Change at the top: The challenges that await the country’s new President

Liberia’s President-elect, 78-year-old Joseph Nyuma Boakai is expected to head the country’s governance structure after his inauguration which is due in early January, 2024 as the country 24th president following a very competitive election between the incumbent, George M. Weah who won 49.36% votes while the incoming president got 50.64% votes.

The result comes at the end of a very long electoral process that took place in a first round on October 10, a full 38 days before the second round, in which Weah and Boakai won by an extremely narrow margin of 43.8% and 43.4% respectively. The election of the first African footballer to win the Ballon d’Or six years ago, a well-known face in Liberia but a complete newcomer to politics, had raised high hopes for change in a country going through a very tough time which was marked by two successive civil wars and the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016.

The Liberian people are mathematically divided into two halves over the new change at the top. Father Lorenzo Snider, missionary of the Society of African Missions and parish priest of St. John Vianney in Foya, provides insights into the uncertainties that weigh on the path to national reconciliation in a country that has experienced bitter civil wars, with the phenomenon of child soldiers faced and whose economy plummeted. Catholics make up about 7.5% of the population.

“This period,” reports Father Snider, “was marked by a feeling of great concern among all those involved. The memory of the Civil War is still alive in the minds, hearts and bodies of many people. The danger of a return to the conflict was seen as very real. The tension continued to grow as the days went by, with statements and speeches on local radio stations and rumors of the formation of paramilitary groups. The few votes that separated President Weah from his opponent after the first round pointed to a possible controversial outcome. However, in general, common sense prevailed and there was no escalation of violence after the elections. There were only a few incidents, for example in a district near here, in Vahun, where sympathizers of the two political groups clashed and some people were injured.

After the votes were counted, outgoing President George Weah declared, “My party lost, but Liberia won,” and made conciliatory statements that were echoed by Boakai, who first thanked the former president and then added, an admission of defeat prevented a return to arms. “President Weah’s statements,” continued Father Lorenzo, “were more than a coincidence and came at the right time. They were the real key to peace. With a before and an after.

Before the fear and tensions, the scenarios have changed radically, different government and opposition leaders have come closer to each other, the language has changed and there is an air of peace in the country. Now the broad field of reconciliation opens up, which needs to be worked on primarily at the local and municipal level. The already mentioned election result, in which the two fronts were practically equal and Joseph Boakai won with a wafer-thin margin, shows the deep division in the country. After the celebrations, the new president will face a particularly complex set of challenges in what remains one of West Africa’s poorest countries.

“In Boakai’s election manifesto,” said the missionary, “there are priority areas that probably represent the country’s most pressing challenges: macroeconomic stability and infrastructure, health system reform, education, anti-corruption, agricultural development, the rule of law and good governance, the fight against inequality Gender and child protection. Each of these points deserves to be addressed in more detail in a few words.

The country’s road network is one of the worst in West Africa, and entire regions remain isolated during the rainy season; the health system needs to be expanded and integrated into the to serve the population. During the first phase of Covid, there was only one lung ventilator in the entire country. The education system, in which a third of children are forced to drop out of school, the endemic corruption in almost all areas of administration, etc.

In my opinion, the long-term challenge is to lead Liberia, which still has very large areas of primary forest, on a path of holistic development that leaves no population behind and, above all protects the environment, especially from foreign greed”. The horrors of violence, war, and the memory of child soldiers are still too young to be forgotten. As the election weeks have also shown, the population lived in fear that the weapons could return, and some episodes suggested that this could happen soon and that the very laborious process of national reconciliation could collapse. “Everywhere in the country,” says Father Lorenzo, “there was fear.

A deep fear of the possibility of falling back into civil war. Some – albeit limited – outbreaks of violence during the election campaign and in recent days were handled very quickly by the security forces, but they could have degenerated into mass clashes. Rumors of organized paramilitary groups were widespread, and the containers of weapons found in the port of Monrovia a few months ago confirmed these theories.

Fortunately, there was no real evidence of this in reality. Already in In 2005, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. It worked until 2011 and produced a detailed report on the facts and responsibilities as well as proposals for action. According to many observers, this report was largely ignored and had little practical impact. Awareness of the possibility and the cruelty of war is certainly present among all citizens over the age of 30. Here in Foya we have seen a mass exodus of population due to clashes during the campaign that left two people dead. Although human resilience is extraordinary, so much suffering and drama has gone unheard, causing frustration and inner wounds that continue to bleed.”

“During the election campaign,” said the missionary, “the Catholic Church has always taken a neutral position, clearly speaking out in favor of peace, dialogue and non-violence and calling on all believers to support the electoral process in prayer.” As a minority community in a country with a Protestant and Free Church majority, the Liberian Catholic community has always been rooted in society and can point to figures who have been an important point of reference for the entire population in the past, such as the Archbishop of Monrovia, Michael Francis (1936/2013). “It is a community that suffers and hopes with the country and like the whole country. The synodal process of the universal Church,” Father Lorenzo hopes, “can give new impetus to the ‘missionary community’ of the Church – the Family of God in Liberia”.

Source: Agenzia Fides

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