A Liberian Community Looks Forward In Historic Election

A community lot on Staten Island’s Park Hill Avenue transformed into a place of prayer for Liberians living in New York on Saturday. Those in attendance fasted and prayed in a vigil for a fair and peaceful election ahead of Tuesday, October 10th, when Liberians will vote in a new president.

“This prayer is very important because our nation will experience elections, and we’ve never experienced what will happen on Tuesday peacefully,” says Reverend Philip S. Saywrayne, one of the leaders of the prayer.  

A community leader leads a prayer with the Park Hill Community on October 7th, 2017.

Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended in 2003, with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first female head of state — taking power in 2005 from an interim government. After her 12 years in power, the country is gearing up to choose a successor. With 2.1 million Liberians registered to vote, and over 20 candidates in contest for her seat, this has been deemed as a landmark election for Liberians.

Since 1944, Liberia has not had a peaceful transition from a sitting head of state to another head state. “This is huge — if we can do this right,” says Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian Political Analyst currently in Monrovia. “We are a relatively young democracy, so Liberia could be a model for post-war countries, both in and outside of Africa.”

“This is a pretty critical point for Liberia,” said Abraham Chea Tucker, President of the Liberian Community Association of New York. “It will determine what will go forward or come backward.”

Tucker addressed the crowd in Park Hill and shared the tragedy he experienced as a result of the war, recounting the numerous family members he lost in those years. Of the estimated 8000 – 10 000 Liberians living in New York, many have felt the ramifications of the bloody conflict.

Minister Yamda Johnson left the country at the start of the conflict in 1989. At the time, she was working at the Ministry of Defense and saw the devastation first hand with the loss of colleagues and family. Those memories of war prompted her to pray for a peaceful outcome. “It was very important to be here,” she says. “Liberians everywhere want peace, there’s still a devastation in Liberia and we want peace.”

Minister Yamda Johnson reads the bible as the vigil begins before she addresses the crowd in Park Hill on October 7th.

Liberia’s unique history as the first democratic state in Africa has not been without complications. Founded by freed slaves from America and the Caribbean, mixed in with 16 indigenous ethnic groups, there has been tension over the decades.  The country devolved into a bloody conflict in the 1990s that killed nearly 250 000 people and displaced over a million, according to UN estimates. Critics have lambasted Sirleaf for her inaction on Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, and some see it as an opening for unresolved tensions to flare up.

Candidates like Charles Brumskine, current leader of the opposing Liberty Party, and Prince Johnson, a Senator and ex-rebel leader, have alleged former loyalties to warlords during the civil conflict. Johnson made inflammatory remarks during the early stages of his campaign (which were later retracted) hinting more war was possible if he did not win. “We have to debunk that statement, we don’t want to hear that kind of language”, said Tucker.

Other candidates have been accused of using the election as a means of amassing wealth. A 2012 law allots a significant amount of money for parties that come in first, second and third place. And of the 20 candidates, only one is female, which people like Agnes Ummuna, a Liberian journalist based in New York, consider an indication of Sirleaf’s legacy. “As the first female president in Africa, all girls and women around the world saw her as a hero, but in the past 12 years, she has done nothing to usher girls and women in political offices,” says Umunna.

But even with these issues, there is still a hopefulness among these Liberians about what comes next. Patience Goanue, is a Liberian journalist who moved to New York in 2011. She does not see this as a divisive election. “I don’t see it leading to where we were before,” says Goanue. “Liberians have learned their lesson – there might be talk of divisiveness, but when it comes to actually carrying out, they won’t let it actually get to that.”

Speaking to us on election day, Pailey alludes to the sense of anticipation she’s seen at polling stations across Liberia and says fear of violence around the election are mostly unfounded. “There’s always this assumption that when there’s an election in Africa, that it will be violent,” she says of coverage of the election in Western news. “Liberians are tired of war, tired of conflict. Most people are going to the ballots and they’re using that as their bullet.”

With so many candidates, and many undecided voters, Pailey expects that there will be run-off between the top four candidates: Brumskine, current Vice President Joseph Boakai, renowned international soccer player George Weah, and newcomer Alexander Cummings, who is former Chief Administrator of the Coca-Cola company.

Reverand Thomas Johnson addresses the crowd in Park Hill at a vigil on Saturday, October 7th, 2017.

“This is a crucial point in our country’s history,” says Rufus Araoi, a teacher who has lived in Staten Island for more than 28 years. “I see people are more enlightened, more cautious, more concerned about results they’ve gotten from past politicians”.  From discussions with friends and family in Liberia, as well as through listening and watching Liberian radio and television, he says he has found “a lot of Liberians are paying more attention this time than past elections.”

Umunna says, “Liberians are not interested in fighting any more wars and have long moved on to the path of permanent peace.” But, she adds, “some people like me still worry about the safety and security on election day.”

Political loyalties are not the order of the day at the vigil. Instead, it is prayer that has brought these Park Hill residents together as they share hope for a bright future for their country – something that has been happening across the diaspora and in Liberia. Over 85% of Liberians are Christian. “I have received many calls in my office from across the world,” says Reverand Saywrayne. “Liberians are a religious people, and they are all doing the same thing we are doing here.”

Telee Brown, an organizer of the vigil addresses the crowd, “This is a New Year’s Eve for Liberia.” After an emotional pause, he continues, “It’s the first opportunity for peaceful transition in 70 years, and today we pray that we are allowed to see that transfer”.