Liberia has enjoyed more than a decade of peace and stability since a 14-year period of intermittent civil war ended in 2003. During this time, the country has made considerable progress towards rebuilding government capacity, reestablishing the rule of law, and ensuring the political rights and civil liberties of citizens. However, Liberia still faces serious issues with corruption and unequal justice.
- With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for October 2017, Liberia’s political landscape saw jockeying among parties and politicians, amid a peaceful environment. By year’s end, a number of credible contenders for the presidency had emerged.
- In September, in an effort to address underrepresentation of women in government, Liberia’s legislature passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, creating five seats for female politicians in the House of Representatives, along with one for young people and one for people with disabilities.
- The UN Security Council voted in December to extend the mandate of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) until March 2018.
Liberia’s political landscape in 2016 was dominated by preparations for the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. Because incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is constitutionally barred from serving a third term, the election will bring about the first transition of power since the end of the civil wars in 2003. Several candidates have emerged as top contenders for the presidency, including Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party (UP); George Weah, a senator and standard-bearer for the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC); and Benoni Urey, a businessman affiliated with the All Liberian Party (ALP). Despite fears among some observers that the election could destabilize the country, in 2016 all stakeholders appeared to be committed to a peaceful electoral process.
The government has continued to pursue its anticorruption agenda, though progress has been slow and corruption remains pervasive. In May 2016, the government launched an investigation into a corruption scandal involving mining contracts, which led to bribery charges against the speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as a senator.
In recent years, rulings by the nation’s highest court have reflected judicial independence and the court’s continued willingness to intervene to protect people’s rights. However, petty corruption and a lack of capacity within lower-level courts and security sectors remained major impediments to the rule of law.
Liberia has a bicameral legislature composed of a 30-member Senate and a 73-member House of Representatives; senators are elected to nine-year terms, and representatives to six-year terms. Staggered senatorial elections were introduced in 2011. The president can serve up to two six-year terms.
Since the end of the civil wars in 2003, Liberia has held two presidential elections. The most recent was in 2011, when incumbent president Sirleaf of the UP secured 44 percent of the vote in the first round, while Winston Tubman, of the opposition CDC, took 32 percent. Sirleaf was reelected after winning 91 percent of the vote in a runoff. Although opposition members alleged fraud and corruption, international and local observers found that the elections had been comparatively free, fair, and peaceful, though there were isolated incidents of violence before and after the voting, and the government briefly shut down radio and television stations with perceived pro-CDC biases before the vote.
Elections to 15 of Liberia’s 30 Senate seats were held in December 2014 after several months of delay due to the Ebola crisis, and turnout was depressed by fears of Ebola. The election resulted in major losses for incumbent politicians in general and the UP in particular, attributed to widespread discontent with the government’s handling of the Ebola crisis. The UP held just 8 seats in the body after the polls. The CDC and National Patriotic Party (NPP) were left with 4 Senate seats each after votes were tabulated, with the remainder of seats held by smaller parties or independents, except for a single seat that was left vacant. Although beset with restrictions under a state of emergency, the 2014 Senate elections were deemed “free, fair, credible, and transparent” by an observer mission from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Liberia’s next national election is scheduled for October 2017. Sirleaf will not be in the running, as presidents are constitutionally barred from running for more than two terms. Sirleaf is supporting incumbent vice president Boakai of the UP, who has emerged as a major contender. Other contenders include Weah, a senator and standard-bearer for the CDC, and Urey, a prominent businessman in the telecommunications sector, who is affiliated with the ALP.
In 2016, all parties appeared committed to ensuring elections are peaceful, and support for a democratic process among citizens is strong. Although campaigning is not expected to begin in earnest until summer of 2017, candidates appear set to campaign in a free and fair environment.
Political parties do not face undue legal or practical obstacles that prevent them from operating. Allegations of undue influence or pressure on voters by powerful groups are rare. Opposition parties hold significant support among the population and, in the 2014 Senate elections, demonstrated the ability to convert this support into political power.
Though Liberians elected Africa’s first female head of state, women are underrepresented in government, and hold only 12 percent of legislative seats and 6 percent of positions in local government, despite a 2014 electoral law mandating that neither men nor women can comprise more than 70 percent of the candidates listed by any political party. Recognizing the need for further reform, in September 2016 the legislature passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, which created five seats reserved for female politicians in the House of Representatives, as well as one for youth, and one for people with disabilities. It is set to take effect in time for the 2017 elections.
Ethnic and religious minority groups generally enjoy full political rights and electoral opportunities, though some minorities—especially the Mandingo and Fulani peoples—continue to be stigmatized as outsiders. Candidates occasionally exploit these biases to rally their constituents. Additionally, members of Lebanese and Asian minority groups whose families have lived in Liberia for several generations are denied citizenship, and therefore may not vote or participate in the political process.
Once elected, new government officials are duly installed in office, and elected legislators generally operate without interference from nonstate actors, foreign governments, or unelected officials.
Liberia boasts a number of institutions devoted to fighting corruption—including the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), the General Auditing Commission, and the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission—but they lack the resources and capacity to function effectively, and corruption remains pervasive. Widespread government distrust is thought to have contributed to the spread of Ebola in 2014, as there was low support for government-backed control policies and preventative measures. A May 2016 report by Global Witness, an international anticorruption group, reported that a series of questionable payments had been made by the British company Sable Mining to House Speaker Alex Tyler and other high-ranking government officials. The payments, believed to total more than $1 million, were allegedly made in 2010 during the firm’s attempt to gain an iron ore concession in the north of the country. Later in the month, Tyler and a senator were indicted on charges including bribery; Tyler resigned as House Speaker in September, and proceedings against them were underway at year’s end.
President Sirleaf has been repeatedly accused of nepotism when filling lucrative bureaucratic posts within her administration. Charles Sirleaf, one of her sons, was appointed the interim head of the central bank in February 2016, while Fumba Sirleaf, another son, heads the National Security Agency.
Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act is rarely used, and government responsiveness to requests tends to be slow. Liberia was the first African state to comply with Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) rules governing natural-resource extraction, and in 2016 it remained EITI compliant. In November, the legislature passed the Petroleum Law, which compels all oil companies to disclose their ownership and mandates that all petroleum contracts be awarded through competitive bidding.
A variety of newspapers operate in Liberia, though most are published in the capital. Numerous radio stations operate across the country. The government does not restrict internet access, but poor infrastructure and high costs limit usage to a small fraction of the population.
Despite becoming to a signatory in 2012 to the Declaration of Table Mountain, a pan-African initiative that calls for the abolition of criminal defamation laws, Liberia has long been criticized for its onerous criminal and civil libel laws, which are used to harass and intimidate journalists and activists. In 2016 the government continued to use libel and sedition laws to clamp down on dissent. Following the mysterious death of Harry Greaves, a prominent businessman and government critic whose body was found on a beach in Monrovia in January, human rights activist Vandalark Patricks was arrested and charged with sedition and criminal libel after calling for mass protests against what he alleged to be a government plot to assassinate political opponents. While an independent investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Greaves, the government’s willingness to quickly detain critics on allegations of sedition and criminal libel is alarming. In addition, in September an activist was charged with criminal coercion for his investigation into a government-backed loan program for businesses in the city of Buchanan. In July, the opposition radio station Voice FM was temporarily shut down for lacking an operating permit. And in October, the publisher of the Hot Pepper newspaper, Philipbert Browne, was arrested for libel and detained for several days after publishing an article in which a teenage girl claimed that a legislator had raped her. Physical attacks against media workers are occasionally reported. In May 2016, journalist Wremongar Joe was physically attacked for refusing to delete footage he had taken of a brawl that involved a legislator.
Religious freedom is protected in the constitution, and there is no official religion. Liberia is, however, a de facto Christian state, and the Muslim minority frequently reports discrimination. In 2015, a proposal to amend the constitution in order to establish Christianity as the official state religion was decried by Muslim leaders, and contributed to interreligious tensions. Though the proposal appeared to have the support of numerous lawmakers, the house speaker indicated his opposition in April 2016 and President Sirleaf has maintained opposition to the bill. Separately, the Palm oil company Golden Veroleum (GVL) reportedly bulldozed religious shrines in October as part of its expansion plans.
The government does not restrict academic freedom, though educational quality and infrastructure remain grossly inadequate. People are generally free to engage in private discussion while in public spaces. The government is not known to illegally monitor online communications.
Freedom of association is constitutionally guaranteed and largely respected in Liberia. Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country.
The rights of workers to strike, organize, and bargain collectively are recognized, but labor laws remain in need of reform. Labor disputes can turn violent, particularly at the country’s various mines and rubber plantations.
Constitutional provisions guarantee an independent judiciary. Although petty corruption and backlogs remain major impediments to justice, recent rulings by the nation’s highest court point to increased judicial independence and increased willingness to intervene to protect people’s rights. However, lower-level courts continue to struggle to provide justice to ordinary citizens. Corruption remains rampant, judges are subject to interference, and courts are hamstrung by case backlogs.
Lack of discipline, absenteeism, and corruption continue to plague the police and armed forces, hampering their ability to enforce laws and bring justice to those who have been the victims of crimes. As a result, many in Liberia turn to extrajudicial means of justice, including attacks and property damage. People accused of witchcraft can face the practice of “trial by ordeal,” in which they are subjected to abuses amounting to torture. Prisons are notorious for inadequate medical care, food, and sanitation; lax security; and prolonged pretrial detentions.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face social stigma and the threat of violence and harassment. Under the penal code, “voluntary sodomy” is a misdemeanor offense that can carry up to a year in prison. A local LGBT rights group reported in October 2016 that several people were arrested on allegations of sodomy, including one person who was arrested after reporting a robbery to police.
Personal autonomy and individual rights are constitutionally protected in Liberia, and the government does not restrict freedom of travel, or choice of residence, employment, or institutions of higher education. However, equality of opportunity is limited in part by the low quality of public education. The government has tried to address low numeracy and literacy skills among young people by expanding vocational training, and more controversially, by partnering in April 2016 with a private company that provides primary education at a low cost.
Conflicts over land access and ownership remain pervasive. Many of these conflicts originated in the civil wars and subsequent internal migration, displacement, and resettlement. Others are the result of opaque concession agreements granting foreign corporations access to lands for production of tropical timber, palm oil, and other products. A large fraction of the country’s land mass is thought to be owned by private logging and other companies. A 2015 report by Global Witness criticized the government for helping the palm oil company Golden Veroleum pressure local communities to enter into concession agreements with little understanding of their terms and conditions. In addition, mechanisms for compensating local communities in concession areas remain inadequate and have led to violent protests. In 2016, there were reports that Golden Veroleum had turned land traditionally held by communities into its own palm oil plantations, and had stationed armed guards around them.
While men and women enjoy equal legal rights under civil law, customary law remains dominant in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas, creating gender discrepancies in access to land, custody of children, and impartial adjudication of disputes. Violence against women and children, particularly rape, is a pervasive problem. In April 2016, the government proposed legislation against female genital mutilation, a process many Liberian women have experienced.
Human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor and prostitution remains a problem in Liberia, with most victims trafficked from Liberia’s rural areas to its cities. Many trafficking victims are children, who can be found working in diamond mines, agricultural operations, or as domestic laborers, or engaged in forced begging or prostitution.
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Global Freedom Score60 100 partly free