Election a victory for democracy on continent amid coups

Former president George Weah conceded defeat to his main rival in the elections, Joseph Boakai. Picture: Reuters

Former president George Weah conceded defeat to his main rival in the elections, Joseph Boakai. Picture: Reuters

Published Nov 26, 2023


Dr Sizo Nkala

There has been a rare gain for democracy in West Africa, a region where assault on democratic orders through military coups and disputed shambolic elections have become fashionable.

This was after the incumbent Liberian President George Weah conceded defeat to the former Vice President, Joseph Boakai, in the country’s presidential run-off elections on November 14.

Liberia’s National Election Commission had to schedule a run-off election after Weah and Boakai failed to secure an outright majority in the first round of elections held on October 10. Weah emerged with a razor-thin lead of 43.83% of the vote while Boakai trailed closely with 43.44% of the votes.

This was a far cry from the 2017 elections when Weah emerged victorious with 62% of the vote. The inconclusive results of the first round forced a run-off as required by the Liberian constitution in the event that no candidate managed to secure more than 50% of the vote. With 99% of the polling stations having been counted and showing that Boakai had an unassailable lead with 50.9% of the vote, George Weah made a speech in the country’s national media to concede defeat. A very rare spectacle in Africa’s troubled political landscape.

In his speech, Weah said he had reached out to his opponent Boakai to congratulate him on his victory and urged the country, particularly his supporters, to accept the outcome of the elections. In a statesman-like tone, he insisted that “this is a time for graciousness in defeat, a time to place our country above party, and patriotism above personal interest”.

The National Electoral Commission eventually announced the final results declaring Boakai the winner having secured 50.64% of the poll ahead of Weah’s 49.36%. The two candidates were separated by just over 20,000 votes. It seems Liberian voters had grown disillusioned by the Weah administration’s failure to deal with issues of corruption, widespread poverty, drug abuse and economic stagnation.

However, Weah’s conciliatory speech is important in that it reinforces an emerging tradition of the peaceful transfer of power after the country experienced its first democratic transition in 2017, since 1944. Africa has been accustomed to losing candidates issuing statements to dispute the election outcome as witnessed in countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Kenya among others. In the majority of the cases, the complaints are legitimate as the quality of the electoral processes leaves a lot to be desired. Liberia’s elections represent a rare victory for democracy in a continent where elections are fast losing their meaning and where transfers of power are conducted through the barrel of a gun.

It is also notable that these are the first elections managed by the Liberian authorities without any international assistance or funding since 2003 when the civil war ended. This indeed gives meaning to the mantra ‘African solutions to African problems’ which often rings hollow. Observer teams from the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the European Union (EU) commended the electoral process for being peaceful and well-organised.

The resultant political stability and the peace dividend will grant Liberia, a country that suffered a deadly civil war from 1989 to 2003 which killed over 250,000 people, an opportunity to rebuild its economy and forge a more cohesive and united society for its 5.5 million people.

Another important indicator of the quality of Liberia’s elections other than the satisfactory conduct of the electoral commission, is the voter turnout. An incredible 79% of the 2.4m registered voters came out to cast their votes which demonstrates the high degree of interest in the democratic processes on the part of the voters. This is in contrast to other countries which also held elections this year where voter apathy is notable. For example, Nigeria’s voter turnout in the March elections was less than 30% while only 51% of the registered voters cast their votes in Zimbabwe’s general elections in August. The lack of credibility in the electoral processes of these countries makes a significant number of eligible voters stay away from the process due to the widespread belief that their votes will not be counted.

More importantly, Liberia’s electoral conduct will hopefully serve as an example for other African countries in showing that free and fair elections are not only possible but desirable as well. Africa has faced an alarming democratic backsliding in the recent past with fiercely disputed elections in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria among other countries and a spate of military takeovers in Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon. Liberia’s successful election cycle is a breath of fresh air. Other countries around the region including Mauritania, Togo, Senegal, and Ghana will be holding their elections soon. It remains to be seen whether they will take a leaf from the Liberian experience.

*Dr Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.