Liberia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Liberia

Liberia

Partly Free
62/100
Overview: 

Liberia has enjoyed more than a decade of peace and stability since the second civil war ended in 2003. During this time, the country has made considerable progress rebuilding government capacity, reestablishing the rule of law, and ensuring the political rights and civil liberties of citizens, and 2017 saw the first peaceful transfer of power between leaders since 1944. However, Liberia still faces serious issues with corruption, violence against women, and discrimination against LGBT people.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • The inauguration of George Weah in January marked the first peaceful transfer of power since 1944. Weah, of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), had defeated incumbent vice president Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party in the presidential election runoff in late 2017.
  • A conflict between the legislative and judicial branches became apparent when the House of Representative passed a bill of impeachment against an associate justice of the Supreme Court, ignoring a writ of prohibition against the procedure from the same court.
  • In September, Weah signed into law two important measures: the Land Rights Act, which aims to formalize communities’ ownership of ancestral land; and the Local Government Act, which is intended to give more powers to local political subdivisions through decentralization.
  • In September, the government said a shipment of Liberian bank notes worth L$16 billion (US$100 million) being imported to the country by the Liberian Central Bank had gone missing. Weeks later, the Central Bank of Liberia announced that no money was missing, and that it had accounted for the bills. Mass street protest by citizens demanding accountability were peaceful, but faced criticism from Weah.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 27 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

Liberia’s president is directly elected, and can serve up to two six-year terms. Since the end of the civil wars in 2003, Liberia has had three peaceful presidential elections. The most recent election, held in 2017, was commended by domestic and international observers who assessed it as generally peaceful and credible, while also noting difficulties including long queues at polling places and challenges related to voter identification.

A runoff between George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and incumbent vice president Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party, the top two finishers in the first round of the 2017 polling, was delayed when third-place finisher Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party challenged the first-round results on grounds of fraud. The Supreme Court found that his fraud claim was not supported by evidence, and the run-off was held several weeks later than scheduled, in late December. Weah won the runoff with 61.5 percent of the vote, and Boakai conceded defeat. Observers noted procedural and administrative improvements in the run-off, compared to the first round. Weah’s inauguration in 2018 marked the first peaceful transfer of power since 1944.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

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. Legislative elections were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential election in October 2017. While there were some administrative problems, including complaints that registered voters could not be found on the voter rolls, observers said the elections were generally peaceful and well administered. There were minor incidents of violence between political party supporters during the campaigning period, but candidates were largely able to campaign freely.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4

The independence of Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC) is mandated by law, and political parties expressed confidence in its impartiality during the 2017 election campaign. However, its capacity is limited, and it struggles to enforce electoral laws.

The 2017 elections were the first to apply the provisions of the 2014 National Code of Conduct Act, which laid out rules applying to government officials seeking to run for elected office, and included measures aimed at avoiding conflicts of interest. The NEC attempted to enforce the provisions of the Code of Conduct during the elections. However, the Supreme Court reversed the NEC’s rulings in two instances where the NEC had disqualified high-profile candidates for failing to meet the Code of Conduct’s eligibility requirements. Separately, the NEC failed to enforce a provision of the Election Law stipulating that parties must field candidates in at least half of all constituencies. Eleven political parties did not meet this requirement, but were permitted to run. The NEC additionally struggled to complete voter lists.

The NEC also struggled to conduct two major by-elections in 2018 to fill the seats vacated by President Weah, the former senator of Montserrado County, and Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, the former senator of Bong County. The polls were held long after the required constitutional time frame due to a lack of funding, which also hampered civic and voter education efforts. Turnout for both elections was reportedly very low.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 12 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

Political parties generally do not face undue legal or practical obstacles that prevent them from forming or operating. However, in the run-up to the 2017 elections, election monitors recorded allegations that the ruling party drew on public resources to fund political campaigns—notably by taking advantage of state-owned vehicles and facilities.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4

Opposition parties hold support among the population and have a realistic chance of gaining power through elections. In the 2017 presidential election, Weah, of the opposition CDC, won the presidency over the incumbent party’s candidate. Similarly, the Congress for Democratic Change, the largest party within the CDC coalition that backed Weah, won 21 seats in the legislature in the elections, and displaced the Unity Party as the party with the greatest representation.

In the 2018 senatorial by-election in Bong County, the main opposition parties rallied behind an independent candidate and successfully defeated the ruling party candidate to fill the seat left vacant by current vice president Jewel Howard Taylor. However, in the by-election in Montserrado County, a traditional stronghold of the ruling party, the opposition failed in their bid despite forming a loose coalition.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4

Allegations of undue influence or pressure on voters by powerful groups not democratically accountable to the people are generally rare. However, in the run-up to the 2018 senatorial by-election in Bong County, Vice President Howard-Taylor implied that local civil servants who did not join the CDC would lose their jobs. After the election, a number of Bong County officials, including the labor and agricultural commissioners, were indeed replaced by CDC members, though some argued that Taylor had the authority to select her preferred appointees. There were several additional reports of purges of opposition members in the in the civil service in 2018, including at the finance, gender, foreign affairs, and state ministries.

Separately, a general wariness of the potential for election-related violence persists in Liberia, though the 2017 general elections and 2018 by-elections were generally peaceful

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Members of Lebanese and Asian minority groups whose families have lived in Liberia for generations are denied citizenship, and cannot participate in political processes. While former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected female head of state in Africa in 2005, and Liberia’s current vice president is a woman, women are poorly represented in national politics and hold few leadership positions in political parties. Just 3 seats in the 30-seat Senate and 9 in the 73-seat House of Representatives are held by women. Social stigma against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people discourages then from advocating for their rights in the context of Liberian politics.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

Once elected, government officials are duly installed in office, and elected legislators generally operate without interference. However, bribery and corruption can influence policy prioritization.

In September 2018, Weah signed the Local Government Act, which is intended to give more powers to local political subdivisions through decentralization.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Many institutions are devoted to fighting corruption, but they lack the resources and capacity to function effectively, and corruption remains pervasive. In October 2018, President Weah submitted a bill to the legislature that would remove tenure security from all positions in the executive branch; the measure would effectively rescind tenure protections for those in a number bodies whose mandates include safeguarding against corruption, including the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), the Public Procurement and Concession Commission, the General Auditing Commission, and the Governance Commission, among others. The bill secured approval in the House, with the Senate expected to consider it in 2019. If it becomes law, the measure will allow the president to appoint and fire at his will employees at these agencies.

Furthermore, anticorruption bodies including the LACC and the Financial Intelligence Unit experienced severe budget cuts in 2018. The LACC was also initially excluded from the investigation into a major financial scandal involving the disappearance of about L$16 billion (US$100 million) brought into the country by the Central Bank of Liberia, and was only invited to the investigative committee after public outcries.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act is rarely used, and government responsiveness to requests tends to be slow. Transparency guidelines for public procurement processes are not fully enforced. In 2018, many new public officials, including most in the executive branch, failed to declare their access as required by law; and the president only declared his assets six months after assuming office. However, the LACC, which collects asset declarations, is not obligated to disclose those submitted by members of the executive branch, and all efforts by civil society and media to gain access to Weah’s declaration have failed.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 35 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 11 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Liberia’s constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but these rights are often restricted in practice. While the media express a range of views, Liberia has long been criticized for its onerous criminal and civil libel laws, which authorities have invoked to harass and intimidate journalists. In July 2018, the House passed a bill that would decriminalize libel, but the Senate had yet to approve it at year’s end. Meanwhile, the government also moved to suspend the licenses of media outlets that had received them during the first six months of 2018 for a review process that was expected to take up to a year. Critics argued the move was aimed at newly established news outlets perceived critical of government. Investigative reporters frequently receive threats, including by members of the government who have vowed to launch lawsuits in response to legitimate journalistic inquiries into government spending and affairs. Weah has at times taken an adversarial stance toward media, including by making vague denunciations of “fake news” that purportedly threatened national stability.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Religious freedom is protected in the constitution, and there is no official religion. However, about 86 percent of the population is Christian, and the Muslim minority reports discrimination. In 2015, a proposal to amend the constitution to establish Christianity as the official religion contributed to interreligious tensions. While then president Sirleaf shelved this proposal, some discussion of it reemerged during the 2017 campaign period. Since his election, George Weah has made efforts to reach out to the Muslim population.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

The government does not restrict academic freedom, though educational quality and infrastructure remain inadequate.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

People are generally free to engage in private discussion while in public spaces, but some topics are taboo, such as discussion of issues affecting LGBT people. The government is not known to illegally monitor online communications.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 8 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4

Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and largely respected. While there have been some instances of violence between political party supporters, people are largely able to gather and protest freely. A number of protests took place in 2018, including against sexual violence, corruption, and economic hardships. In October, Weah criticized demonstrations by citizens angry about the missing $L16 billion in bank notes, calling the protesters “rebellious” and implying that they threatened stability.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4

Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country. However, groups focused on LGBT issues tend to keep a low profile due to fears of retribution for their activism.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

Unions are free to form and mobilize, and are well organized. The rights of workers to strike, organize, and bargain collectively are recognized. However, the law does not protect workers from employer retaliation for legal strike activity. Labor disputes can turn violent, particularly at the country’s various mines and rubber plantations.

F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4

Constitutional provisions guarantee an independent judiciary. Although petty corruption and backlogs remain major impediments to justice, some rulings by the nation’s highest court in recent years point to increased judicial independence and increased willingness to intervene to protect people’s rights.

However, the August 2018 vote by the House of Representatives voted to impeach Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh exposed a conflict between the legislative and judicial branches and threatened the authority of the Supreme Court. Ja’neh was impeached on allegations of misconduct and abuse of office in connection with his rulings. The move came despite a stay order from the Supreme Court that was issued so it could examine Ja’neh’s objection that irregularities in the House procedures against him had violated his right to due process.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

The right to due process under the law is guaranteed by the constitution but poorly upheld. Many people accused of crimes spend more time in pretrial detention than the length they would serve for a guilty sentence. Citizens of means may be able to bribe judges to rule in their favor. Reports of arbitrary arrest by law enforcement agents continue.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

The security environment in Liberia has improved dramatically in the years since warfare ended in 2003. However, the police force is still viewed as corrupt, and lacks the financial support to be able to provide robust protection for Liberia’s people. Prison conditions are very poor, and reports of abuse and threats against detainees and prisoners by law enforcement agents and prison guards continue.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Some minority ethnic groups continue to be stigmatized as outsiders, and the Muslim population experiences some discrimination. LGBT people face social stigma and the threat of violence. The penal code makes “voluntary sodomy” a misdemeanor offense that can carry up to a year in prison, and this provision can be invoked against LGBT people. In a 2017 presidential debate with 9 candidates, none supported same-sex marriage.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

While some unofficial border checkpoints remain, at which border patrol agents sometimes attempt to extract bribes, people have enjoyed a gradual increase in the right to move about freely in the years since large-scale violence ended.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

Conflicts over land remain pervasive. Many of these conflicts originated in the civil wars and subsequent displacement and resettlement. Others are the result of opaque concession agreements granting foreign corporations access to lands for mining, or production of timber or palm oil. The Legislature in 2018 passed the Land Rights Act, which aims to formalize communities’ ownership of ancestral land, with implementation expected in 2019. Customary law practices that prevail in large parts of the country disadvantage women in matters of land rights and inheritance.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

While men and women enjoy equal legal rights under civil law, gender disparities are common in customary law, which remains dominant in many parts of the country and disadvantages women in matters involving child custody and other matters. Violence against women and children, particularly rape, is a pervasive problem. In 2017, the Senate voted to make rape a bailable offense—a decision that sparked protests outside the Capitol building by women’s rights activists.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor and prostitution remains a problem, with most victims trafficked from rural areas to 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.