Thousands protest on eve of Liberia runoff vote

2011-11-07 14:29

Monrovia – Opposition protesters rallied today in Liberia’s capital on the eve of a runoff vote their candidate wants boycotted over fears of fraud favouring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Winston Tubman (70) cried foul after placing second in a first round of voting in Liberia’s second post-war polls, which he charged were riddled with irregularities in favour of Sirleaf.

Thousands of boisterous supporters of his Congress for Democratic Change gathered outside party headquarters, where the atmosphere was tense as riot police blocked the road after protesters attempted to block advancing United Nations
water cannon.

Two UN helicopters circled above and troops of the UNMIL peacekeeping force were present in strength alongside Liberia’s national police.

“You will see UNMIL staff, police and military on the streets and in the air all around the country,” said UN special representative in Liberia Ellen Margrethe Loej on UNMIL radio.

“We are here to ensure everything is peaceful and we are here to deter anyone who intends to destroy the peace.”
The protesters, who chanted slogans such as “we want justice, we want freedom”, planned a march later in the day which had not been officially approved.

“As long as they have not obtained permission from the ministry of justice the police will not allow them,” said police spokesperson George Badoo.

Tubman, a 70-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer, set the nation on edge with his call to boycott an election seen as a test of Liberia’s fragile democracy eight years after a long and savage conflict left 250 000 dead.

He was confident of a first round victory, mixing his education and experience with the crowd-pleasing former football star George Weah as his running mate, but trailed Sirleaf by more than 10 percentage points.

Tubman made several demands to the National Electoral Commission, securing the resignation of its chairman, but said he was still not convinced the process would be transparent and would not accept the outcome.

“I am in support of the boycott, our demands were not met. At times you have to do unconstitutional things for a principle in your society,” said Kareem Marshall, a public administration student preparing to take part in the protest.

A statement published in local newspapers by the National Electoral Commission urged the nation’s 1.8 million voters to cast their ballots “without engaging in violence or confrontation”.

“This election is a crucial decider of how we as a nation and as a people will continue to move towards peace, democracy and progress,” it said.

The international community has condemned Tubman’s boycott call after some 800 foreign observers said the October 11 poll was free and fair.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement she “regrets the opposition’s decision not to participate”.
“This action deprives Liberians of the choice they deserve and weakens rather than strengthens the democratic process,” she added.

The US said it was “deeply disappointed”, calling Tubman’s claims of fraud “unsubstantiated”. “We are very concerned. It’s a bad signal ... political leaders must be prepared to win or lose,” the head of the African Union observer mission, Speciosa Wadira Kazibwe, a former Ugandan vice-president, told reporters.

Sirleaf, hailed abroad for her role in restoring the nation still heavily reliant on an 8 000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, but criticised at home, says she wants a second term to rebuild the “broken country”.

Having won 43.9% in the first round, she is poised for re-election after winning the support of key smaller parties such as that of Prince Johnson, a notorious former warlord who was filmed ordering the torture of military dictator Samuel Doe.

“I know that nobody in this country, no matter what the talk or rhetoric, nobody really wants us to go back to war,” she said while campaigning yesterday.

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