By Al Jazeera's Will Jordan
The sign at Monrovia airport said four things: NO STANDING, NO LOITERING, NO URINATING, NO SELLING. I stood, loitering until our fixer arrived. I bought a sim card from the kiosk selling them. Nobody urinated.
We drove into Monrovia, through the tropical lush green land along the coast, past the many election campaign posters, past the health ministry being rebuilt by the Chinese, past the huge UN tower, headquarters for the staff of one of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping missions, cut from around 15,000 troops to 8,000.
“Monkey still working, let baboon wait small” reads one of the much-publicised posters from the ruling Unity Party of Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It is one of many slogans she is using as she seeks re-election, urging voters to stick with what they know, a tried-and-tested, six-year-old government that is still on a mission to transform the country. The opposition can wait their turn. Other billboards focus on the schools and roads she has built and the development she has brought. “Development: Da’ my area.”
The country is captivated. Every radio and television station talks of nothing but the October 11 elections. Will they be peaceful? Can we tackle corruption? Who is the best candidate? Will the vote be free and fair?
And it is the same on the streets. Waiting for print-outs of our passport photos, we stood in a Chinese-run store. One man taking part in a march for a peaceful election burst through the door. He delivered his message loudly to assembled customers. At the top of his voice, he spoke of the importance of the election and of peace. He excitedly told the people they had a free choice.
I choose the best candidate for me. That is my choice. My girl, she chooses the best candidate for her. This is only for her.”
His words reflect the rise of women’s rights in Liberia, spearheaded by President Sirleaf, and the hope for a free vote.
The customers express their scepticism and complain of the “aggressive” campaigning by some candidates. Election teams are distributing footballs, t-shirts, hats, badges, all sorts of paraphernalia adorned with their images, in the hope it will win them a vote.
“No one else could have done it better than we have,” President Sirleaf reportedly told a crowd on her campaign. She has tackled the painful legacy of war, working on reconciliation, development and corruption. She promised to govern for only one term but is now seeking a second. She says the task ahead is huge and she needs more than six years.
But her opponents say she has fallen short on tackling corruption, first and foremost. The main contender is Winston Tubman, who has teamed up with Liberia’s equivalent of David Beckham. George Weah is a football superstar who came second to Sirleaf in 2005, having polled better than her in the first round. They believe their brains-and-popularity combination is powerful.
“When I get up, they cheer,” says Tubman. “But when Weah gets up, they get excited. Kids three and four are jumping up and down, older people as well. It’s something magical to watch.”
On Monrovia’s main artery road, women lie on a football field, dressed in white, making the shape of a crucifix. They are fasting for one day and asking God for peace in “Mama Liberia”. They wail and weep and cry, “We’re tired. We want peace.”
The whole nation knows that this election, if it is concluded without a resort to violence, will be a huge milestone towards achieving that lasting peace. But it is also a serious flashpoint. This election is a challenge to which Liberia must rise. The alternative is a step backwards, towards conflict.