Prayers and flamethrowers: Liberia's raucous rallies

4 min

Monrovia (AFP)

Liberia's presidential campaign neared its close on Sunday with a quiet day of prayer, but campaigning in the west African nation is not for the faint-hearted -- or those sensitive to noise.

Liberians go the polls on Tuesday to pick their first new president for 12 years as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf closes the page on two terms dominated by post-war reconstruction and the Ebola crisis.

The calm reflection that has momentarily settled over this predominantly Christian nation, is in stark contrast to the exuberant rallies that have engulfed the capital and provinces this week as campaigning reached fever pitch.

The biggest crowds, packed with young men, are usually reserved for footballing superstar turned politician George Weah and his running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.

Touching down in a helicopter on Friday in Monrovia following a nationwide tour, Weah was met by fans who had waited up to six hours on the streets to catch a glimpse of their idol, while others gathered at his party headquarters to welcome him back.

"Most people are suffering and only a few are enjoying this country. We want changes and we're sure when George Weah becomes president of this nation he'll do better, he'll do more than others can do," said James Cooper, sporting a Weah-Howard Taylor flag tucked into his cap as he waited with hundreds of others at an intersection.

- 'Proper competition' -

Across the nation, beat-up cars and trucks packed with supporters blast out popular "highlife" and Afrobeat tunes, while mobile rallies of young people singing and jogging with their party flags for hours at a stretch test the stamina of even of the most devoted political junkies.

A frequent and perilous sight is of political activists standing on the sides or crouching on the top of these vehicles.

One witness told AFP she saw several Weah supporters fall off a truck and one crack his skull as he tumbled to the ground, leaving him bleeding badly from his head.

Elsewhere, Liberty Party candidate Charles Brumskine told AFP that Weah's supporters stabbed three of his own, though the Weah camp claims Brumskine's activists blocked roads to stop the footballing icon from passing through the provinces.

"The police in Nimba (county) apparently were unable to manage the CDC (Weah party) onslaught. Up until this point in time we still do not have a report from the government's police," Brumskine told AFP.

The incident is a scar on an otherwise peaceful campaign despite fears that a disputed result -- which occurred in 2005 and 2011 -- could release latent tensions in the expected run-off round between two candidates triggered if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

The stakes feel higher this year, one diplomatic source told AFP. "It is more of a proper competition this time around", the source said, referring to the absence of a single frontrunner among the 20 candidates.

- Hip-hop endorsements -

Large rallies in Monrovia are held at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium, where Liberia's music, dance, and appetite for dangerous stunts are on most dramatic display.

"Human billboards" -- men who stand as still as statues on stage, painted in party colours -- attract admiration and jeers in attempts to force them to smile.

At the Saturday rally in Monrovia of former Coca-Cola global Vice-President Alexander Cummings, the dark horse candidate some whisper could make it into a run-off, the theatrics were hair-raising.

One man ran around the crowd of thousands of Cummings' partisans with a flamethrower in hand, though few seemed perturbed by the fire risk.

As the unofficial candidate of Liberia's "HipCo" rap scene, rapper Takun J is running for Liberia's House of Representatives for Cummings ANC party, urban music was the order of the day, along with human towers built from teenage gymnasts.

As in many African nations, voters show their allegiances through print patterns with the faces of their candidates repeated over and over on cotton dresses and suits.

"This is my man" screamed one supporter of current Vice-President Joseph Boakai on Saturday, gesturing at a suit of large square checks with Boakai's beaming likeness in his Unity Party (UP) colours, somewhat strained over an ample paunch.

The most conspicuous absence this week also happens to be Liberia's most powerful person. President Sirleaf has declined to campaign for her vice-president in the final weeks as he seeks to replace her.

A source close to Sirleaf said she would prefer the country to open a new chapter without her influence over the result.