Thursday, 20 October 2011

It Will Hold

It would be an understatement to say that Liberia has been making history in the past couple of weeks. Two Liberian women shared the Nobel Peace Prize along with a woman from Yemen. One of these women is a sitting head of state who is also hoping to win a second term during one of the most crucial elections in Liberia's history raising questions about the timing of the Prize. Despite a lot of anxiety and worries, the elections were convened peacefully but none of the 15 parties clinched the required 51% of the votes. This was predicted all around and run offs are slated for the 8th of November. Furthermore, the third most successful party has declared its support for the ruling party giving an interesting twist to Liberian politics. The party is led by none other than Prince Johnson, notorious former warlord famous for cutting off Samuel Doe's ear and then proceeding to killing him, now leading a calm life as a born again Christian pastor and Senator from Nimba County.  Finally, it would be noteworthy to mention the good work Liberians in general have done in putting the whole show together as these are the first Liberian-run elections in a couple of decades. The elections were declared FFT (free, fair and transparent) by the host of international observers that have descended into Liberia for these historic elections, including a former Nigerian General. Lastly, history was also made by the Liberia Media Centre for independently providing minute to minute exit polls through their website and social media presence which were actually matched by the National Elections Commission (NEC) results too. 

Prince Johnson, The Queen Maker

Tuesday's BBC article "Liberia's Vote: Prince Johnson Backs President Sirleaf" quoted Prince Johnson as saying Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was "the lesser of two evils." There is something ironic about him using word evil so casually. Not to mention that he comes off sounding very smug because of the sheer sway he knows he could have in these elections. This is a historical juncture where Prince Johnson is able to make such a significant impact on these elections.  

Yesterday's front page headline in the local paper, The Analyst, was "No Permanent Enemy, Only Permanent Interest - PYJ Declares as NUDP Joins Forces with UP." Prince Johnson is described as the "dark horse of the 2011 presidential race" in the article. One can say he's an unpredictable dark horse who joined the opposition in saying that President Sirleaf had not succeeded in reconciling Liberians but now seeing an opportunity, has switched sides. He responded to criticism to his unpredictability by saying "I believe in adaptation base on systems. I tell you exactly what it is and don't mince on words." I am not sure whether he was quoted correctly in the paper or whether that's his English, but ignoring bad syntax, I found his words quite amusing. Sure, he doesn't mince words, he minces ears!

Prince Johnson's choice of words is amusing, witty and reflective of the kind of politics that is being played out in post conflict Liberia since August 2003, when Liberia's 14-year old civil war came to an end through a negotiated peace settlement and peace was ensured through compromise and absent of any criminal accounting. "No permanent enemy, only permanent interest" is an interesting choice of phrase to describe the opportunistic politics that has dominated Liberia since its inception. I am reminded of the slogan that the Liberian population chanted when they elected Charles Taylor to power in 1997 that goes like this: "He killed my pa, he killed my pa but I will vote for him." 

This is a country where following a negotiated peace settlement, the same actors of the civil conflict enjoy positions of power and influence in state and society. In fact, Liberia's post-war justice choices have demonstrated that there is no enemy of the state and, power and interest lead the way. It is almost as if there are not any other options and it is ironic that a famous warlord and singled-out perpetrator by Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)'s report is able to go about being so smug and influence these critical elections. It is as if there are no other political options in Liberia except for the same actors over and over again. The 'Congo' elite and former warlords, the so-called sides of the civil conflict, have come together again to control and wield power. So what has essentially changed in this post-conflict scenario, one might ask?

The ignored TRC Report was an important card that was used by the opposition during this campaign season. President Sirleaf has been accused of ignoring the Report which bars her from public office for the role she played in the civil war. She testified in the TRC process herself, admitting she financially supported Taylor and apologised for it. However, the apology was not enough and neither the fact that she was a sitting head of state to whom the Report was presented to; and so, the Report lists her as a perpetrator recommended to be barred from office for 30 years. 

I have heard Liberians say she 'has blood on her hands' or she 'brought war' to this country. This is an interesting perception. Sirleaf has admitted to giving $ 10,000 to Taylor, perhaps it was more than this and even in combination with other kinds of support. Whatever it was, it has been translated into enough of a charge to be considered an actor in the civil conflict. The Report's recommendation to bar her and others from public office and, the Report being ignored has been used fully by the opposition. That is what makes the awarding of the Nobel Prize to a named-perpetrator by the TRC even more interesting. 

The opposition does not have any more of a cleaner past than the President in a post-conflict state where the same actors from the war have found roles to play in the 'new' dispensation. Most notably we have the man at the centre of everyone's attention, the queen maker, Prince Johnson himself. How much cleaner is his past? How has he managed to re-invent himself as a born again Christian pastor and Senator and what kind of public has voted him in as a Senator  and as the leader of his party?      Not only has he been able to make the born-again Christianity work to his advantage but he also continues to present himself as a freedom fighter. 

Now, we have the President having made a pact with Prince Johnson in order to get his support and succeed at getting a second term. What bearing does this having on her distinction as a Nobel Peace Laureate? 

Just before the interesting twist was made by Prince Johnson and before Tubman, the standard bearer for the CDC Party, was hospitalised on shock at losing a key part of the opposition which had declared the results fraudulent (see hilarious picture below), I would have predicted that the TRC Report would be re-opened sooner or later. With how the opposition has used this card during the elections, one would be led to conclude that the justice issues have not died down and in fact, need to be addressed by the new regime, be it Sirleaf or anyone else. At the same time, though, the new turn of events has made me reflect upon how 'transitional justice' issues are tackled in Liberia. They have more or less been dormant in Liberia and the TRC Report has been ignored by locals as well as the international community. Perpetrators of the conflict are enjoying positions of power and respect like the rest of them. And justice issues have only come up to be used in the elections, for the advantage of discrediting the incumbent President.

And now that President Sirleaf has made a pact with the "dark horse," what chance is there of ever opening up that TRC Report and start to address those issues?  

Transitional justice in the form for criminal trials has been demanded by the public, civil society and the international community in other experiences. So far, Liberia's efforts at moving towards criminal justice has failed and it is doubtful that it will change anytime soon. It has more or less been swept under the carpet and it is doubtful that it can be freely addressed. With a Prince Johnson helping to re-crown the Queen, has the transitional justice ship sailed? Or did it sail on 18 August 2003? 

Expectations and Results

These have been exciting elections not so much for any amazing show down between UP or CDC but more so for President Sirleaf's luck and Prince Johnson's queen-making twists. 

The CDC made a smart move by teaming up with Winston Tubman, a former UN diplomat and Harvard educated economist, to deflect criticism away from former footballer George Weah's less than perfect educational and political credentials. However, they were short of any other intelligent strategy after that. In terms of an ideological platform, there's the usual buzzwords like Good Governance, AgriBusiness and Environment. In fact, if you take a look at their website, it's quite unimpressive and reads almost like a UN or World Bank Report on How to Reduce Poverty and Build a Sustainable Environmentally Friendly Gender Friendly Future. They have even incorporated the pillar language into their website which is highly amusing. 

Their campaign has actually been characterised by a lack of imagination and scandals more than anything else. They were unimaginative enough to actually use the same campaign language as the UP. The CDC-ians were labeling themselves baboon, calling the President a corrupt monkey and declared their last major rally as the monkey's funeral. This all came from the UP's campaign slogan "The "Monkey Working Baboon Wait Small."

Winston Tubman has stated that he does not care for civil liberties. George Weah threatened a journalist for taking pictures of his motorcade knocking down a pedestrian. Through out the election season, the CDC and NUDP have been aggressively posturing and even threatening trouble in case the elections did not take place free and fair. And when the elections indeed did not result in a majority for any one party, particularly their party, they cried foul! 

All in all, the opposition, particularly, the CDC lost a great opportunity to play some intelligent and mature politics in these elections. Sirleaf herself lamented the fact that she would not go head to head with George Weah which is a bit of an insult for Tubman because surely, his years of experience as a diplomat and experience has done nothing for his political image thus far: "I'm ready to take everybody on. I think the strongest person is the person who decided not to run for president. And that's unfortunate. But he decided to accept the vice presidency role maybe because he doesn't realise that when people are voting, they will be voting somebody else who is not as popular as he is." ("Weah's Decision Was Unfortunate" in Daily Observer, 10.10.2011)

It is Prince Johnson who has come out of this as a better political player who seized an opportunity when he saw it. 

The run offs and the period leading up to the run offs will be exciting still and I certainly am enjoying this interesting phase in Liberia's history. 

If I dare make a prediction, to borrow a local phrase, "it will hold," meaning that the current regime will come back again and President Sirleaf will enjoy another 6 years of power. With all the honours bestowed on her by the international community and her local political successes, she is going to be written into history books as the mother of the nation, an image that she has been working hard to project.

No comments:

Post a Comment