By Carielle Doe and Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA (Reuters) – Vote counting was underway in Liberia on Tuesday during an election in which President George Weah is seeking a second term after six years marred by corruption allegations and abiding economic hardship in Africa’s oldest independent republic.
Around 2.4 million people were eligible to vote in the West African nation still struggling to emerge from two civil wars that killed over 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003 and from a 2013-16 Ebola epidemic that killed thousands.
“I am here to elect a good leader who will lead our country. A leader that will make school fees affordable for children to attend,” said fish seller Nanny Davies, a mother of six who queued alongside hundreds of others at the Baptist Field polling centre in the capital Monrovia.
Election officials said turnout was high in a poll which will test the popularity of Weah, a beloved soccer star who rose from the slums of Monrovia to play for some of the world’s largest clubs, but who has struggled to chip away at the impoverished country’s enduring problems.
The counting, in which some election officials tallied votes in notebooks by lamplight, began after dark at polling stations across the capital. The commission will begin releasing provisional results on Wednesday. To avoid a runoff, the winner must secure over 50% of votes cast.
No major incidents were reported and the voting was calm and orderly at various voting centres visited, said a team of observers from the Economic Community of West African States.
Logistical problems occurred, however, and some waited hours to vote. Election materials were delayed by flooding in Sinoe and Rivercess counties, the National Elections Commission (NEC) said. Some ballots were transported by canoes that capsized. Voting will be extended in those areas, the NEC said.
Still, many saw the peaceful vote as a success.
“I feel relief today,” said Richmond Anderson, who voted in Monrovia. “I want to see development here. If we have good leaders, we will not be suffering.
Analysts believe the vote will most likely head to a runoff where Weah, 57, who was first elected in 2017 in Liberia’s first democratic change of government in 70 years, is likely to hold on to power.
He says he needs more time to fulfil his promise to rebuild the nation’s broken economy, institutions and infrastructure, including the country’s pitted roads.
“I have asked the Liberian people for a second-term mandate and that’s why we have come here,” Weah said after casting his ballot at the Kendeja Elementary School polling station in southern Monrovia.
“I have cast my vote and I am happy to exercise my constitutional right,” he said, wearing a crisp white djellaba robe and matching white baseball cap.
Weah has faced criticism from the opposition and some donor countries for not doing enough to tackle corruption during his first term in office. Last year, he fired his chief of staff and two other senior officials after the United States sanctioned them for corruption.
Weah’s main challenger among 19 candidates is former vice president Joseph Boakai, 78, of the Unity Party, who he beat in a runoff in 2017. Boakai has campaigned on the need to rescue Liberia from what he calls mismanagement by Weah’s administration.
Voters will also select members of the 73-seat lower house, and half of the 30-member senate.
Although campaigning for the vote has been mostly peaceful, sporadic clashes have broken out between supporters of rival parties, prompting the United Nation’s rights office to express concern about election-related violence after two people were killed in September.
“I want peace. All our past leaders have come and failed us,” said voter Cynthia Kollie. “We have suffered too much.”
(Reporting by Carielle Doe and Alphonso Toweh; Writing by Bate Felix, Hereward Holland, Nellie Peyton, and Edward McAllister; Editing by Sharon Singleton and Stephen Coates)