At midnight on Sunday, as Liberia prepared to vote for the successor to Africa’s first female president, a rebel warlord arrived at his Monrovia residence, where a pair of menacing cement lions greeted him. Prince Johnson, the former rebel leader who ordered the murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990 – and filmed himself drinking beer as he watched Doe’s ear being chopped off – had just wrapped up his presidential campaign in his countryside strongholds in north-east Nimba. In the last poll in 2011, he played kingmaker, pledging his support to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when the election went to a run-off. This time, however, he feels he could win it. “I don’t see why I should be kingmaker and not king,” he said, holding court at his battered desk on a verandah, wearing a dapper pink and green suit and a red tasseled hat, as cocks crew in the surrounding yard.
Not all the protagonists of Liberia’s bloody civil war are still around – the most notorious of them, Charles Taylor, is at HM Prison Frankland in County Durham, UK. But some are, capitalising on their activities during the war or denying them – or both.
History and tradition play their part in Tuesday’s election, even though 20% of voters are between 18 and 24, and are too young to remember the war. In a poll that will almost certainly go to a run-off, political alliances and endorsements will make all the difference – and these are often determined by the past.