Liberian voters looking for more in their next president
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After two six-year terms, post-war President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down, and 20 presidential candidates are vying to replace her and secure the country’s top job. The large youth population in Liberia, including 19 percent of voters age 18-24 who are eligible to vote for the first time, want their voice to be heard when they vote on October 10. Voters young and old have told RFI they are concerned with corruption, lack of paved roads, and rapidly rising school fees.
“To pay for elementary school, it was 24,000 to 30,000 Liberian dollars (204-255 US dollars). Now everywhere you go, it’s up to 500 US dollars for school fees for a year. It’s going up every day,” says Lovetee Kollie, 24, resident of Monrovia Air Field slum, aptly named for the small James Springfield Airstrip behind the neighborhood. She works in a nightclub to pay for the school fees for her two younger brothers.
The Liberian government created free state school for all in 2007 with low fees, but the low quality of education has forced even the poorest to attend private school. That does not include school fees, uniforms, or books and materials, which adds up- 80 percent of Liberians live on less than 1.25 US dollars a day, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Although school fees used to be paid in Liberian dollars, she says that even many state schools have switched to payment in US dollars, preferring the stability of the western currency.
Not all first-time voters are as young as Lovetee Kollie, especially those who remember the 14-year civil war that devastated the country.
Liberia plunged into a civil war on Christmas Eve, 1989, as Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) staged a coup, overthrowing President Samuel Doe. After a ceasefire in 1996, Liberia went to elections, choosing Taylor as their president. Less than six months later, the country plunged into a second civil war, until 2003, when Taylor left the country.
More than 600,000 people died, and thousands were maimed by the extreme brutality of rebels. UN High Commission for Refugees estimated that 700,000 people fled the country, while 1.2 million were internally displaced.
Thirty-seven-year-old Carvin Nelson is voting for the first time. For him, the candidates in the 2005 and 2011 elections did not come close to the former president, Charles Taylor, a convicted warlord who was imprisoned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the civil war.
“I never wanted to vote in 2005, or 2011. My standup hero is the 21st president of Liberia, Mr. Charles Taylor,” he says. He is a “bona fide” National Patriotic Party (NPP) member, Taylor’s political party.
Although serving a 50-year sentence, Taylor still has a lot of support within the country. Two-time presidential candidate, Senator George Weah, of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), is running on the Coalition for Democratic Change ticket with Bong County Senator Jewell Howard Taylor, of the NPP, who is also Taylor’s ex-wife.
Nelson says he decided to run because of the outreach the NPP conducted with their supporters. “The NPP party called me and talked to me. And because of this, I will be voting this time,” he says.
Some voters say they see through all the vague political promises. Janet Gibson, 24, lives in the Matadi slum, a grouping of colorful zinc homes. The first-time voter, sitting outside her blue zinc shack, says she will not be voting for a presidential candidate.
“What I’ve seen with people in power, is that they don’t see, they don’t understand us, so I decided not to vote. I think that whoever comes to power will just do the same thing” as previous presidents, she says.
There are nearly 1,000 people vying for a seat in the House of Representatives in this election, and she says she will cast her ballot for her local representative, but not the president.
For older voters, the spectre of the civil war looms large in their choice for president. Two-time President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of the Unity Party, came to power in 2005, and is considered the symbol of uniting the country post war. Her vice president, Joseph Boakai, is running on the Unity Party ticket.
Many of the older voters say their biggest concern is keeping the peace in the country. They regard Nobel Peace Prize winner Sirleaf’s tenure as a positive post-war transition.
“She did her best. In 12 years, we’ve had peace. No war, nothing of the kind. We’re all right. Everybody is living, enjoying their life,” says Ninth Street resident Daniel Dennis, an older tall gentleman wearing a frayed khaki baseball cap, who says he is voting for Boakai.
His neighbor, Klubo Wolobah, agrees. She runs a small shop, called a ‘table market’ in Liberia, where she sells oil, chicken sauce, salt, candy, and other foodstuffs on Ninth Street in Sinkor district. She returned in 2007 after fleeing to Guinea during the war.
“I know when I vote for Boakai, Boakai will win. With Ma Ellen, there was no war, so I know when he is elected, there will be no war, because he’s the vice president,” she says, referring to Sirleaf by the affectionate nickname that many people use for her.
Some of the younger voters say they do not like the Unity Party, calling candidate Boakai “Old Man”, but they stop short of criticizing Sirleaf outright.
“We want a better president. We’re tired of suffering. She tried her best… but at least we are in peace,” adds Dennis Kollie, 24.
Sitting outside her rented home in the Air Field slum, 72-year-old Mayamu Sheriff is wearing a Lappa Suit, a colorful wax print dress showing one hand putting a ring on another hand. She stayed in Monrovia during the entire civil war, where she lost her husband and oldest son. Sheriff says she cannot wait for Sirleaf to go.
“I am so happy” she is leaving, says Sheriff. “With Ellen, I’m eating rice dry,” she adds, saying that she is so poor, she cannot afford oil or salt to season her food.
Sheriff was once a two-time voter for Sirleaf, and supported the Unity Party wholeheartedly.
“We were dancing for her, we voted for her, and she put me out of my home,” she adds.
Sheriff says she used to have a house on 24th street, until the government knocked down a portion of the homes in the community, claiming that they were illegal squatters. She says she ended up on the street, homeless, with her four children.
“No one helped me. I went out on the street, naked, begging for help and I was arrested,” she says, adding that they put her into Monrovia Central Prison for protesting.
She pays 100 US dollars a month for her unpainted concrete three-room house in Air Field slum, which is hard on her budget, and she wants better for herself and her family.
“I don’t know who I’m going to vote for yet. I’m praying to God to tell me. But I’m happy Ellen is going,” she says.
Sitting on a small wooden stool across from Sheriff is her neighbor, Massa Fofana,
35. Wearing a bright yellow headscarf, she is sorting a large mound of charcoal with a small bowl, scooping the cooking item into small plastic bags to sell. It’s dirty work-- her hands and feet are blackened by the burnt wood. Fofana says that she and her neighbors are suffering due to the exorbitant cost of food and household items.
Her anger is directed at the government, who she says needs to create a cap on prices for everyday household staples, including gasoline.
“When you go in the market, you ask for this” says Fofana, grabbing the charcoal and holding it up. “Everybody is showing their own price.”
Sirleaf has been criticized for not setting basic food staple prices.
International Monetary Fund December 2016 statistics indicate that the local price of goods in Liberia is the fifth highest on the African continent.
“When she [Sirleaf] came into power, this charcoal bag used to be 50, 75 [Liberian] dollars. But now we buy in 200, 250, 300! We have to buy it in the bush and bring it here. So what do you get at the end? Nothing. But you have to do it for you and your children to eat,” she adds, wiping the sweat off her face.
“We are suffering here in Liberia, and we need change,” says Fofana.
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