In 1821, the Mayflower of Liberia landed near what was to become Monrovia. She carried 86 passengers, freed former slaves resettled to a newly created West African state as part of the American Colonization Society’s goal of promoting manumission.
Liberian citizens are proud of their unique history and they have the courage and fortitude of their ancestors. But hope is a fickle mistress, and in Liberia’s case plays optimistic notes in a minor key and a broken chord.
The country is one of the world’s poorest, with a per capita GDP of $460. According to the World Bank, 54% of Liberians live below the poverty threshold, life expectancy is 57 years and illiteracy exceeds 60%.
The country has faced waves of tragedy resulting in lives stunted or lost through underfunded health services; the devastation of the 2014 Ebola outbreak; the unfulfilled potential of a million schoolchildren who go to school hungry each day; and the ruptured social fabric from 14 years of civil war.
More than a decade has passed since the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the civil war. After two terms in office, Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has healed wounds, but failed to build the country’s economy and basic infrastructure.
In 2010, she proclaimed that "Liberia should not need aid in 10 years. We’ve got the resources, we’re going from dependency to self-sufficiency".
Sirleaf’s plan relied on high iron ore and rubber prices. But the commodities boom is over, China is switching to a consumption-based economic model and commodity markets for iron ore are in recovery mode after falling to less than half of their 2012 prices. Although Liberia’s budget has increased fivefold since Sirleaf took office, her administration is out of ideas to broaden socioeconomic progress.
The smell of corruption is rising from Capitol Building, the legislature in Monrovia. The national budget is $650m, but 80% goes to politicians’ and bureaucrats’ salaries.
Peace and the legacy of freedom are no longer enough; there needs to be a concerted push towards a capable state. Policies need to infiltrate and rejuvenate the countryside, where the stereotypically lush African scenery masks the desperation of economic backwardness. In Liberian villages, people see nothing of globalisation or its benefits other than the branded cans of warm soft-drinks at rickety refreshment stalls.
The presidential election in October gives voters a chance for a new beginning of sorts. Beyond the frenzy of the political class – 22 parties will compete in a two-stage, first-past-the-post runoff – is an unenthused citizenry, tired of noble words and strategies but ineffectual implementation.
In the 2005 runoff, 1-million voters participated, dropping to less than 700,000 in the 2011 elections. This year only 1.9-million citizens registered to vote out of the total adult population of 2.7-million.
Lining up to be candidates for political office in Liberia are long-in-the-tooth senators with insipid track records. Sirleaf is backing her deputy, Joseph Boakai, 80. Liberians question whether he has clean hands.
Another candidate is former football star George Weah. He has been active in politics for a long time, but his delivery in government pales in comparison to his sporting exploits. As a senator, he bears some responsibility for the state’s shortcomings.
Weah’s choice of running partner, the wife of convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, is widely perceived as an insult to Liberians who suffered in the civil war, and seems disrespectful to the country’s international donors.
Vision for Liberia Transformation leader Jeremiah Whapoe claims that he will raise impoverished subsistence farmers into "millionaires" by mechanising agriculture.
But the leader of the Union of Liberia Democrats, MacDella Cooper, is a dynamic 40-year-old. She carries no political baggage and already has a meaningful legacy: her philanthropic foundation’s
15-year track record in funding hunger relief and bursaries for young girls, earning her the moniker "Liberia’s angel".
She acknowledges Liberia’s historical donor-development partners, particularly the EU, the US and Norway, who contribute $550m in aid towards the annual national budget. Cooper wants to expand accountability measures for this funding, and nurture relationships with these partners and others within the international community.
But she realises that aid is not a sustainable path to prosperity. Liberians need to take responsibility for their own progress — a task that an empowered younger generation can, and must, tackle. She is seeking public-private partnerships, to make it easier to do business in Liberia, and to rapidly build infrastructure and electricity capacity — all vital steps to entice foreign investment and boost the nation’s self-sufficiency.
Her manifesto sounds like a clarion call to her fellow citizens. She fears that Liberia is at risk of old enmities resurfacing as poverty’s desperation takes hold. "We are at a crossroads, and we have to find leadership that is serious about the future," she says.