Lovetta Tugbeh talked about it with a friend on the phone while stuck in traffic on 580; Felix Doh and Cletus Wisseh discussed it over plantains and grilled fish at Kendejah, a local restaurant; and Stanley Moumolua and John Bryant debated it at work at an auto repair shop. Across Oakland and the East Bay, Liberian immigrants have been keeping a close eye on the news since friends and family in Liberia cast their ballots in Tuesday’s presidential election.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, credited with bringing stability to the West African nation after 14 years of civil war, is stepping down after serving two six-year terms. The election is expected to be the first time in most Liberians’ lives that one democratically elected leader will hand over power to another.
Local Liberians are deeply invested in the race. “My hope has always been to come back to Liberia to see how best I can help,” says Narwale Washington, who fled Liberia’s civil war in 1990. Last week, Washington arrived in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, as part of a small group of Oakland residents who came to campaign for Alexander Cummings, a presidential candidate running on a platform of improving the education system.
Joseph Boakai, Sirleaf’s vice president, and former soccer star George Weah led a field of 20 candidates as provisional results began coming in on Wednesday. Candidates’ campaigns have focused on tackling corruption, boosting the economy, improving health care and schools, and addressing the lasting effects of more than a decade of civil war.
“The situation in Liberia affects all Liberians regardless of where you are, because the fact of the matter is that we support the Liberians who are in Liberia financially,” Washington says. In 2016, Liberia relied on foreign remittances more than any other country. Personal money transfers from relatives living abroad comprised 31 percent of Liberia’s gross domestic product. “When the family there is not doing well, we’re sending Western Union consistently to help them out because of the lack of jobs,” Washington says. In 2013, the United Nations estimated 85 percent of people aged 15 to 24 were unemployed. Since the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015 that killed 5,000 Liberians, the country’s economy has stagnated even further.
“I send money back every month,” says Felix Doh, who resettled in Oakland in 2007 and whose family owns Akwaba Braiding on Telegraph Avenue. Doh says that while his relatives in Liberia work hard, they don’t earn enough to cover all their expenses. “What they’re getting paid, that’s the problem,” Doh says. “When we send money, it don’t really do nothing, because food is expensive,” says Stanley Moumolua, who fled Liberia and came to Oakland in 2000. “I have kids back home” in Liberia, says John Bryant, who works with Moumolua at Lone Star Auto Repair in Oakland. “All my money I make in the [United States], I support them.” Washington, Doh, Moumolua and Bryant are following the election knowing that the economic conditions in Liberia could affect them for years to come.
Lovetta Tugbeh is most concerned with achieving justice for the victims of the war she fled in 1989, when she was 11 years old. Liberia’s consecutive civil wars, started by rebel leader-turned-president Charles Taylor, killed 250,000 people and displaced over a million between 1989 and 2003. Child soldiers were conscripted by all sides of the conflict; sexual violence and enslavement were widespread. In the name of reconciliation, Sirleaf appointed many of the warlords to positions in her government. No one has been held accountable for war crimes, and most of the victims and former combatants have not received counseling or rehabilitation.
“People are still traumatized,” says Tugbeh, a preschool teacher and the director of a Pittsburg-based organization called Coalition for Justice in Liberia that advocates for “accountability for the innocent lives that were taken.” Tugbeh’s advocacy has complicated her hopes of visiting Liberia. Some of the warlords she wants brought to justice are now high-ranking officials. “It’s time for people to be held accountable,” she says.
Addressing the crimes committed during the wars is not a priority for all candidates. Charles Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is Weah’s running mate. With her ex-husband serving a 50-year sentence in the United Kingdom for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, Howard-Taylor has vowed to put his “agenda back on the table.” That agenda, which Howard-Taylor says includes creating jobs for young people, has its supporters. “I grew up through the Taylor years,” Moumolua says. While Moumolua doesn’t like everything Taylor did during the civil war, he remembers that “the price of rice never went up.”
Were he in Liberia, Moumolua says he would vote for Weah, whose presence in the country during the civil war earned him the loyalty of many Liberians. “He was always in Africa,” Moumolua says, pointing out that Weah could have remained in Europe where he played soccer. Weah’s single-handed sponsorship of the Liberian national soccer team in the 1990s, Moumolua recalls, “kind of brought tears to my eyes as a little boy.”
Moumolua has several nieces and nephews in Liberia, and he thinks Weah’s policies will create more opportunities for them. He hopes they won’t have “a little brother in the States they’ve got to depend on.”
If no candidate claims more than half of Tuesday’s vote—a likely scenario—the election will go to a runoff between the top two vote-getters, and Liberians from Monrovia to Oakland will have to wait a few more weeks before they know who the next president will be. While divided across party lines, Liberians at home and abroad share a vision for the future. “We want a free, easy life for our people,” says Wisseh, who moved to Oakland following the Ebola outbreak in 2014. “I struggled there,” he says, “but I love that country.”