Bernstein Annex Student Exhibitions
Liberia: The Promise and Limits of Democracy
Perched on the western coast of Africa, a few degrees north of the Equator, Liberia is a country of approximately three million people. It was founded by former American slaves and is one of only two countries in Africa never to have been colonized by a European power. Liberia did not escape undemocratic governance, however. From 1822-1847, the country was run by whites under the aegis of the American Colonization Society. With independence came 133 years of rule by the descendents of the former slaves, called “Americo-Liberians,” who represented only a small fraction of the country’s total population. In 1980, Samuel K. Doe, a young indigenous military man, overthrew the government in a bloody coup that set the stage for Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1996). This conflict ended with the election of Charles Taylor, the leader of the largest rebel faction. While the international community judged the election free and fair, such slogans as “He killed my ma. He killed my pa. I’ll vote Charles Taylor!” indicated that intimidation, rather than free choice, largely determined the outcome.
After a brief period of peace the civil war resumed, again plunging the country into political chaos. In 2003 an agreement between rebels and the Liberian government was signed in Accra. This agreement called for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force and for general elections to be held on October 11, 2005. These elections arguably represented the first free elections in the country’s history and ushered in the first elected female president of any African country. As many Liberians know well, however, the experience on the ground of “free and fair” elections is far more complicated. The following photographs illustrate some of the issues facing Liberia and other countries making the difficult transition from conflict to democratic governance.
About the Photographer
Nealin Parker worked in Liberia as a program officer with The Carter Center and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). She witnessed the electoral process from the beginning of registration to the announcement of the results. Nealin is a Masters in Public Affairs student at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.