Things don’t always go according to plan. That’s great – because, while frustrating, surprises in Africa can really be a treat! Unfortunately, my students could not meet with former president Blah and his wife because of his health issues. We were not able to meet at the University of Liberia to engage with professors and students because the university unexpectedly chose to take a holiday for the historic election, and it would have been nearly impossible to reschedule the lecture. October turned out to be an opportunity for one of the rainiest countries in all of Africa to show us what rain really is: We floated through virtually everywhere. But this is the extent of the bad unexpected. The rest of the experience for the Wayne State University African Democracy Project Liberia was full of the extraordinary unexpected!

A few days before the election, I arrived in Liberia along with my colleague, Professor Sharon Lean, my executive assistant, and a Wayne State University delegation of nine students, two graduate assistants, and a two-man documentary camera crew. We were in Monrovia for the second presidential and legislative elections that the Republic of Liberia was holding since the country’s brutal civil war ended. At that time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected president of Liberia since the imprisoned Charles Taylor left the country for trial in the Hague. She was also the first female president on the continent.

The students had a unique experience. In addition to impressive meetings with governmental and non-governmental officials, they were able to observe for themselves the treatment of women and talk to former civil war fighters. They also spoke with ordinary citizens who were wounded in war, punished for not participating, or otherwise abused for their failure to join one side or the other.

War is not over as long as there are still victims, and Liberia has so many victims in so many ways. Despite efforts at peace and reconciliation and palaver meetings, pain and suffering are obvious everywhere as a country tries to host a civil society after a most uncivil war waged by neighbors and friends against each other.

I have not uttered the word “democracy.” Despite the election, enthusiasm, demonstrations, dancing, and standing in long lines to vote as well as a process relatively free of irregularities, something was not right. In many ways, it was unsettling and sometimes downright painful to watch. Nevertheless, the Republic of Liberia made history. From August to November of 2011, the country stumbled through three votes: a referendum on changing the date of its election (defeated), changing the age of judges (approved), and changing the time required to live in the country before standing for election to president (defeated). Then it held an election in which no party candidate got a majority. This required a run-off vote between the top two candidates a few weeks later – a run-off in which the challenger refused to participate. Nevertheless, it was held in accordance with the constitution and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 24th and current president of the Republic of Liberia, was elected to her second term.

The 2011 elections may not have been “democracy” as we have idealized it, but elections did take place. Liberia was designated by the Ibrahim Foundation as one of the African nations that made extraordinary progress in 2011.

The following short documentary captures the experiences of the Wayne State University participants in the African Democracy Project Liberia while the class was observing the presidential elections: Liberia_ADP.mov – YouTube.flv.

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