Will Africa's Only Female President be Unseated?

With less than a hundred days to Liberia’s general election date, the streets of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, are politically charged already.

All major candidates are in town to face President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Coalitions are forming each day as parties angle to increase their chances of victory.

And politicians are playing every trick in the book to win over the electorate in an election meant to determine the path that the resource-rich West African country takes in the next five years.

The incumbent is far from idle herself. Last month, on July 13, President Johnson-Sirleaf was in London to speak to an intimate congregation of journalists and scholars interested in matters West Africa, especially Liberia.

Though not explicit, this was seen as another of her attempts to win favour from influential international players as her country’s elections draw closer.

After speaking on everything from the country’s economy to infrastructure and other projects, Sirleaf went back to the topic of elections: “Liberia’s progress depends on a system which assures the peaceful transfer of power through the exercise of choice. That is why this year’s election is so important,” she said to the audience at Catham House.

Catham is a leading UK think-tank on international issues. Interestingly, most of the questions raised at the session revolved around the country’s economy, managing post-conflict Liberia and deliberations on Africa’s blossoming relationship with China.

Elections almost took a back seat but the Iron Lady of Liberian politics kept reviving the issue, most likely to influence perceptions.

Playing games

This October, Liberia goes into a crucial election. Just like in 2005 when Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, earned her chance to lead the then battered country, the coming elections will be highly contested.

And there is a hot constitutional issue that could easily push the incumbent out of the seat.

Her main opponent in the closely contested 2005 election was footballer George Manneh Weah, who has since teamed up with several others in a bid to beat the only woman president that Africa has ever had.

But that may not be the hardest puzzle for the lady trained in some of the world’s best economics schools.

There is a constitutional issue at hand. The election is being preceded by a crucial referendum that will determine whether Madame President will be allowed to defend her position or not.

And there are some obvious murmurs already, with some observers saying that the lady has started bending the rules of the game — ‘George Bush-style’ — to her favour.

From different corners of a country that has retained excellent relations with Uncle Sam, the opposition has a lot to quarrel about.

The civil society is not sure Liberians are aware what they will be voting about come the constitutional referendum in a few days; and are accusing the government of failing to educate voters in good time.

Among other things, the referendum, which will be held on August 23, is to decide on the election dates, with a proposal to push the voting from October to November 2011.

Voters are also supposed to have a say on the idea of bringing down the residency requirement for the president and vice-president — from ten to five years.

As it reads now, the Liberian constitution requires one to have been a resident in the country for at least ten uninterrupted years to be eligible to became a presidential candidate.

This leaves out Johnson-Sirleaf, who only returned from the US in 1997 to vie for the country’s presidential seat.

In 2005, the requirement was lifted to allow many of the Liberians who had been in exile for years to vie. This is how Johnson-Sirleaf was allowed to run.

A record to match

But even as Liberians decide on whether the constitution should allow her and others to vie or not, one presidential candidate — Winston Tubman — could prove a hard nut for Johnson-Sirleaf to crack.

An equally Harvard-trained nephew of Liberia’s 18th president William Tubman, Winston has a serious political machinery arrayed against the incumbent.

Together with the sensational George Weah and several other parties that have joined the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), this is a coalition that Madame President cannot underrate.

In the last general election, the 70-year-old came third just after Weah, who in turn lost very narrowly to Johnson-Sirleaf, mostly due to his low academic qualifications.

Weah has since gone to college and acquired better academic papers and he hopes this will increase his political chances.

On her part, Johnson-Sirleaf has a record to flaunt. During her term the country (whose name means land of liberty) has seen a drastic reduction in corruption, moving some 41 places on the TI Global Corruption Index and ten places between 1987 and 1997 on the same index.

There are other impressive gains. For instance, the country, whose flag mimics that of the United States, now has a doctor population of 800, up from a mere 50 in 2003.

Other indicators such a debt levels, GDP and foreign investments and even government revenues have greatly improved.

Above all, Johnson-Sirleaf has brought back a semblance of order in a country that had been ravaged by civil war.