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Liberia election provokes protests

BARING ANY unexpected 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 has led 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 officer of the World Bank, alleging fraud in the run-off election. The Supreme Court rejected the CDC’s claim and referred it to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which has begun an investigation. According to the NEC, Johnson-Sirleaf got 59.4% of the votes and Weah 40.6%. Weah had won the first round with about 30%, not enough to form a government as the constitution requires a minimum of 51%.

Meanwhile, the 18 CDC members of 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. International observers judged the election free and fair. But the thousands of people, mostly youth, who took to the streets on 11 November to protest the allegedly questionable result, were not surprised at their verdict. A 53 year-old unemployed man told UN news agency, IRIN: "The United Nations is not neutral. The international community is in cahoots with Ellen".

This reflects the general feeling of the protesters. The high-handed response of the UN police in the capital, Monrovia, to the protesters led to two people being injured and further fuels the suspicions of complicity of the so-called ‘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 Weah’s support base, which is mostly dominated by youth, the unemployed and the poor seeking a break from the old order. Although Weah does not put forward any programme that is fundamentally different from that of Johnson-Sirleaf or which could guarantee a turnaround of the devastated economy, he is seen as untainted and neutral, a symbol of the much desired peace and change.

Many of Weah’s supporters see Johnson-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. Most of Liberia’s 100,000 ex-combatants, irrespective of which faction they were in, back Weah. Such a social base and high expectations could push Weah in unpredictable directions. Thus, imperialism preferred not to trust him with power, even more so when a true blue imperialist pupil was available for the job!

World imperialism has vested economic interests in Liberia. The Firestone Harbel rubber plantation, owned by the US, is the biggest in the world, and sizeable amounts of crude oil have been discovered along the Atlantic. 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 can only postpone the official announcement of Johnson-Sirleaf as the winner of the 8 November election. Weah has, in fact, spoken against mass protests, showing up 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. They believe that the presidency of Johnson-Sirleaf will mean government in the interests of international finance capital and its local agents and not for the poor masses of Liberia.

The ‘iron lady’ 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 IMF. When asked to react to the suspicion of people against a close economic relationship with international finance institutions, Johnson-Sirleaf said: "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?" (Lagos Guardian, 13 November)

Yes, Liberia may be allowed to evolve its ‘home-grown’ economic programme. It has a Harvard-trained, World Bank-groomed expert as its new president. But, just like Nigeria’s National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy, such economic packages are drawn up by, and subject to, strict monitoring of the imperialist finance institutions. They put their money where their self-serving economic interests are best protected and investment can yield super-profits, which is always at the gross expense of the poor working people.

Liberia – along with other war-devastated countries, like Somalia, Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire – has just been enlisted in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) programme of the World Bank and IMF, a step towards getting relief from its $3 billion ‘external debt’ burden. The creditors will not reduce, let alone forgive, this so-called debt – which is miniscule to world imperialism but a huge amount to a badly ravaged economy – without Liberia being made to pay a hard price.

Liberia is at the ‘pre-decision point’, the first stage. This means that it should have started servicing its debt and begun implementing harsh economic policies, as dictated by the World Bank and IMF. The new government has to intensify neo-liberal policies which include cuts in government spending, privatisation, trade liberalisation, downsizing, etc, to successfully pass through the three-stage programme and be entitled to cancellation of its multilateral debt.

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 war badly destroyed the fabric of the country, the economy had been in tatters long before, due to similar pro-rich, anti-poor policies and the characteristic corruption of the pre-war governments, one of which Johnson-Sirleaf had served – as finance minister under William Tolbert, who was overthrown and killed in 1980.

Already the human development indicators of Liberia (estimated population, 3.6 million) are horrific. The 85% plus rate of unemployment is the highest in the world. More than 80% live below the poverty line ($1/day) and the level of illiteracy is over 80%. In 2000, the most recent Unesco statistics available, 61% of primary school age and 18% of secondary school age children were in schools. With the destruction of the education system and emergence of child soldiers during the war, 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.

Liberia needs huge resources to turn around its education system, healthcare and infrastructure, and to guarantee jobs, food, shelter 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. It has the recent crude oil discoveries and maritime registry revenue.

The major obstacles in its path to economic recovery are the deadly embrace of imperialist domination of the commanding heights of its economy and capitalism’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 an article of faith, will not provide any way out for the mass of the population.

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 which 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 in April, including roadblocks in Monrovia, by Liberia Telecommunication Corporation workers, showed that workers still retain the potential to fight against neo-liberal attacks and raise political questions. The experience of this election and the ‘iron lady’s’ government will, undoubtedly, open up possibilities for the ideas of mass struggle and a socialist alternative to gain support.

Peluola Adewale

Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI Nigeria)


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