In landmark elections slated for Oct. 10, Liberians will vote in the country’s third postwar presidential and legislative races. Incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first female president — is ineligible to run because of constitutionally mandated term limits. So January 2018 will mark the first time in recent memory that a democratically elected Liberian president will hand power to a similarly elected head of state. A nation of 4.5 million people, Liberia is a sliver of a country in West Africa “founded” in 1847 by black migrants from the United States, the Caribbean and the Congo River basin. Clashes between these settlers and the 16 ethnic groups already occupying the territory spiraled Liberia into more than a century of political upheavals.
As a country of many firsts, Liberia is in Guinness World Records as administering the most-rigged election — in 1927. Africa’s first black republic, Liberia has also been described as the continent’s first one-party state. Elections in the 19th and 20th centuries were more like selections — largely engineered and manipulated by the political elite.
Sirleaf’s three predecessors came to power through a brutal counterinsurgency (Charles Taylor), a coup (Samuel Kanyon Doe) and political succession following a sitting president’s death (William Tolbert). Taylor ended up in prison; Doe and Tolbert were brutally assassinated.
After a devastating 14-year armed conflict ended in 2003 with Taylor being granted political asylum in Nigeria, Liberia began to slowly transcend countries in Africa with longer histories of democratic consolidation. In a remarkable break from the past, Liberia in 2005 became the first African country to elect a woman — Sirleaf — as head of state with no one party securing a majority in the presidential, House of Representatives or Senate races.