Liberian Political System and the Role of Women in Democratic Participation

By: Josephus Moses Gray |

Prof. J. Moses Gray

The international system in recent years has experienced a new phenomenon and fascinating developments in contemporary politics regarding the rise in women’s involvements in political governance including the presidency and vice presidency across the globe. This new phenomenon cut across the various continents from Africa to Asia, South America to Western Europe and the Scandinavia region, except for the Middle East where women’s rise to power faces a difficult struggle to easily overwhelm. This new phenomenon did not come simply, unfortunately, women paid the heaviest price based on situation from one region to another; Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Liberia Graduate School, Josephus Moses Gray offers insight into understanding the ideas, dynamic and enthusiasm of the subject under discussion.

While certain electoral systems are more women friendly than others, for an under-privileged country like Liberia, the prevailing circumstance is the direct opposite; Liberians democratic system is not a good indicator of the percentage of women who will make it into elected offices. Unlike other African countries and other regions across the globe, our electoral laws disadvantaged women for elected positions especially the legislative posts. For instance, the Scandinavia region was the first to experience the flood of female representations in the world, but the Nordic model has now been replaced by Africa, which has greatly experienced dramatic jumps in female parliamentary representation primarily through the implementation of several laws.

This article looks at the uncompromising role of Liberian women in a contemporary politics, and goes on to research male perception of women’s quest for an elected positions and role across the political spectrum of Liberia, and goes beyond the Liberia-nation to assess the impact of women leaderships and contributions to global politics. Going further, this chapter from a holistic background discusses the historic of Liberian democracy and democratic governance, the perception of Liberians regarding political parties and elections. This chapter also evaluates party structures and contribution to democracy. The article evaluates Liberian political system and democratic governance in the context of the new world order, respect for constitutionalism. It’s further discussed in detailed how democracy is viewed and practiced in Liberia, its intricacies, challenges and successes.

It also digs into the pitfalls and short-comings of how democracy is perceived and practices in Liberia. In the contemporary global order, it is a reality that a political system that adhered to good governance and practice populace democracy is the best form of government, although there are several forms of governments around the world. A government that respect democratic values and demonstrate practicality in addressing the common needs and wellbeing of its people destined to succeed. What it does is that the greater good of the largest society, the fruit of an internationally acceptable democratic tenet where the masses have a greater saying in the day-to-day running of the government.

Few women have made an impact in democratic participation and politics in Liberia. The existing democratic culture of Liberia since it independence in 1847 is very much male-dominated. Some of these Liberian women have challenged male-domination, working hard for change behind the scenes for unprecedented years, taking political giant steps to face their male counterparts and stand as candidates in democratic participation. Their fights pay-off with the first female democratically elected president of Africa, Mrs.  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, while other women have taking the center stage in Liberian politics, but women still remains massively under-represented in politics in Liberia.

       With all due respect, apart from experimenting with governance and the doctrine of democracy, with the half-baked political pretense and controlled-attempt on two-party system; this country’s track record on running on only one ‘political kidney'(one party system) lasted for over one hundred years until it was thwarted in a bloody military coup and subsequently, but radically replaced by what is now obtaining today in the country and on the political landscape-multi-party democracy.

The journey from which this country’s political system and democratic governance has traveled has not been all milk and honey nor bread and butter let alone a dinner party rather it has been punctuated with blood, death, sweat, tears and massively explosive destruction including the actors of productions coupled with vibrant institutions imbued with innovation, integrity and credibility thereby giving birth to the most cherished new political order and the existing tenets of the transformation currently breaking fresh grounds in the democratically governance system. Despite the little gains made in that direction and in spite the many pitfalls similarly in the same direction, make no mistake, it is still far from being rosy.

         Governance matters in several ways: Governance plays an important role in implementing successful economic policies and sustaining inclusive growth; it provides transparency and predictability in policymaking, efficiency and equity in access to government services and resources, governance also leads to better and more efficient decisions and gives the local community confidence in its council, but improves the faith that elected members have in their own council and its decision making processes (World bank, 2008).

While it is true that politics is the act of the possible, and with all human beings being declared political animals  so the vehicles chosen to drive individual countries’  governance schemes coupled with national interest vary- Some choose democracy, others communism and few subscribed to monarchism  and militarism just to name a few. In that vein, as this chapter evaluates Liberian political system and democratic governance in the context of the new world order, and respect for constitutionalism; it’s further discussed in detailed how democracy is viewed and practiced in Liberia, its intricacies, challenges and successes.

The study also digs into the pitfalls and short-comings of how democracy is perceived and practices in Liberia. In the contemporary global order, it is a reality that a political system that adhered to good governance and practices populace democracy is the best form of government, although there are several forms of governments around the world. A government that respects democratic values and demonstrates practicality in addressing the common needs and wellbeing of its people is destined to succeed. What it does is that allows the greater good of the largest society, the fruit of an internationally acceptable democratic tenet where the masses have a greater saying in the day-to-day running of the government.

The 1986 Liberian Constitution states: There are Three Branches of within the state and they include the Legislative Branch headed by the Speaker draws up and adopts laws; the Executive Branch which operates under the authority of the President enforces laws and government’s policies, while the Judicial Branch headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court represents the legal framework for exercising judicial power and interpreting laws. In an emerging democratic state like Liberia, there exists the doctrine of “Separation of Powers” which actually means “division” of the State‘s power rooted in the Three Branches detached of interference.

In most proven occurrences, poverty-stricken masses really do not care about the form of government; they want basic necessities of life like electricity, paved roads, safe drinking water, jobs, quality education, available and affordable health care for their livelihood and unborn generations. But can these essential necessities be visible in the absence of placing state authority in the hands of a  leader-one who cannot commends greater respect from the population, and lacks respect for internationally acceptable democratic tenet. Drawing a deep lesson from other studies regarding constitutions of African states must provide methods, by which the people can, without recourse to violence, control the government which emerges in accordance with it and even specify the means for its own amendment

Analysis of Democratic Governance in Post-war Liberia

Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution provides that “All power is inherent in the people, while Article 3 states: Liberia is a unitary sovereign state. The article further states: The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: The Legislative, Executive and Judiciary, consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. Perhaps, it is often said that democracy is just a concept that allows participation of the people in decision-making to debate issues which impact their livelihoods and happiness.

According to Webster Dictionary, the most common definition of democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people’ while to put it another way we can say that a government comes from the people; it is exercised by the people, and for the purpose of the people’s own interests.  Democracy by another definition means a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them. That means that all the people should be able to have their say in one way or another in everything that affects their lives. It can also be defined as the political orientation of those who favor government by the people or by their elected representatives. It provides for changes in government without violence while power can be transferred from one party to another by means of elections.

In the context of Liberia, the electorates do not stand up for what they believe to demand their leaders at the national levels to deliver on their promises.  In other countries, the people hold their leaders’ feet to the fire to fulfill their promises, but for Liberia, the situation is to the dissimilar. As a result, the masses during the electorate processes are taken for a short ride moreover and very consistently for granted by those seeking their votes; all is squally due to ignorance display by the people who should firstly read between the lines before electing people to offices of public trust.

It’s easy to forget, but when it comes to campaigns for national office such as the presidency, we’ve really only seen one side of Liberian politicians; we have not yet experienced the genuineness of our politicians who is ready to fight for the people without one hand tied behind their back. We’ve only seen them speaking less tough on national issues.   It is an indisputable fast that Liberians are yet to see a captivating character to who always hold the government to its feet , a political figure who can champion the voice of the voiceless and speak very tough on pressing issues.

Although democratic governance remains a challenge on the African continent, Liberia has made a significant progress in the practices democratic governance, and is recognized by the World as the pioneer and torch-bearer of democracy on the African continent (Analyst Liberia, 2019).  It said the concept of democracy can be traced precisely to the city-state of Athens, ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C; democracy in Africa can also be traced to Liberia.

In an insightful words of three former presidents of Liberia, Ghana, and Tanzania, the Analyst Liberia (2019) quoted Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf that: “Africa is not poor; it is poorly managed” that conflicts and crises have affected the standard practices of governance and establishment of sustainable economic growth on the African continent. Also in the famed words of ex-president of Ghana, Jerry John Rawlings: “Most of our peoples have already noticed that the new system of governance on the African continent is being severely tested by the lack of good faith in certain leaders and administrations”, in the notable words of former of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere: “Africa needs to improve governance everywhere in Africa in order to enable our people to build real freedom and real development for themselves and their countries.

While in addition, democratic consolidation is dependent on people’s participation. Liberia needs to transform and build stronger political institutions and not ones that are solely supported by an individual or only exist based on the heart beats of the exclusive all powerful who alone plays the piper and therefore calls for the note. Supporting the development of parties and party structures under this current government poses a major challenge that should be given high priority (MOFA, 2011).

During these elections, all parties’ candidates and independent candidates campaigned freely across their constituencies while the presidential candidates campaigned throughout the country, presenting their visions and platforms or agenda to the voters by either personal interactions and through the local media. However, the local media on a large scale regularly betrothed into biased reporting by treating some candidates with favor, while the rest are not given free media access to present their cases to the people. However, when political parties and civil society institutions are consistent in their programmatic and broad-based interests, democracy at all levels will flourish. There are number of factors which are important to the democratic system including the effectiveness of political parties and civil society institutions to ably represent the masses in advocating their well-being and interest.

Today, Liberia is classed as a “post conflict’ country (Ki-Moon, Ban 2011), making significantly progress away from war, has seen a gigantic decrease in conflict across the country at both national and local levels, even though critical issues still remain unaddressed with factors of potential conflict continuing to manifest in several practices. The issues of youth empowerment, jobs creation, reconciliation and the elimination of feeble governance undermines the nation’s emerging democracy, and persist as menace to stability and peace.

According to the Liberian Constitution (1986), representative democracy certainly provides for changes in government without violence while power can be transferred from one party to another by means of elections.  But free and fairs elections, though a cardinal component, are neither the beginning nor the end of democracy; they instead formed part of the attributes of sustaining a credible process of democracy. The 1986 Constitution states how State power is distributed among the different Branches of Government and the attributions assigned to each branch.

The fracture of the media was such that affluent candidates bought some media houses while others have established theirs to directly propagate their political agenda outside conventional and ethical media practices (2012 BBC report). To buttress this claims, Monrovia which hosts a population of about 4.1 million has over 65 newspapers, about 45 FM radio stations and eight television stations.

It is generally perceived as a political system in which the supreme power lies in the citizens who are the only custodians of state power in that they constitute electorates of those entrusted with state power to represent them (Webster, Daniel 1830). That means that all the people should be able to have their say one way or the other in everything that affects their lives. Most importantly, the process-service as a conduit for the nation to move another step forward; provides an opportunity for those eying the presidency to advance their respective strategies, distinctive platforms and manifestos and understanding of state power.

It has also been observed that bulk of the electorates have proven to naively make wrong decisions by electing officials before realizing the consequential backlash of their decisions. Another beauty of the nation’s democracy is electorates always vote with frustration, fury and resentment, the suffering in the country usually overplayed in the democratic process.

The New Vision (2009) reported that since the end of the 14-year war, the country participated in three successive democracies. In a contemporary Liberia, every Dick and Tom appeared to have solution to the numerous problems facing this country, while some of the registered political parties in the country have not won a Susu Club election, and are being hosted in a shared apartment, but yet they want the people of Liberian to trust them with the nation’s highest office.

The New Vision  (2019) stressed that generally, majority of the political parties in Liberia fall far too below the ability to possess the muscles that will propel them to play a cardinal role in influencing public policy and providing checks and balance. According to the New Vision(2009) publication, most of the political parties in Liberia are surviving from individual pockets. As a result, political institutions especially parties are built around individuals. The publication cited the cases of Unity Party, Congress for Democratic Change, Liberty Party, Liberian People’s Party, United People’s Party and national Patriotic Party.

According to studies, whenever these individuals whose influences and financial assistance these parties are operating on are no more around, such a party is doomed and definitely will collapse. For instance, three former ruling parties-NDPL, NPP and UP were exclusively centered on the financial supports and influences of ex-presidents Samuel K. Doe, Charles Ghankay Taylor and Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf;  and true to the hard facts of reality, these three parties no longer possess the political dynamism in this era to occupy the presidency.

Unarguably, if President George Weah, Senator Prince Johnson, Cllr. Charles W. Brusmskine, Simeon Freeman and Benoni Urey were to terminate their memberships from the CDC, Liberty Party, ALP, MPC and CDC, these parties will lose their essence, steam and dynamism and would politically succumb from the political scene. Unfortunately, Liberian political parties are noticed for being engulfed in crisis; it is always party’s establishment versus the party’s which often tainted the sustainability political parties in the country.

In its editorial, the New Vision (2011) pinpointed that when the masses are vulnerable under a condition of privilege, electorates make choices on the basis of primeval issues such as religion, ethnicity, race and personality, rather than alternative developmental programs that impacts livelihood of the nation.

Successive Liberian presidents have failed to remove greater number of poverty-stricken messes from abject poverty, provide basic necessities of life like electricity, paved roads across the country, provide safe drinking water, create jobs and improve the quality education and health care across the country. Unfortunately, the precise state of key political players does not support any optimism that any of them is prepared to preform if given state power. The ultimate quest of these political corrupt politicians is to ascend to state power through a hopeless utopian expeditionist, and put into place an obscure plans using false innuendo to disadvantage the poverty-stricken masses and illiterate population, majority of whom constitute bulk of the electorates.

In its wildly read editorial, the New Vision (20011) stressed that majority of these political parties are, and remain fragile, weaken by the government to keep its dynasty while these parties often function as fly-by-night-venture upon only being active during election periods. Immediately after electoral exercises, these political institutions most often and in some cases, eventually disappeared in thin air while craving through reflection by operating from hand-bags and the back seats of some aging vehicles and unidentified offices.

No doubt that the people of Liberia have experienced democracy since 21 September 1847 when Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected the first democratic president following the country Independence in 1847. But free and fairs elections, though a cardinal component, are neither the beginning nor the end of democracy; they instead formed part of the attributes of sustaining a credible process of democracy. Since 1847 to presence, Liberians persistently continued to exercise their statutory obligations to go to the polls to elect public officials for the presidency and members of the National Legislature.

The Political History of Liberia

Liberia’s political history as concerns democratic governance from the period of Independence to presence has experienced several difficulties resulting to several factors-both internal or external political maneuvering and arms twisting. The root of democracy on the African continent can be attributed to the founding Fathers of Liberia. The First Elections on the continent took place 21 September 1847 less than two months following Liberia’s independence with Joseph Jenkins Roberts elected as the first President in 1847.

The opposition political party also has it root in Liberia—the first opposition political party was established in Liberia and participated in the 1847 election. The two parties that took part in the 1847 election were  the Pro Administrative Party headed by J. J. Roberts and Anti-Administrative Party headed by Thomas Buchanan; interestingly, both served as governors of the Commonwealth of Liberia.

As touch-bearers of democracy in Africa, the founding fathers of Liberia were successful in building three (3) political institutions, sometime called Systems: The state….sheltered by internal and external sovereignty; rule of law (established Constitution) and democratic governance (accountability and inclusiveness). Since then, Liberia has been judged by international system and actors of the world to be practicing democracy in Africa in line with international best practice.  The promise of democratic governance in a contemporary Liberia is more positive than before; even though there are still several obstacles that require practical actions to be overcome in order to enhance progress in the current Liberia’s democratic space.

The Liberian democracy, just like other democracies across the globe, has its own trials and interferences which include having free and fair elections in which all participants and stakeholders have confidence; leveling the playing field for political parties and other activities; toleration of opinions of both in the opposition and critical voices and public. Other areas are respectability for constitutionalism and rule of law, justice; that all elected officials be accountable to the constituency and counties; people in offices of public trust should discipline their words; extermination of all forms of corruption, leaders lead by examples and encouragement and respect for democratic values and competitions by all political actors.

Our democratic governance system should show cherish respect for a democratic system based on the rule by the poor and disadvantaged, a system of decision-making based on the principle of majority rule; a society based on equal opportunity and individual merit; a structure of rule that protects the rights of minorities and majority and a government that serves the interests of the people.

Under our democratic governance system, democracy in Liberia is practiced limited and indirect democracy with respect to constitutional values in which the citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programs for the public goods. Democracy is limited in the sense that popular participation in government is temporary and occasional, while it is indirect in that the public do not exercise power themselves, instead they merely select those who will governs on their behalf.

Democracy globe be measured on the basis of the principles include: citizen participation which means that citizens are part and parcel of what happens in their country,  citizens are part of the decision-making process and policies formulation Start from the bottom to the top. The principles include political equality-meaning political equality of all citizens is an essential principle of democracy, equality before the law, equality of opportunity based on individual’s capacities  and people should not be denied equal opportunity because of  gender, association, religion or race. While political tolerance should always be encouraged although the practices of politics believed to be the easy path to obtaining economic wealth and leadership power (Friedrich,1968). However, the Liberian society, compared to other African societies, is doing well in the area of political tolerance.

For Instance: the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of Liberia as concerns the 2017 run off presidential election shows how tolerance Liberians are; free speech and press freedom are exceptionally tolerated; if anyone in the audience wants to verify this declaration…the best option is to turn to any of the local radio “Talks Show” or go through the daily headlines and pages of newspapers in the country. I recall that the 54th National Legislature recently decriminalized speech of offensive nature and created a free media environment in Liberia (Emansion, 2019).

The Bill is credited to the Office of the President of the Republic of Liberia, Dr.  Manneh Weah.  Article 15 of the Liberian constitution guarantees for freedom of speech and expression and also provides cautions regarding abuses. The provision includes freedom of speech and of the press; academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available.

Former President Johnson-Sirleaf is also credited as the Second African head of   State to endorse the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls on African governments to abolish criminal defamation laws.  In 2010 Liberia became the first to enact West Africa’s first Freedom of Information law and established an Independent media Commission headed currently by a student of the Kofi Annan institute of the University of Liberia. This law gives both journalists and the general public the leverage of unrestricted to access to public document, with exclusions of those border on national security.

The third principles of democracy is transparency while Leys (1967) disclosed that to be transparent means that officials both public and private allow for public scrutiny of what they do while in public office including  that citizens are allowed to attend public meetings and are free to obtain vital information, holding of regular elections to ensure that bad leadership are not forced on the people and that elections are the main avenue for all citizens to exercise power to elect, or  choose and reject  their leaders through a secret ballot.

The situation of economic independence is also essential under the Liberian democratic governance system in that it creates the basis on which the citizens become economically potent, hold their leaders’ feet to the fire and at the same time meet the needs of their family. Candidates usually attempt to bribe registered voters either directly or indirectly, returns, in most cases these candidates are punished by the voters despite of electoral gifts.

Regarding the principle of the rule of law, constitution of Liberia provides: That no one is above the law and requires that all citizens observe the law and are held accountable if they break it, due process of law requires that the law should be equally;  fairly and consistently enforced; equality before the law; The law should rule and establish framework for all conduct and behavior to follow and rule of law ensures law and order and the protection of citizens as they enjoy their rights. The issue of human right is also indispensable to democratic governance in Liberia since democracies around the world strive to protect the rights and freedoms of their citizens from abuse, to choose their leaders, right to life, the right to own property, the freedom of expression

Democracies across the world work towards multi-party system which is a set-up where there are more than two political parties contesting for power such as broaden the pool for choice of the best candidate for political office, offer alternative views to the government of the day as a result of the existence of an opposition and allow the opposition to act as a check on those in political office.

Electoral System of Liberia

The Liberian electoral system allows voters to cast secret ballots, free of intimidation, violence and inducement; it further gives electorates the options to make their choices on the basis of alternative developmental programs (NEC, 2014). It provides for changes in government without violence while power can be transferred from one party to another by means of majority decisions; the process-service as a conduit to move forward through the will of the majority and serve as the yardsticks how democratic governance  Liberia is viewed internationally. While the element of the practices of democratic values in the country includes: Government chosen by a small and democracy elections must be inclusive, elections must be conclusive and competitive while opposition parties and candidates enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly and movement.

Wolo (2007) discloses that the mass media generally constitutes an influence and effective ingredient of the world. It is due to the role of the media it is called the “Fourth Estate” since a vigorous media is an important element in a strong and healthy democracy. In Liberia, the history of journalism dated far back from the era of pioneers in 1822 when the first batch of colonial masters arrived in Liberia. The first independent newspaper to appear on the newsstand in the country was the “The Liberian Herald on February 16, 1826.  Currently, there are over 60 FM radio stations operating in the country  with about 46 in Monrovia and its surroundings and also there are over 60 prints in the country but majority of the newspapers are occasional due to financial constraints.

Accordingly, the media role in democratic governance in Liberia includes playing a critical role in improving governance; fights against bad governance and undemocratic practices include abuse of state wealth, human rights and constitutional violations; help in reducing corruption, increasing economic efficiency and stability; serves as  a “mirror” of the Liberian society and shapes public opinions, among other roles played.

But the media also encountering difficulties which include lack of needed financial resources and advertisements; Inadequate support and persistent delay to settle payment for advertisements; unethical  and unprofessional situations; lacks of professionalism,  and  proper training by some journalists; sour media-government relations; failures to engage into investigative journalism and  lacks the capacity to report in-depth. While lack of encouraging monthly incentive plays a major part as some journalists depend on the corrupt political bureaucrats and foreign capitalist or “token” to meet their daily needs.

The history of democracy in Liberia without the role of Liberian women will be incomplete. In the practices of democratic governance, women play a significant role. Any society that downplays the ability of women and continues to subscribe to outdated beliefs which denied women advancement will always be at conflict with itself. The non-violent activities of Liberian women draw international attention to the once atrocities that were being committed in the country.

It is very difficult to discuss democratic governance in Liberia will out mentioning the meaningful contributions of Liberian women towards the obtainment of democracy and listing peace.  Their activities witnessed successive signing of the Accra Peace Accord and democratically elections in 2005 which was won by fearless Liberian women—Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and this struggle of Liberia women started long time since the famous role of Mother Suakoko of Bong County and other indigenous Liberian women whose history deliberately failed to remember for selfish reasons.

Since Liberia’s independence in 1847, the nation has had numerous elections but most of the elections were far from being democratized. Until the 1986 elections which result was compromised in the interest of ex-president Samuel K. Doe.  However, following the end of the 14-year war and the signing of the comprehensive Accra peace Accord in 2003:The country with the helped of Liberian development partners and foreign nations has had Three Successful Presidential Elections and a number of Special and By-elections. Authored by Josephus Moses Gray, Assistant Professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy Studies at the University of Liberia Graduate School of International Studies, Monrovia, Liberia. Contact (Monrovia) (231) 880330299/


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