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Liberia Takes Small Step to Democracy

  • Nico Colombant
  • Tatiana Mossot

Liberia's recent elections produced a first for Africa: a woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It has also produced a familiar pattern of complaints from the losing side.

Their protests have been violent at times -- most recently, demonstrators and police fought in the streets of the capital. Monrovia, on December 11.

Children in Liberia have no schools, no electricity, no running water.

Daily life is a battle for survival.

Security is provided by thousands of foreign peacekeepers, who disarmed tens of thousands of former fighters.

The United Nations also helped organize the country's first open election after a two-year transition period, following a quarter century of war and turbulence.

For the first time in the country's history, there were more women registered to vote than men.

One of them said she hoped the vote would mark a turning point for a nation founded for freed American slaves, but always torn between ethnic groups.

“A Liberia that the citizens will have equal rights, one group will not look down on the other one, that we will all enjoy the resources of this country,” she hopes.

But many Liberians were confused about how elections are run. On voting day, supporters of one of the two candidates, former soccer star George Weah, and Mr. Weah, himself, thought they had already won, given his popularity among young people in the capital, Monrovia.

As more results came in, it became clear Mr. Weah would not win.

Spurred on by Mr. Weah himself, his supporters took to the streets -- one day all the way to the U.S. embassy.

And when Jordanian peacekeepers fired tear gas, the protest turned ugly.

Protesters were prevented from entering the U.S. compound. They said they wanted to tell American diplomats and the world there had been cheating on voting day, even though no international observer saw any proof of tampering on a large scale.

One of Mr. Weah's supporters said they were just using their right to protest. “We are not violent people and we told them we are not going to accept these results. We are very peaceful too (but) we will not accept these results.”

In the following days protests continued in Monrovia. The UN also started negotiations, led by their spokesman Paul Risley. “We had a long, frankly positive, discussion about what democracy means and how fragile democracy is. I got the impression from the three representatives that they are sincere in insisting that their protest will remain peaceful,” said Mr. Risley. “They did obviously point out that in a country such as Liberia, which has had conflict for so long, that it is very difficult to maintain peace.

Most Liberians though, winners and losers in this election process, are now hoping Africa's first elected female president will bring peace and prosperity.

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