Democracy in Sierra Leone and Liberia

Explaining the recent history of democracy in the two West African countries, and the importance of elections in 2023.

Explainer Updated 18 July 2023 Published 14 July 2023 4 minute READ

In 2003 Alex Vines was based in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Monrovia, Liberia as the conflict diamond investigator for the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia. He was involved in the creation of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), established that year to end the trade in ‘blood diamonds’ from those countries.

Here he explains the two countries’ intertwined history of conflict, the peace processes that have so far brought twenty years of democracy, and the significance of elections in 2023.

Sierra Leone held elections in June 2023. Liberia will follow in October. Each election follows twenty years of peace. The enduring peace is an important achievement and should be celebrated, since it followed prolonged periods of intertwined civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, with tens of thousands dying in each country.

Since 2003, both countries have remained largely peaceful despite external shocks, such as fluctuating commodity prices, and internal ones such as the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Both countries have sought to play a key role maintaining peace and democracy. In 2006, as the UN mission ended, Sierra Leone asked to be one of the first countries on the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). Liberia followed these footsteps in 2018, after the withdrawal of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). 

Peace is fragile, and credible elections are essential if the countries are to see another twenty years of democratic government and the orderly transition of power.

But peace is fragile, and credible elections are essential if the countries are to see another twenty years of democratic government and the orderly transition of power.

The recent history of democracy in Liberia

Charles Taylor won the Liberian presidential elections in 1997. Taylor was a brutal president and a malign influence on the region. His rule saw widespread corruption, poverty, civil war, and persecution of political opponents.

Taylor also intervened in neighbouring countries’ conflicts, arming rebel groups like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds and other natural resources. His actions helped fuel the conflict in Sierra Leone: the RUF was responsible for war crimes including mass killings, including children, and the use of drugged child soldiers.

In March 2003, Taylor was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). The UN Security Council also imposed sanctions on Liberian timber in July 2003, describing the country’s logging industry as a threat to regional peace and security –  Taylor was using revenues to fuel war at home and in Sierra Leone.

By the end of July, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a rebel group dedicated to removing President Taylor, declared a ceasefire. This allowed the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to deploy Nigerian troops to Monrovia in preparation for a UN deployment. 

Taylor resigned on 11 August and flew to exile in Nigeria, where he was granted asylum.
On 18 August an African led process, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) resulted in the formation of the National Transition Government of Liberia, with Gyude Bryant as president.

This paved the way for national elections in 2005, which saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf elected president – the first elected female head of state in Africa. Sirleaf oversaw improvements to infrastructure and healthcare and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks at a Chatham House event, describing the challenges Liberia has faced in its recent history.

She was succeeded by George Weah in 2017 - a legendary Arsenal footballer. Weah’s election was the first peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president to another in Liberia.  

The UN Peacebuilding Commission has led efforts to ensure that international support to Liberia is sustained and coordinated, particularly to avert the ‘resource cliff’ that often occurs when countries transition from conflict and peacekeeping missions draw down.

Taylor ended up in The Hague, and in April 2012 was found guilty of abetting horrific war crimes, including rape and mutilation in Sierra Leone.

He is currently serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison. His conviction for war crimes was the first of a former head of state in an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II.

The recent history of democracy in Sierra Leone

Civil war began in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, when the RUF led by Foday Sankoh – and supported by President Taylor – began seizing control of areas containing diamond mines.

The RUF – and other rebel forces – committed widespread, brutal war crimes, seeking to consolidate their power through intimidation. Hacking off limbs became a notorious form of punishment.

In 1999 the RUF attacked the capital city, Freetown. The attack was so violent and indiscriminate it provoked an international response. British, UN and ECOWAS military forces intervened to support Sierra Leone’s government and push RUF forces out of the capital.

The Lomé peace accords, signed in July 1999, brought the civil war to an end through a power sharing agreement.

The Lomé peace accords, signed in July 1999, brought the civil war to an end through a power sharing agreement.

The accords offered amnesty to RUF members and other rebel groups (though not those who had committed war crimes) and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The interventions of the UN and the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, and UK support, played a crucial role in helping Sierra Leone recover from the civil war and rebuild.

After the peace, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) helped the process of disarmament and the democratic transition. Elections in 2002 saw Ahmad Tejan Kabbah re-elected as president. Elections followed in 2007, 2012 and 2018, generally being considered free and fair.

Elections in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2023

About 3.4 million Sierra Leoneans voted in the general election of 24 June. The incumbent, 59-year-old former solider President Julius Maada Bio, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, sought a second and final term.

The runup was tense, with the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party calling for the resignation of the chief electoral commissioner – questioning the commission’s ability to ensure free and fair elections.

But polling day was largely peaceful, and Bio was declared winner with 56.17 per cent of the vote, slightly above the threshold needed to avoid a run-off (55 per cent).

However, Samura Kamara, leader of the APC, spoke at Chatham House just before the elections, highlighting his concerns about the electoral commission.

After the result was announced, Kamara tweeted that he ‘categorically’ rejected the result, citing a lack of transparency in the electoral process. He believes he won enough votes for a second round and has called for a run-off election.

European election observers noted statistical inconsistencies in the election and other observers have raised concerns about transparency shortcomings and the tabulation process.

The electoral commission so far has not shared the data necessary to check the credibility of the polling figures. Maada Bio was sworn in for his second and final five-year term as president of Sierra Leone on 27 June. Time will tell if the election marked a democratic reversal – in 2018 Bio’s victory was lauded as a shock result and an important advance for democracy in Africa.

Liberia’s elections will be held in October 2023. These will be its fifth set of general elections since the end of the second civil war. George Weah will seek re-election for a second term. 

Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party (UP) has picked Nimba County senator Jeremiah Koung as his running mate against President Weah. Boakai is looking to profit from President Weah’s fallout with former warlord Prince Johnson – previously an ally.

Nearly 60 per cent of Sierra’s Leone’s eight million people are poor, with unemployment rates one of the highest in West Africa. 

It’s likely that Weah will benefit from splits in the opposition to win a second term. Nevertheless, Mr Boakai may seek (and secure) the support of fellow presidential candidate Alexander Cummings  in the second round of presidential poll, should no candidate secure more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.

The future of democracy in Sierra Leone and Liberia

There will be no honeymoon for President Bio during a second term. Last August, economic hardship triggered violent anti-government riots in Freetown: nearly 60 per cent of Sierra’s Leone’s eight million people are poor, with unemployment rates one of the highest in West Africa. 

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On 6 June Sierra Leone was elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the period 2024 to 2025, the first time in 53 years.

Freetown’s priorities include promoting peace and security (particularly in the Sahel and Gulf of Guinea region), the empowerment of women and youth, and addressing climate change among others.

In neighbouring Liberia, President Weah is facing rising anti-incumbency sentiment, driven by austerity reforms (an IMF programme is in place until December 2023) and by a cost-of-living crisis spurred by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Worsening living standards and austerity measures are a key theme in the upcoming elections. At the end of 2022 hundreds attended a demonstration in the capital, Monrovia, against the impact of austerity and the president’s decision to spend 48 consecutive days outside Liberia at a time of domestic economic hardship.

Elections are a testing moment for the resilience of young democratic systems. Both Sierra Leone and Liberia are reminders that peace is fragile, and both are in a rough neighbourhood, especially further north in the Sahel region.

Sierra Leone and Liberia’s political class should cherish their peace and not forget the intensive international and regional investment in peacekeeping and peacebuilding 20 years ago.

Such support is unlikely to be repeated today if either country relapses into conflict.