Liberia: Right wing victor in presidential elections provokes protests

Youth and poor of war-torn country oppose neo-liberalism

Baring any eventuality Liberia, the first republic in Africa, has produced the first elected female president in the continent, though this is not the first time a woman will lead the war ravaged country. George Weah, a former world ‘footballer of the year’ and his party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), have challenged the yet to be officially declared victory of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former senior loan officer of the World Bank, on the basis of allegations that the run-off election was fraught with fraud. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal filled by CDC and referred it to the National Electoral Commission (NEC) which has begun investigation into the fraud claims.

According to the NEC, Johnson-Sirleaf got 59.4% of the votes as against the 40.6% of Weah. Weah won the first round with about 30% of votes, which was not enough to form a government as the constitution requires a minimum of 51%.

Meanwhile, the 18 members of Congress for Democratic Change elected to parliament have threatened to boycott the legislature if the alleged massive electoral fraud is not adequately addressed. The CDC is the biggest party in the national assembly.

On the contrary, the international observers have adjudged the election as free and fair. But the thousands of people, mostly youth, that took to the streets on Friday, November 11, to protest the allegedly questionable victory of Johnson-Sirleaf, were not really surprised at the verdict of the observers. One of them, a 53 year-old unemployed man told IRIN, the news agency coordinated by the Secretariat of the United Nations, “The United Nations is not neutral. The international community is in cahoots with Ellen” (Johnson-Sirleaf is popularly called Ellen, her first name, by Liberians).

This reflects the general feeling of the protesters. The high-handed response of the United Nations Police in the capital city, Monrovia, to the protesters, led to two people being injured and further fuels the suspicions of complicity of the international community in the electoral process.

The international community, a euphemism for world imperialism and its various agents, like a leopard that does not change its spots, is not naturally expected to be comfortable with the support base of George Weah, which is mostly dominated by youth, the unemployed and the poor seeking a break from the old order. Although, George Weah does not put forward any programme that is fundamentally different from that of Ellen or that could guarantee a turnaround of the devastated economy, he is seen as untainted and neutral and the symbol of the much desired peace and change.

Many of Weah’s supporters see Sirleaf, a former minister of finance who once supported militia leader Charles Taylor in the civil war, as one of the elitist clique that has ruined the country in its quest for power. “I want a neutral person to rule this country, not Ellen Johnson, who has ruined this country by backing revolutions [civil wars]. We have been used by people like her”, Junior Rose, a former child soldier who fought for three different armed factions told the Financial Times (London).

Most of Liberia’s 100,000 ex-combatants, irrespective of which faction they were in, back George Weah. Another protester, an 18-year-old called, Hezekiah George, told The Independent (London), “I am not marching for George Weah, I am marching for peace and justice”.

Such a social base and high expectations could push Weah in a radical direction. Thus, imperialism cannot trust him with power, more so when a true blue imperialist pupil (Ellen) is available for the job!

Imperialist ring

A leading representative of the international community presently in Liberia is Abdul-Salami Abubakar, the former Army Chief of Staff in Nigeria under President Abacha in the 1990s. After Abacha died in mysterious circumstances, Abdul-Salami Abubakar ruled as dictator of Nigeria from 1998 to 1999. In his brief period in power, Abdul-Salami paved the way for the enthronement of an unrepentant pro-capitalist/imperialist statesman, Olusegun Obasanjo, as president. It was not accidental that Abdul-Salami left office to become an ambassador of “goodwill” for the United Nations. He surely has been called to duty in Liberia, along with other “experts”, to guide the outcome of the presidential election to the “right direction”. Prevention is better than cure, goes a popular saying.

World imperialism has vested economic interests in Liberia. The Firestone Harbel rubber plantation, owned by the US, is the biggest in the world. Also, sizeable amounts of crude oil have been discovered along Atlantic coast of Liberia. The country is the second-largest maritime licenser in the world, with more than 1,700 vessels registered under its flag, including 35% of the world’s tanker fleet.

From all indications, Weah’s recourse to the Supreme Court or NEC can only succeed in postponing the official announcement of Johnson-Sirleaf as the winner of the 8 November election. With the colossal backing of the so-called international community, the results already announced will most likely be upheld.

George Weah has spoken against mass protests, saying that, “the streets of Monrovia do not belong to violent people”. This sharply points out the contradictions between the pro-status quo Weah, and most of his supporters, who instinctively know that their aspirations cannot be met without rocking the boat.

However, the fact that Weah’s ‘appeal’ was ignored by his supporters on 11 November suggests that he may not be able to totally control the protesters, who have held several other protest marches and adopted the slogan “No Weah, No peace” should Johnson-Sirleaf be eventually declared winner.

They believe that the presidency of Johnson-Sirleaf will mean government for the interests of international finance capital and its local agents and not for the poor masses of Liberia. This is apparently why the inscription on one of the banners carried by the demonstrators boldly reads, “Liberia is for us. Give it to us”.

Liberia under Ellen

Meanwhile, the “iron lady” Ellen has not hidden her resolve to weld the Liberian economy with iron hoops to the self-serving, anti-poor policies of the World Bank and the IMF. When asked to react to the suspicion of people against her government having a close economic relationship with the international finance institutions, she told the press, “I don’t see anything wrong with that. After all, we are going to take ownership of our economic programme here, if we work with the IMF and the World Bank and they provide the money, what is wrong?” (Guardian (Lagos), November 13, 2005).

Yes, Liberia may be allowed to evolve its “home grown” economic programme. It has an able Harvard-trained and World Bank-groomed expert as its new president. But, just like Nigeria’s National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), such economic package has to be drawn in the image of the IMF/World Bank and subjected to strict monitoring of the imperialist finance institutions, before Liberia could enjoy any “goodwill” from the Bretton Wood twins. IMF or World Bank is no Santa Claus. They put their money where the self-serving economic interests of imperialism are best protected and the investment could yield super profits, which is always at the gross expense of the poor working people.

Already, Liberia along with other war devastated countries, like Somalia, Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire, has just been enlisted in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative programme of the World Bank and IMF, as a step towards getting relief from its about $3 billion external debt burden. The creditors, including World Bank and the IMF, cannot reduce, let alone forgive, the so-called $3 billion debt of Liberia, – which is miniscule to world imperialism but a huge amount to a badly ravaged economy – without being made to pay hard price. Liberia is now at what is called ‘pre-decision point’, the first stage of the programme. This means that it should have started servicing its debt and implementing harsh economic policies of structural adjustment or capitalist neo-liberal programme, as dictated by the IMF and the World Bank, to be eligible for relief. The new government has to intensify carrying out policies that include cuts in government spending, privatisation, trade liberalisation, downsizing, etc to successfully pass through the 3-stage programme and be entitled to cancellation of its multilateral debt. Johnson-Sirleaf is an unofficial adviser to the outgoing transitional government in hooking up Liberia to the HIPC initiative.

The government of Mali, which has completed the HIPC programme and had its multilateral debt cancelled by the annual meetings of IMF and World Bank on September 24 – 25, 2005 had, a week earlier, told striking workers agitating for pay rise in the face of increasingly unbearable cost of living, that one of the reasons their demands could not be met was the international demands for cuts in government spending (IRIN, September 19, 2005). This tells just little of what awaits the already impoverished working people of Liberia.

Socialism or unending horror

Thus, the neo-liberal attack that Johnson-Sirleaf is set to prescribe as the ‘medicine’ for the socio-economic ailment Liberia suffers, will further compound the perilous situation of the country. Although the 14-year long war badly destroyed the infrastructure and socio-economic fabric of the country, the economy of Liberia had been in tatters much before the civil war, due to similar pro-rich, anti-poor policies and the characteristic corruption of the pre- war governments, one of which Ellen had served (Ellen was finance minister under Tolbert’s administration). The Samuel Doe-led gang actually capitalised on the massive riots against an acute hike in food prices, beyond the reach of working people, to overthrow Liberia’s leader, William Tolbert, in 1980.

Already the human development indicators of Liberia are horrific. The 85% plus rate of unemployment is the highest in the world. More than 80 % live below the poverty line (i.e. below $US 1 a day) and the level of illiteracy is over 80%. Less than 20% of the population, estimated at 3.6 million, can write or speak English, the official language. In the year 2000, the most recent statistics of UNESCO on Liberia, 61% of primary school age and 18% of secondary school age were in schools. Of course, with the destruction of education system during the war, and emergence of child soldiers, the current figures will be much worse. Life expectancy is 41 years for men and 43 years for women. For over a decade, Monrovia has been without electricity and water, let alone the remote villages or towns. The BBC reported that there are tens of thousands of teenagers who have never seen electric light in their life.

Liberia needs huge resources to turn around its education system, health care, infrastructure (electricity, water, road, transport system, etc) and to guarantee jobs, foods, shelters and the other basics of life. Liberia is rich with natural resources, potentially making it one of the most prosperous nations in Africa. Its main exports are iron ore, diamonds, timber, rubber, cocoa and coffee. Crude oil at commercial quantity has been discovered in its coastal areas and the country makes enormous revenues from its maritime registry (the second largest in the world), which, in fact, provided the bulk of foreign exchange earnings for Charles Taylor’s government.

With its immense wealth, post civil war Liberia could jump-start its economy, set the stage for its development and provide basic needs of its population. Of course, it still requires foreign assistance in addition, but this must be without strings attached. The major obstacles that will stand on its path to economic recovery are the deadly embrace of imperialist domination of the commanding heights of its economy and the capitalist economy’s profit motive. The neo-liberal policies of discouraging public spending on social infrastructure and basic needs, which the new government is set to embrace as article of faith, will not provide any way out for the mass of the population.

Therefore, to ensure adequate provision of the basic needs of the people (food, job, shelter, education, health care, electricity, water, etc), and to guarantee overall socio-economic and human development, the commanding heights of economy must be nationalised and put under the democratic management and control of working people. This can only be achieved through a working people’s party with a socialist programme forming a workers’ and poor peasants’ government.

George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), both in programme and in leadership, is a far cry from what a genuine working people’s socialist party would be like. Nonetheless, the support which the CDC enjoys among the Liberian masses and youth, based, of course, on the false assumption that Weah is one of ‘their own’, is a graphic illustration of the scope and intensity of the mass support a truly working people’s socialist party could muster in the explosive situation that can develop. Today, the organisations of Liberian workers are weak, due to the devastating civil war. But the strike and protests, including roadblocks in Monrovia, by Liberia Telecommunication Corporation (LTC) workers, in April, this year, has shown that Liberian workers still retain the potential of fighting against neo-liberal attacks and of raising political questions.

The combination of the experience of this election, and what is likely to result from the “iron lady’s” government, will undoubtedly open possibilities for the ideas of mass struggle and a socialist alternative to gain support.

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November 2005