Thousands lined up at the polling booths in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, for their first democratic transfer of power in 73 years.
Though Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic founded by freed U.S. slaves in 1847, its last democratic power transfer, defined as a peaceful handover at the end of a full term, was in 1943.
The outgoing president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Africa’s first female elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf beat former soccer star George Weah to win the election in 2005 after a period of a transitional government following the civil war that ended two years earlier.
Johnson Sirleaf was praised by many Liberians for keeping the peace since the 14-year conflict when gangs of child soldiers, drugged and wearing ammunition belts ransacked through the streets.
Though preparations and voting have been peaceful, former rebel leader, Prince Johnson, is one of the 20 candidates, and the ex-wife of warlord Charles Taylor, now in a British prison, is the running mate of one of the favorites, George Weah, has raised some worry in the country.
Unlike Sierra Leone which had a U.N.-backed court for civil war-era crimes, Liberia has prioritized reconciliation over justice. This means that some of those involved in the war that killed a quarter of a million people are still prominent public figures.
“I am just voting for peace. We want peace right now, peaceful country, we want a peaceful situation now and things to go fine,” said James Marthics, a voter in Paynesville, a suburb of the capital Monrovia.
Some voters waited for hours before dawn to vote, bringing small wooden chairs with them and forming orderly queues as vendors sold them provisions. Early voting in Monrovia went rather smoothly, though there were delays in some areas.
“I need a change of this government that is in power,” said Richard Akoi, 32, a former child soldier who fought for Taylor’s rebels. “I‘m a die-hard fan of former president Taylor and if he shows up today in the election I‘m going to vote for him.”
Johnson Sirleaf urged Liberians to maintain the peace in an address to the nation on the eve of the vote.
“Embrace your neighbor, regardless of their political choice,” she said.
Though results are expected to begin arriving later this week, most analysts think it is unlikely that any single candidate will win a majority of votes on Tuesday, raising the likelihood of a run-off election in early November.
Among the candidates are the favorites such as: Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai of the ruling Unity Party known locally as a “countryman” meaning an indigenous Liberian; international lawyer, Charles Brumskine of the Liberal Party; and last but not least, George Weah, who played for AC Milan and Paris St Germain and was greeted at the polling station by lively supporters in football shirts.
Rebel leader, Prince Johnson, who was shown sipping a beer as he directed the torture of President Samuel Doe shortly before his murder in 1990 in an infamous circulated videotape, is considered to have only a remote chance of winning.
Roddy Barclay, director at risk advisory Africa Practice, said the participation of civil war-era figures was unlikely to lead to a “slide back into an era of warlord politics.”