Recent inflammatory statements by prominent Liberian political actors have raised alarms within the international community about the potential for election-related violence in the country, just weeks before Liberia is set to hold important presidential elections on October 10.
Most notably, Nimba County Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, a former warlord allied with opposition presidential candidate Joseph Boakai, threatened armed rebellion if the election is rigged.
“Before the October elections, Liberians are coming out under the banner ‘Don’t Try It’ – any attempt, the people’s power would be exercised like the Arab Spring. You’ll shoot your gun; you’ll kill us or you’ll die. No more fear, Liberians don’t have fear anymore,” Johnson said at a September 19th press conference.
Johnson’s incendiary rhetoric has raised alarms both within Liberia and internationally. The Joint Security forces in Liberia cautioned Johnson against using war language and instead pursue legal remedies for any electoral disputes.
Regional body ECOWAS also released a statement condemning “in no uncertain terms such inflammatory statements that have the propensity to trigger violent confrontations.” The statement reminded actors that the Farmington River Declaration, signed by parties in 2017, remains in force to safeguard the electoral process.
The statement from ECOWAS was widely viewed as focusing on Sen Johnson’s dangerous remarks threatening armed rebellion. Analysts have also highlighted the risks posed to Joe Boakai’s presidential bid amidst such dangerous rhetoric, pointing to Boakai’s earlier remarks that he was willing to “dance with the devil” by allying with a dangerous ex-warlord in an effort to improve his chances at winning the presidency.
Washington has made no secret that it views Sen Johnson to be a major threat to Liberia after targeting him with Global Magnitsky Act sanctions in 2021, and as Liberia prepares for the all-important presidential elections it is showing renewed signs of concern.
An article published on September 21 in Stars and Stripes, a US-military affiliated news outlet called attention to Boakai’s appointment of Jeremiah Koung, a member of Sen Johnson’s Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction Party (MDRP), warning that it risks placing an ex warlord viewed by Washington as a dangerous threat close to power. The article, which has reportedly been widely circulated among policymakers focused on West Africa affairs in Washigton, noted that “Earlier this year, Boakai surprised his supporters by selecting Jeremiah Koung to be his nominee for vice president. A steward of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction party, a group founded and controlled by Johnson, Koung’s selection led to a party realignment that could position a sanctioned warlord a heartbeat from the presidency.”
Adding to the concerns, a purported security notice from the U.S. Embassy near Monrovia circulated this week advising government personnel to prepare emergency supplies and documents. Analysts believe the warning is connected to the threats of unrest made by Sen Johnson.
Observers say Johnson’s remarks are especially troubling given his violent history during Liberia’s civil wars. As leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front (INPFL) militia group, Johnson was implicated in egregious war crimes, including the gruesome killing of President Samuel Doe.
Despite his violent past, Johnson has remained an influential political figure in Liberia. His ties with Boakai and the opposition raise risks that post-election disputes could escalate dangerously, leading many to question Boakai’s judgement.
ECOWAS urged candidates to pursue dialogue and legal channels to address any grievances after the vote. Meanwhile, Liberian security forces, electoral authorities, and civil society groups will need to be vigilant for any signs of organized political violence.
With memories of past conflicts still vivid, Liberians have expressed a strong desire for peaceful elections. However, inflammatory rhetoric increases the risk of intimidation, unrest, or worse if electoral results are disputed. Given the prominence of international election monitors and Liberia’s recent history of running free and fair elections, many analysts view Sen Johnson’s incendiary rhetoric as a threat to use violence to overturn free and fair elections should his preferred candidate Boakai fail to win the presidency.
The security notice from the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and the strong reactions to Johnson’s comments by Liberian officials and ECOWAS demonstrate the high stakes surrounding Liberia’s upcoming elections, and the increasing danger that Sen Johnson poses to Liberia’s continued stability.