Monrovia, Liberia: Former soccer star George Weah and incumbent Vice-President Joseph Boakai will face off, on December 26, in the Liberia presidential election run-off that was held up for several weeks by a court challenge initiated by the candidate who came third in round one.
The winner replaces Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president in what will be Liberia’s first peaceful handover of power in 70 years.
Electoral Commission chairman Jerome Korkoya said campaigning could start immediately but must end by December 24.
The Supreme Court last week dismissed a complaint from third-place finisher Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party, which alleged fraud had undermined the first round in October – ruling that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate voting fraud claims.
Justice Philip Banks said the judges found some evidence of irregularities, but not enough to hold another election altogether and the run-off between the top two candidates will go on as originally planned.
“For there to be such a massive turnaround in the entire electoral process, the appellants are under a legal obligation to show that these activities occurred not just at a few isolated centers, but that they occurred at most, or all of the polling places,” he said.
Four of the five judges on the Supreme Court voted to have the run-off. The lone dissenter, Justice Kabineh M. Ja’neh, said there was enough evidence of fraud and that his colleagues were ignoring them.
The decision effectively ended the presidential bid of the Liberty Party’s Charles Brumskine, who finished third when voting was held in November with 10 percent of the vote count. Weah won 38 percent and Boakai won 29 percent.
But Brumskine said voting fraud was rampant and filed his case to the Supreme Court last month, leading to a halt in the planned run-off.
International observers, including the European Union, had not raised major concerns about the first round of voting, although some irregularities were observed, according to media reports.
Former Chelsea, Manchester City and AC Milan striker George Weah had 39.0 percent of the votes and Boakai 29.1 percent – neither of them near the 50 percent required to win the presidency outright after the first round of voting.
The country’s 2.1 million registered voters are choosing the successor to Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
Africa’s first female elected head of state, who is stepping down after serving two six-year terms, as mandated by Liberia’s constitution.
Sirleaf has led Liberia through a period of peace in the aftermath of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. But the country remains plagued by corruption and is still trying to recover from the Ebola situation that killed 5,000 people in 2014 and 2015.
It will be the first time since 1944 that a democratically elected leader will hand over power to another elected leader in Liberia.
Johnson Sirleaf, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, will step down after 12 years at the helm of Africa’s first republic, whose back-to-back civil wars (1989-2003) and Ebola situation (2014-16) have stunted growth and left Liberia among the world’s poorest nations.
A peaceful transition from one elected president to another would be the first in living memory after seven decades of coups, assassinations and exiled dictators.
While ordinary Liberians are grateful that peace has held through Sirleaf’s two terms in office, living standards in Liberia remain dire for most and became the focus of the campaign.
Liberia ranks 177 of 188 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index and 174 of 190 nations in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and every candidate has laid out their plans to change the nation’s gloomy outlook.
Vice President Boakai made infrastructure, especially road building, central to his campaign.
But he faced accusations his government did too little on corruption and spent two terms pressing for donor funds abroad rather than innovate at home.
Sirleaf, in her defence, said in an October 2 speech that “if we did not have those (UN) agencies and those programmes here, with our limited resources we would not have achieved the things we wanted.”
Liberia’s most famous son, footballer-turned-senator George Weah, attracted huge crowds everywhere he campaigned and had a faithful youth following in a country where a fifth of the electorate is aged 18 to 22, but was blamed for issuing vague promises and for his long absences from the country.
Some also questioned Weah’s pick for vice president – Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Liberian warlord and former president Charles Taylor.
Charles Taylor is currently serving time in Britain for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, and rumours swirl he is issuing orders by phone from his jail cell. Weah denies contact with him.