|Despite her critics, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the incumbent president, has shifted the perception of female polticians across the continent [EPA]
Mention Liberia and you could be forgiven for thinking of child soldiers, blood diamonds and warlord Charles Taylor. The savagery of one of Africa's most brutal civil wars turned the continent's first independent country into the poster child for failed African states.
And that is a difficult image to usurp.
Between 1989 and 2003, civil war left more than 250,000 people dead and one million internally displaced. Yet when Charles Taylor stepped down in 2003 - going into exile in Nigeria - and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first female African head of state in 2005, Liberia entered a hitherto inconceivable period of peace and calm.
For the past six years, the country has seen the advancement of democratic values, the return of investment and a rearguard attempt to fix its international reputation off the back of its widely-praised president.
Indeed, with 1.8 million Liberians set to take part in the second general and presidential elections since the war ended, it might just be time to change perceptions of the country.
Not so fast, say the experts.
'A war mentality'
"The fear that things can go easily wrong … remains," says Lansana Gberie, a research analyst for the Security Council Report (SCR) after visiting the region in July.
"I lived in Liberia for two years [2008 and 2009] and for much of that time one did have a sense that the peace was utterly fragile, and that if the thousands of UN troops and police were withdrawn, the country would immediately implode."
It is an anxiety, Gberie says, that has not dissipated.
And while Johnson-Sirleaf has earned praise for presiding over one of the most peaceful passages in Liberian history - winning the Nobel Peace Prize just last week - analysts say the country is only on the threshold of becoming a fully-fledged democracy.
"The fear that things can go easily wrong ... remains."
Liberia's stability, they argue, is almost totally dependent on outside assistance.
The United Nations maintains a peace envoy of 8,000 soldiers in the country, making it one of its most expensive missions, and the Liberian economy remains almost totally reliant on foreign aid.
Years of severe poverty (with 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line) and gross unemployment (also estimated at around 80 per cent) teamed with a ravaged infrastructure and uneven rural-urban development, make peace and democracy appear feeble concepts in a nation still tainted by memory of bogus elections, warlords and a rampant oligarchy.
These concerns were articulated by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a recent report titled 'Liberia: how sustainable is the recovery' where it argued that the "elections are a crucial test for the consolidation of stability, peace and democracy," and noted that the tone of election campaigning had "been uncomfortably aggressive".
According to the report, decades of misrule together, a glaring infrastructure vacuum, comprised state institutions, a legislature full of former warlords and low levels of literacy and development, allowed for "the continuation of a war mentality" and a "ready resort to violence".
Founded in 1847 by a small group of freed American slaves, who monopolised the country's resources, Liberia's unique history set the stage for the political instability that eventually came to the fore in the late 20th century as indigenous Liberians stood up to minority rule.
When Charles Taylor launched an attack on the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe in 1989, the country became embroiled in a multifaceted war involving neighbouring countries, ragtag militias, a multi-billion dollar blood diamond industry, courtesy of neighbouring Sierre Leone, and child soldiers living 'Kaleshnikov lifestyles'. Then when Taylor stepped down, warlords promptly transformed themselves into politicians.
Titi Ajayi, from the West Africa project at the International Crisis Group, says democratic values in the country remain fragile.
"Political parties generally don't have strong ideological bases, [which is] probably why voting has tended to be along ethnic lines, and internal democracy is weak."
Ajiyi points out that there is still a great deal of suspicion surrounding the actual electoral process, "which is why it is so crucial that [the] 2011 [vote] be transparent in order to build confidence ahead of future elections".
Jonny Steinberg, the author of Little Liberia, an account of Liberia's civil war and the angusih of exile, says that while "it is unlikely that another war will break out, this [does] not mean that democracy is flourishing [or] that there is a culture of democratic values".
'The poor, disillusioned and hungry'
Johnson-Sirleaf is standing against 15 presidential candidates, many with biographies colourful enough to feature in a graphic novel. George Weah, a former football star, and Winston Tubman, a former UN diplomat and justice minister, represent the Congress of Democratic Change (CDC) - widely seen as Johnson-Sirleaf's sternest opposition. Prince Johnson, a notorious warlord famed for executing former president Samuel Doe on camera, has also joined the race, telling Reuters last week that "once the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner, I will accept the result. We have only this country to protect".
But the involvement of warlords in the rebuilding of Liberia's political scene has left many feeling uncomfortable.
"These warlords never expressed contrition - in fact many of them felt that the violence they inflicted on innocent people in the past was all for the good of the country. That kind of nihilism remains unsettling," Gberie says.
"A win for Jonathan-Sirleaf will come as no surprise"
- Ayo Johnson
And while Johnson-Sirleaf is expected to win, some say they would not bet against Tubman and Weah pulling off an upset.
"The elections look competitive, it might be a neck-and-neck run in the first round, and anyone can take it," saysJohn Kollie, the director of the Liberia Media Initiative in Monrovia, the country's capital. Kollie maintains that while the incumbent enjoys the support of the country's elite, in a time of rampant unemployment and rising dissent, the CDC has been able to appeal to its youth.
Despite this, Ayo Johnson, the director of View Point Africa, believes Johnson-Sirleaf will win and points to the Nobel Peace Prize is a "ringing endorsement from the West" for a president that possesses an "air of invincibility" and "exudes a persona that catapults her beyond [her] competitors in the race for the presidency".
"A win for Johnson-Sirleaf will come as no surprise," he says. "It would be a win for the West, a win for many Liberians and a win for the international investor community. Only time will tell if it turns out to be a win for the poor, the disillusioned and the hungry."
Gberie suggests that it is ultimately these distinct economic and ethnic fault lines that will dictate the course of the election. "The key issue in Liberia, I think, is the gap between Monrovia and the rest of the country. Educated Liberians tend to play this down, but most educated Liberians don't make an effort to understand rural Liberia - the anxieties, hardships, struggles of the rural poor," he says. "Even so-called natives who grew up in Monrovia and are educated hardly speak the native languages. It is the only country in West Africa where you find this kind of thing. [It is] rather bewildering and this cannot help [with closing] the gap between Monrovia and rural Liberia."
In a country where those who own the media own perceptions, Kollie says Johnson-Sirleaf has a distinct advantage as her United Party has the state media at its disposal. And while the media has been able to function unrestrained under her rule, the economic climate has led to radio stations being shut down while access to the airwaves outside Monrovia has been limited. In addition, Kollie says corruption among the country's poorly paid journalists is widespread.
"The media landscape is totally in favour of the ruling party."
- John Kollie
"The media landscape is totally in favour of the ruling party, and freedom of speech can only be assessed once there are economic improvements that allow for people to have the choice in how and what they cover."
The ICG report says observers have noted inflammatory language in the media in the lead-up to the elections, but Kollie contends that "bickering is normal" and that "elections are ordinarily marked by tension".
"Elections are essentially a struggle for power," he adds.
Local versus global
Despite the drawbacks of poor institutions, rampant corruption and divisions along social and ethnic lines, upon being elected six years ago, Johnson-Sirleaf invited rival political parties and civil society into her cabinet and pushed for social cohesion. She has been credited with diversifying her cabinet and appointing women to key ministerial positions, including finance, foreign affairs and commerce and industry, as well as ambassadors to postings like Germany, South Africa and Scandinavia.
Moreover, she is seen to have advanced greater transparency and freedom of speech, while reducing political persecution and, through the support of the US, arranging the cancellation of billions of dollars of foreign debt.
Ajiyi says that even her critics have lauded her attempts to establish stability, whether through infrastructural development or regular salaries.
"She seems to have laid the foundations of governance to build on. Liberia needs foreign direct investment from the rich West, and if they, the rich West have already expressed that they would rather do business with Johnson-Sirleaf then technically, in a strange but real way, it is in Liberia's interest that she wins," Ayo Johnson says.
Likewise, Gberie contends that the president has done "extraordinarily well in the circumstances," adding that: "She has produced amazing results with respect to rebuilding the visible structures of the state and attracting investors."
But, Gberie stresses, Johnson-Sirleaf has failed to address the burning tensions between the indigenous population and the Americo-Liberian population, the latter the descendents of freed slaves who have historically treated the local population as second class citizens. Gberie contends that this has essentially meant that the elites have been attended to while the rest of Liberia remains in tatters.
"To date, rural Liberia looks absolutely neglected. Monrovia has had a facelift, with new roads, banks, hotels, restaurants, and minimal electricity and water supplies restored. But the rest of Liberia is still ruins, really," Gberie adds.
A long history is a mixed history
It has also been alleged that Johnson-Sirleaf has failed to address the crippling levels of corruption that have dogged the country for decades.
But Ayo Johnson argues that there is more at stake than mere criticism of her failed attempts to root out corruption. "The risk to her legacy, should she win, is that she may be seen as a stooge to the West, and this may come to haunt her presidency just as her past relationship with Charles Taylor who is still at The Hague has done so."
Ayo adds that Johnson-Sirleaf's failure to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was both an attempt to address the wounds of war and an effort tackle impunity, has also stacked public opinion against her. The TRC recommended that she and 29 others be barred from public office for their association with Taylor, whom she supported briefly during the early 1990s.
Steinberg emphasises that the different perceptions of Johnson-Sirleaf are important to note because understanding how Liberians see their president offers an insight into why Liberians feel cheated by the world.
"There is a gap between the perceptions of Johnson-Sirleaf abroad [and] how she is perceived at home … she is seen on the outside as a champion of human rights. In Liberia, she is a person with a long history, and a long history in Liberia is a mixed history. Liberians respect her, rather than love her.” he explains.
Source: Al Jazeera