”You go where the sunshine is,” is the simple response James (not his real name) provides when I ask him why he recently became a member of Unity Party (UP), the party of sitting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. James is an ex-commander of the now defunct National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of former President Charles Taylor. Since the end of the Civil War in 2003 James has struggled to find a place for himself and his family in the new society being built in Liberia. To make ends meet and support his family of eight, he has engaged himself in several different businesses ranging from carpentry work, bossing over motorcycle taxi-drivers and running a video-club, to selling marijuana and fighting as a mercenary in neighboring Ivory Coast.
Like many other Liberians, James sees the upcoming elections as a chance to gain access to economic opportunities that otherwise come sparsely. A complaint often heard in the country is that politicians and elected officials only show an interest in citizens with the advent of national elections. In fact, during election years the political landscape bursts into life after years of hibernation. Streets are lined with billboards with catchy party-slogans, traffic comes to a standstill as partisans fill the main roads during political rallies and pick-up trucks with large-screen TVs blares out music calling for people to support UP or Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), the main opposition party. To convince people to vote for them both UP and CDC spend large sums of money, handing out food, t-shirts, caps and cash at political rallies. Parents who are unable to cover their children’s school fees can, at times, even get them paid if they go to the parties’ main headquarters with the invoice. For those who become members of the political parties, and work as campaigners, there is also the lure of getting a job if their party wins the elections. In this sense, elections are not only about democracy in Liberia, it is just as much an economic activity, which offers a welcomed break in the tiresome and tedious street-hustle that is the reality for so many Liberians.
For the political establishment James and other ex-commanders are valued recruits. The reason for this is that even though the war ended more than seven years ago, many ex-commanders continue to interact with and have influence over their former fighters. James, for example, sees around ten of his former subordinates on a daily basis, while he meets another dozen at least once a week. In turn, many of James ex-fighters socialize with other ex-combatants creating a vast network that can quickly be mobilized to beef up political rallies and distribute patronage to “buy votes.” Acknowledging the role James can have as a political broker, UP has contracted him to make lists of ex-fighters that they can distribute clothes and money to and transport to UP campaigns. For his services, UP pays James and provides him with drinks when he visits the party headquarters. The importance of these informal networks is, however, not confined to political mobilization; they are also used by UP, CDC and other parties to provide security to its most high-profiled candidates. Former commanders are, in fact, commonly used as body guards. This practice has raised concerns about the risk of these networks being used for violent purposes; ranging from intimidating voters and attacking political opponents to organizing armed groups in case the election results are contested by any of the main parties. Whatever the true intentions behind the ‘politization’ of these networks, CDC and UP are currently involved in a bidding war, trying to win over as many ex-generals as possible to their side.
Hence, for both ordinary Liberians and ex-commanders the stakes are high as the polls come closer. Will the elections be transparent and free? Will ex-military networks be employed for violent purposes? And, the question that perhaps most Liberians ask themselves, will the sun shine on them once the elections are over?