Liberia goes to polls

 

The journey of Liberia's citizens to the polls went peacefully this week, with an 80 per cent turnout reported in many areas among the country's 1.35 million voters. It is a small miracle, given that the odious former president, Charles Taylor, was driven into exile only two years ago after a prolonged civil war in which 200,000 people died and at least half a million were displaced in an overall population of three million.

The election for a new president and parliament has been made possible by a determined peace process backed up by the presence of 15,000 troops making up the United Nations Mission to Liberia (Unmil). Prominent among them is an Irish motorised infantry battalion which has helped to provide security for these presidential and parliamentary elections. It has been the core group, along with Swedish troops, in an exemplary quick reaction force responsible for disarming, demobilising and reintegrating the youthful insurgents who committed most of the dreadful atrocities for which Liberia became notorious. That these tasks have been accomplished so effectively is a real tribute to the Irish battalion. It is at present the Defence Forces' major deployment overseas, drawing on their long experience of UN peacekeeping service - and it should be a source of justifiable national pride.

Liberians are ready for peace after this shattering and exhausting experience. They had 22 presidential candidates to choose from in addition to voting for a new parliament. The two front-runners are George Weah, a football hero with widespread support among urban youth, and a veteran economist and public administrator, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Results will be known next week and there is likely to be a run-off between the two.

It remains to be seen whether the winner can bring lasting peace and development to Liberia. It is still a wealthy country, despite having been looted during Taylor's time, when it became a proverbial failed state - a reputation from which it is now endeavouring to recover.

The UN deployment will be needed for a considerable time to help a new government bed down. If it does so there will be important knock-on effects in West Africa, where neighbouring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have also been destabilised by running conflicts. This deployment has made a great difference and has been accomplished with very little violence or resistance. It shows that a carefully-planned show of force can succeed in turning around such conflicts. That makes Liberia a test case for other failed or failing states where civilians become the victims of prolonged violence.