Freedom in the World 2021 - Liberia

PARTLY FREE
60
/ 100
Political Rights 27 / 40
Civil Liberties 33 / 60
LAST YEAR'S SCORE & STATUS
60 / 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
 
 
 

Overview

Liberia has enjoyed nearly two decades of peace and stability since the second civil war ended in 2003. During this time, the country has made considerable progress rebuilding government capacity, reestablishing the rule of law, and ensuring the political rights and civil liberties of citizens, and 2017 saw the first peaceful transfer of power between leaders since 1944. However, Liberia still faces serious issues with corruption, impunity, and violence against women.

Key Developments in 2020

  • Voters cast ballots for 15 Senate seats in December, with the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) alliance taking an early lead in several contests. While voting was largely peaceful, isolated incidents of fraud were reported, and an independent candidate in Gbarpolu County was kidnapped ahead of a partial rerun before an alliance of women’s groups rescued her. Final results remained pending at year’s end.
  • Voters signaled their early approval of proposed constitutional amendments—which would shorten the terms of the president, vice president, and legislators while ending a dual-citizenship ban—in a referendum held concurrently with Senate elections. Opposition groups called for a ban, fearing President George Weah would use the amendments to seek a future third term, and the results were thrown into doubt by the prevalence of invalid ballots; the results remained uncertified at year’s end.
  • President Weah declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency in April, heavily restricting the movement of Liberians and relying on the army to enforce those restrictions until the declaration expired in July. Journalists who reported on the pandemic faced questioning, interference, and, in some cases, physical attack from the authorities. The government reported 1,800 cases and 83 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

Liberia’s president is directly elected and can serve up to two six-year terms. Since the end of the civil wars in 2003, Liberia has had three peaceful presidential elections. The most recent election, held in 2017, was assessed by domestic and international observers as generally peaceful and credible, though difficulties including long queues at polling places and challenges related to voter identification were noted.

A runoff between George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and incumbent vice president Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party (UP), the top two finishers in the first round of the 2017 poll, was delayed when third-place finisher Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP) challenged the first-round results on grounds of fraud. The Supreme Court found his claim unsupported by the evidence, and the runoff was held several weeks later than scheduled, in late December. Weah won with 61.5 percent of the vote, and Boakai conceded defeat. Observers noted procedural and administrative improvements in the runoff compared to the first round. Weah’s 2018 inauguration marked the first peaceful transfer of power since 1944.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

Liberia has a bicameral legislature composed of a 30-member Senate and a 73-member House of Representatives; senators are elected to nine-year terms, and representatives to six-year terms.

Lower-house elections were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential election in October 2017. The CDC won 21 seats, while the UP won 20. The People’s Unification Party, which was allied to the ruling CDC, won 5 seats. The LP won 3 seats. The remaining 24 seats were won by independents and other parties. Despite administrative problems, observers considered the elections generally peaceful and well administered, with only minor incidents of violence during the campaign.

Fifteen Senate seats were contested in December 2020 elections. According to preliminary results from the NEC, the CPP—which includes the LP, UP, the All Liberian Party, and the Alternative National Congress—took an early lead in several seats.

The vote was largely peaceful, but the campaign period was marred by incidents of fraud and violence. Several voters were caught carrying multiple registration cards on election day. The Gbarpolu County election was disrupted when a local chief seized ballot boxes, forcing a partial rerun in mid-December. A candidate contesting that seat, independent Botoe Kanneh, was assaulted and kidnapped before that rerun, but was rescued by several women’s groups. A final declaration for that contest was still pending at year’s end. Final results for races in Nimba and Grand Kru counties were also unresolved by year’s end.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4

While the NEC’s independence is mandated by law, its capacity is limited and it has struggled to enforce electoral laws. The National Code of Conduct Act is not consistently followed by officials.

President Weah nominated a slate of commissioners in March 2020, but the CPP voiced concerns over the nominees’ independence and criticized the fact that the nominated chairman, A. Ndubusi Nwabudike, is not Liberian by birth. The Liberia Immigration Service reported it had no records on his naturalization in early April. Nwabudike did not provide sufficient proof of his status during his nomination hearing, sparking controversy. Weah rescinded Nwabudike’s nomination in April and nominated commissioner Davidetta Browne Lansanah to the chair in June. Browne Lansanah remained as acting chairwoman at year’s end.

In September 2020, the CPP accused the commission of collaborating with the CDC to delay that month’s scheduled Senate elections to December. Also in September, the CPP sued to force the NEC to fully revise a preexisting voter roll, but the Supreme Court ruled against the CPP in October. The Liberian Election Observation Network criticized the NEC’s voter-registration efforts in October, calling its information campaign insufficient.

The NEC also managed a constitutional referendum, which was concurrently held with the December Senate elections. The proposed amendments would shorten the terms of the president, the vice president, and lower-house legislators from six years to five, would shorten senators’ terms from nine years to seven, and would end a ban on dual citizenship. The opposition, which feared that President Weah would use the amendments to seek a third term, called for a boycott. In November, the Supreme Court ordered the referendum’s cancellation over a ballot-design issue but reversed itself several days later, after the NEC offered a remedy. While voters appeared to approve the amendments, a large number of invalid votes put the results into doubt. The NEC’s certification of the results was still pending at year’s end.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

Political parties generally do not face undue legal or practical obstacles that prevent them from forming or operating. The People’s Liberation Party was certified by the NEC in late December 2020. However, the Council of Patriots (COP), an opposition group, claimed in August that the Liberia Business Registry’s nonresponse to its application was due to partisanship. The ruling party has been known to use public resources to fund campaigns during election periods—notably by taking advantage of state-owned vehicles and facilities.

Opposition parties can form coalitions; the CPP, which was formed in 2019, received its own NEC certification in August 2020. The seven-party Rainbow Alliance was certified later that month.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4

Opposition parties and independent candidates have a realistic chance of gaining office and power through the ballot box. In 2017, President Weah, of the then opposition CDC, won his post over the former ruling party’s candidate. Opposition candidates found success in the December 2020 Senate elections, with the NEC reporting early leads for CPP contestants.

However, candidates and their staff also faced physical attacks during the election period. In early December, CDC supporters attacked a convoy belonging to the CPP candidate in Grand Cape Mount County, destroying the vehicles. Gbarpolu County candidate Kanneh was kidnapped while campaigning in mid-December. The alliance of women’s groups that rescued her reported that security officers who were apparently involved in the kidnapping also raped two members of her campaign team and assaulted Kanneh’s brother.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 3 / 4

Allegations of undue influence or pressure on voters by powerful groups not democratically accountable to the people are somewhat rare. A general wariness of election-related violence persists in Liberia, however.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Members of Lebanese and Asian minority groups whose families have lived in Liberia for generations are denied citizenship and cannot participate in political processes. While former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2006–18) was the first elected female head of state in Africa, and Liberia’s current vice president is a woman, women are poorly represented in national politics and hold few leadership positions in political parties. Only one woman held a seat in the outgoing Senate, while eight sat in the lower house in December 2020. Social stigma against LGBT+ people discourages them from advocating for their rights in the context of Liberian politics.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

Once elected, government officials are duly installed in office, and elected legislators generally operate without interference. However, bribery and corruption can influence policy prioritization.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Many institutions are devoted to fighting corruption, but they lack the resources and capacity to function effectively, and corruption remains pervasive.

The naturalization status of Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) head A. Ndubusi Nwabudike, who was nominated to lead the NEC in March 2020, came into question. While that nomination was rescinded—and the Liberia National Bar Association expelled him from its ranks in June, over his inability to prove his naturalization status—Nwabudike remained at his LACC post at year’s end.

Charles Sirleaf, a former deputy central bank director and son of former president Sirleaf, stood trial for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of several billion Liberian dollars from the central bank along with four other defendants in 2019. The charges against four defendants, including Sirleaf, were dropped in May 2020. Former bank governor Milton Weeks was acquitted in August.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

The Freedom of Information Act is rarely used, and the government responds slowly to information requests. Transparency guidelines for public procurement processes are not fully enforced. In 2020, many new public officials, including most in the executive branch, failed to declare their assets as required by law. The LACC, which collects asset declarations, is not obligated to disclose those submitted by executive branch members, and efforts by civil society and media to gain access to President Weah’s declaration have been unsuccessful.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Liberia’s constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but these rights are sometimes restricted in practice. Investigative reporters receive threats, including by members of the government who have vowed to sue in response to journalistic inquiries. President Weah has previously taken an adversarial stance toward media, denouncing “fake news” that purportedly threatened national stability. Liberia also maintained onerous criminal and civil libel laws, though libel, “sedition,” and “criminal malevolence” were effectively decriminalized via the Press Freedom Act in 2019. Defamation remains a civil offense, and journalists risk jail time for nonpayment.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported the death of one journalist in 2020; Zenu Koboi Miller, who was attacked by President Weah’s bodyguards near a Monrovia stadium in January, died in February. Miller’s wife claimed that he died of internal bleeding, though his death certificate listed hypertension as the cause.

In January 2020, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) announced it would begin issuing five-year licenses to FM radio stations, replacing one-year licenses issued under the old regulatory regime. Radio operators called the related fees onerous, but the LTA’s chairwoman defended the new regulatory regime in August, saying it was meant to ensure stability and regulatory compliance. The original announcement came a day after a civil court restored the license of Punch FM, which was suspended in 2018; Punch FM’s operators alleged that it was targeted for its presumed antigovernment stance.

Journalists reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic faced intimidation, scrutiny, and attack from the authorities. In mid-March 2020, for example, Integrity Watch publisher Charles Bioma Yates was questioned by the National Security Agency over social media posts criticizing government policy. In late April, Solicitor General Seyma Syrenius Cephus threatened to shutter media outlets disseminating purportedly false news, after President Weah was speculated to have contracted COVID-19. That same day, Deputy Information Minister Eugene Fahngon announced that existing press passes were void and would be replaced with new documents. Journalists carrying the old passes were stopped by the authorities, and the general manager of Spoon FM temporarily shuttered its newsroom due to the subsequent disruption.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Religious freedom is protected in the constitution, and there is no official religion. However, about 86 percent of the population is Christian, and the Muslim minority reports discrimination in government appointments. In 2015, a proposal to amend the constitution to establish Christianity as the official religion contributed to interreligious tensions. Former president Sirleaf shelved the proposal, but discussion reemerged during the 2017 campaign. Since his election, President Weah has made efforts to reach out to the Muslim population.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

The government does not restrict academic freedom, though educational quality and infrastructure remain inadequate.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

People are generally free to engage in private discussion while in public spaces, but some topics are taboo, such as discussion of issues affecting LGBT+ people. The government is not known to illegally monitor online communications. However, in May 2020, COP member Menipakei Dumoe was arrested after criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response, saying “we the poor in Monrovia need AK-47s so our leaders can take us seriously” in a social media post. Authorities searched Dumoe’s home for weapons before arresting him. Dumoe was released a day later.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4

Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, and some rallies were held in 2020. The COP held a demonstration in Monrovia in early January, with participants calling the dismissal of the government’s economic team. The authorities forcefully dispersed the rally. In August, protesters in Monrovia called for the government to declare rape a national emergency after a child survived rape and genital mutilation. The authorities used tear gas to disperse the protests on the third day.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4

Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in Liberia. However, groups focused on LGBT+ issues tend to keep a low profile due to fears of retribution for their activism.

Staff members of two human rights groups received threats after Agnes Reeves Taylor—the ex-wife of former president Charles Taylor (1997–2003)—returned to Liberia in July 2020. Reeves Taylor was previously accused of torture while her husband led an insurgency during the 1989–96 civil war, but was released from a United Kingdom prison in 2019.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

Unions are free to form and mobilize and are well organized. The rights of workers to strike, organize, and bargain collectively are recognized. However, the law does not protect workers from employer retaliation for legal strike activity. Labor disputes can turn violent, particularly at the country’s various mines and rubber plantations.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but it is impeded by corruption, backlogs, and funding shortfalls.

The judiciary has also been affected by political interference. In 2019, the Senate voted to remove Supreme Court associate justice Kabineh Ja’neh from the bench, finding him guilty of official misconduct after he issued a writ in favor of petroleum dealers who opposed a gasoline sale levy. Ja’neh appealed to the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice that September. The court ruled in Ja’neh’s favor in November 2020, awarding him $200,000 in damages along with back pay. The court also instructed the government to either reinstate him or allow him to retire. The Senate declined to issue a response, citing the lack of a quorum ahead of the December elections.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

The right to due process under the law is guaranteed by the constitution but poorly upheld. Many people accused of crimes spend more time in pretrial detention than the length they would serve for a guilty sentence. Citizens of means may be able to bribe judges to rule in their favor. Reports of arbitrary arrest by law enforcement agents continue.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

The security environment in Liberia has improved dramatically in the years since warfare ended in 2003. However, the police force is still viewed as corrupt, and lacks the financial support to provide robust protection for Liberia’s people. Prison conditions are very poor, and reports of abuse and threats against detainees and prisoners by law enforcement agents and prison guards continue. In May 2020, a criminal court judge stated that he would not sentence individuals suspected of COVID-19 exposure to prison, but instead would seek the advice of health officials. However, prison authorities were reluctant to release inmates because of the pandemic, instead electing to ban visits and employ screening measures.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Some minority ethnic groups continue to be stigmatized as outsiders, and the Muslim population experiences some discrimination. LGBT+ people face social stigma and the threat of violence. The penal code makes “voluntary sodomy” a misdemeanor offense that can carry up to a year in prison, and this provision can be invoked against LGBT+ people. In a 2017 presidential debate with nine candidates, none supported same-sex marriage.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

While some unofficial border checkpoints remain, at which border patrol agents sometimes attempt to extract bribes, people have enjoyed a gradual increase in the right to move about freely in the years since large-scale violence ended.

President Weah declared a COVID-19-related state of emergency in early April 2020, heavily restricting the movement of Liberians. COVID-19 restrictions were aggressively enforced by the military. Residents of several counties were subsequently prohibited from leaving their homes without passes, and authorities used force to ensure compliance. A curfew was also instituted, though it was loosened in May. The state of emergency expired in late July, and soldiers were recalled to their barracks.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

Conflicts over land remain pervasive. Many of these conflicts originated in the civil wars and subsequent displacement and resettlement. Others are the result of opaque concession agreements granting foreign corporations access to lands for mining and for the production of timber and palm oil.

In 2018, legislators passed the Land Rights Act, which formalized community ownership of ancestral land. In 2019, the Liberia Land Authority (LLA) signed memorandums of understanding with 24 communities to control a total of two million acres of land under the law. That August, the LLA launched a public awareness program to educate residents on their rights under the legislation.

Customary law practices that prevail in large parts of the country disadvantage women in matters of land rights and inheritance.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

While men and women enjoy equal legal rights under civil law, gender disparities are common in customary law, which remains dominant in much of Liberia and disadvantages women in matters including inheritance and child custody. Violence against women and children, particularly rape, is pervasive. In 2017, the Senate voted to make rape a bailable offense, prompting protests by women’s rights activists. Despite the vote, rape remained a nonbailable offense in 2020. In 2019, President Weah signed the Domestic Violence Act, which was originally proposed in 2014, into law. The legislation mandates stricter punishment for those convicted of domestic violence, though restrictions on female genital mutilation (FGM) were not included.

Incidents of sexual violence, including rape, surged during the COVID-19-related state of emergency, with the Ministry of Justice counting 600 rape cases in the first half of 2020. In September, a month after protests were held in Monrovia, President Weah declared a national emergency over gender-based violence (GBV), vowing to name a special prosecutor to pursue rape cases, create a sex offender registry, and establish a national task force. However, progress on this initiative stalled by year’s end.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor and prostitution remains a problem, with most victims trafficked from rural areas to cities. Many trafficking victims are children, who can be found working in diamond mines, agricultural operations, or as domestic laborers, or engaged in forced begging or prostitution. Individuals working in mining operations face unsafe conditions; in May 2020, at least two people died when a mine shaft collapsed.

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