Election Season in West Africa

Centre of Government and Delivery

Election Season in West Africa

Posted on: 27th October 2017
Kate Dooley
Regional Director for West Africa, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

While African politics is currently dominated by Kenya’s elections, over here in West Africa there are several countries quietly getting along with significant elections of their own. Liberians went to the polls to elect a President and House of Representatives on 10 October and need a second-round run-off to elect a President, which will be held on 7 November. And Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls to elect a new President, Parliament and Local Councils on 7 March 2018.

I recently travelled to Liberia in a personal, voluntary capacity as a short-term election observer with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and returned to Freetown just in time for the official selection of Presidential candidates for Sierra Leone’s two largest political parties. 

When a new President is inaugurated in January 2018, it will be the first transition of power from one democratically-elected President to another in Liberia since 1944.

Since then, the Constitution has been manipulated to extend Presidential terms, leaders have been toppled by coups and a brutal civil war devastated the country. It is not surprising then that to citizens it mattered first and foremost that elections were conducted peacefully. Women marched nationwide the day before the elections, visiting political party offices urging everyone to conduct themselves peaceably. And indeed, election day was remarkably peaceful and quiet nationwide.

Evidently, democracy as a tool for change matters to Liberians also. Turnout was higher than anticipated at 75.2% and the Presidential candidate of the ruling Unity Party, current Vice President Joseph Boakai, secured just 28.8% of the vote. The leading opposition party, George Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change, led the Presidential ballot with 38.4% and more than doubled their number of seats in the House of Representatives. (Full election results are available from the National Elections Commission (NEC) here).

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Photo of queue in a small rural polling station. Photo taken by Kate Dooley on 10 October.

The commitment of Liberians to a peaceful democratic process was inspiring.

I was deployed to River Gee County, on the border with Cote d’Ivoire, to observe electoral proceedings, where the truly limited road network meant ballot papers had to be delivered by motorbike, foot or even canoe, and voters had to travel the same route to cast their vote. Almost everywhere I went, I saw orderly queues, keen first-time voters and staff dedicated to upholding due process.

But I also saw many people arrive to vote and leave so quickly, they can’t have marked their ballot paper. Many might simply have not known what to do, due to a lack of voter education, poor literacy or perhaps just overwhelmed by choice – with 20 Presidential candidates. Invalid votes were around 10% of total votes cast at the polling station where I observed counting on election night, and totalled 5.4% nationwide.

It is also clear that citizens have higher expectations for what the next government should deliver in terms of development. Development gains have been hard-fought post-war and Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. More than the outcome of the 7 November run-off election and the inauguration of a new President in January, the ability of Liberians to engage meaningfully and use their democratic institutions to demand more from government and hold government to account to deliver the infrastructure and services they need, will be the test of their democracy.

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