booster and reinforced the ideal that the people have the power to change their leaders via the ballot.

“It is also a shining example that despite its flaws, democracy can thrive in West Africa, even if we define success by simply the transfer of power from one democratic elected president to another.

“More importantly, worth stressing is the fact that Africa has no more need for strong men but for strong institutions. And the only way to build strong and enduring institutions is to be guided by a credible process and a strict adherence to the rule of law.

“This is what Weah has demonstrated and one can only hope that the culture becomes a contagion in West Africa,” he said.

A Senior Lecturer in Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Dr. Olugbenga Abimbola, also commended Weah for demonstrating the spirit of sportsmanship, adding that his action was a glimmer of hope for Africa.

Abimbola said: “The result of the election in Liberia is a welcome development; best for the West African sub-region and the entire Black race.

“We have been stigmatised all over the world that we Black people lacked the capacity to organise ourselves; lacked the capacity to organise elections let alone to even govern ourselves.

“But what has happened in Liberia is a pointer to the fact that we still have some glimmer of hope in Africa.

“If you look at what has happened in Africa, especially West and Central Africa, eight military coups had been executed in the last two years. Gabon, Mali, Niger and others where there had been military coups, most of them have been traced to flawed electoral processes.

“What has happened in Liberia should teach us a lesson that instead of trying to overthrow government from a forceful point of view, we should have faith in the electoral system. Electoral system in West Africa and in Africa, there nothing really bad about them; it is the players and politicians that are not allowing things to work.”

The Executive Director of International Press Centre, Mr Lanre Arogundade, who was in Liberia for election duties, said the process must be transparent and be seen to be transparent at all stages, disclosing that the Liberian process allowed for cross checking and correction of errors that might have emanated from the polling units at the County (State in Nigetia) tallying (collation) level before the results were sent to the NEC in Monrovia.

“Party agents, local and international observers participated in the process and everyone present was given a copy each of each result from each polling place (unit). That way errors cannot go unnoticed

“The two political parties had well trained agents who knew their onions and who ensured they had results from each polling place (unit or booth). Therefore, both parties had record of their performance before national collation. From the experience I am seeing emerging democratic hopes amidst daunting task of transiting from under development.

“With just a population of five million but with a better known history of devastating violent conflicts, Liberia may be teaching vital lessons in democratic conduct, the challenges here and there notwithstanding. The bigger news that would emerge subsequently however will be the transparency of the process, the conduct of the people whose patience seems limitless and that of the political parties.

The police are obviously ill equipped and under numbered, yet no gun shots at polling areas, no cutlass wielding and no ballot box snatching by political thugs or touts.”

On his part, Auwal Ibrahim Musa said that the Liberian electoral body, and politicians must be commended for doing what is responsible, which is what is expected from the electoral body to organise free, fair and credible election.

“In Liberia, we did not see all the dirty things, what we saw a credible process that will not allow the judiciary to take over the role of the electoral body.

“And this is what we expect our politicians to do. To know when they are actually defeated and accept the outcome without truncating the process.

He maintained that politicians across the region have a lot to learn from the humility and responsible politics of George Weah, stating that they need to learn that it is not do or die affair and electoral fraud does not give integrity.

“Politicians, electoral body and security have a huge lesson because in Nigeria, some people believe that having the security, judiciary and electoral to win election and not on the basis of popular support or credibility and integrity of the system and mass mobilization or programmes that would bring development.

He added that Liberia and Weah have shamed those who believe that election is a do or die affair. “We know of a former president that said election is a do or die affair. It is the reason we do not see the best in terms of candidate and those who win election as the whole process is commercialised. It is all about using dirty money to get in there. If election is conducted in a credible and free, fair manner, if the party primaries is fair and internal democracy allowed, we would not see the kind of things we are seeing in Nigeria and other countries.

“The election in Liberia has seriously put a huge shame on the Nigeria electoral and judicial systems. This is because Nigerians are gradually loosing confidence on both systems as many politicians will rig elections and engage in fraudulent practices asking the people to go to court. This is because as far as they are concerned, they have enough dirty money to bribe the system aside conniving with security agencies. Reason, when they rig election, they tell you go to court and when you go to court, many believe there is no justice there because justice has become what is bought.

“This is shame because democracy is not about using dirty money to maneuver and control votes. It is about political accountability and sound programmes for the election. But in Nigeria, politicians largely depend on the use of dirty money, security agencies, electoral bodies, judiciary to claim victory even where they did not win election.”