Features

Worth the wait

Africa | Liberians go to the polls, and

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

If Liberians are practiced in anything, it is waiting. Waiting 14 years for civil war to end. Waiting as the transitional government shepherded the West African country toward national elections. And then, when they came to Oct. 11, waiting for hours at polling stations to cast precious ballots.

Despite a wealth of waiting, enthusiasm ran high for the election, in which Liberians chose a new president and lawmakers for their House and Senate. For many who have suffered years of violence and war, the election was a new start.

Official results are not expected for several days, and a run-off, scheduled for next month, is nearly certain. With a field of 22 candidates, it's unlikely any one candidate will win more than half the vote. The wide field has made for a lively campaign season, with rallies and posters around the country over several weeks. Such campaigning may be standard election practice elsewhere, but it is new again for Liberians.

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James Kesselly, general manager of an evangelical radio station in Monrovia, told WORLD this election was different from the last two he has seen: "In the past there was a one-party system . . . this time round there seems not to be fear."

Registered voters numbered 1.3 million, almost half the country's population. Election day ran smoothly with few complaints, kept more or less orderly by 15,000 UN peacekeepers who have stabilized the country since the ceasefire took shape two years ago.

The two front-runners as first results trickled in offered panache aplenty during the campaign. One, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a 66-year-old, Harvard-educated economist who would be Africa's first female head of state if elected. She was Liberia's minister of finance in the 1970s. The other, 39-year-old George Weah, is a world-famous soccer player and high-school dropout who rose to stardom from Monrovia's slums.

Ensuring election success is preventive medicine for West Africa: The 1989-2003 civil war spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, destabilizing the entire region.

Securing the peace is also topmost in many Liberians' minds, but not their only worry. The country has no running water or electricity, and 85 percent of the population is unemployed. A continuing priority is to provide former adolescent soldiers, numbering about 100,000, with schooling and jobs.

Liberia's unique history means a political contest of this scale was bound to turn into an international affair. Freed black American slaves founded the country in 1847. In 1980, a military coup toppled the government of William Tolbert, ushering in an era of dictatorship, rigged elections, and violence. A quarter-century of instability has prompted educated Liberians to flee, with thousands flocking to the United States. Despite being barred from voting in Liberia's election from abroad, their economic influence is so great that candidates toured the United States whipping up their support.

One presidential hopeful, lawyer Charles Brumskine, has been living in northern Virginia for years. Ms. Sirleaf also did her rounds, stopping in Indianapolis, Ind., in August. She said this election is significant because "it's the first time you have an environment of relative peace and you don't have a warlord or head of a warring faction running for president."

For Liberians in Liberia and abroad, that's reason enough to hope the election is the beginning of happier times ahead. Leon Ledlum, a veterinarian in Richmond, Va., is like many. He wants to return even though he still owes money on a veterinary practice he opened in Monrovia, now in shambles. Ten years ago on a family visit to the United States, he found himself unable to return home as Monrovia descended into chaos.

Now he is ready to go back, partly because his 12th-grade son is still in Liberia. "I want to be part of the reconstruction also," he said. Mr. Ledlum is like many Liberians who sense that days and years of waiting may now be over.

-with reporting by Russell Pulliam in Indianapolis

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