By Festus Poquie
Within 50 days Liberians will go to the ballot box to elect the country’s new political leadership and the Russian Federation has become an issue in these elections.
On national security, political and economic fronts, Russia matters in the tiny West African country of 5.5 million people.
Almost 4,000 miles away from the warzone in Ukraine where Russia is fighting for control, the conflict is harming Liberia the hardest. Disruption in the global supply chain triggered increased in food and fuel oil prices as inflation surges in double digit for the first time in three years.
This year’s rainy season and could be a nightmare for many vulnerable households as United Nations agency – WFP forecast more than half a million Liberia may face hunger on the back of escalating food prices due to the Ukraine crisis and government’s limited spending capacity.
Love, hate and fear emotions have emerged in Liberia as Russia pushes for greater influence in Africa via multiple means, from disinformation campaigns to sending Wagner Group mercenaries, interfering into elections and undermining democracies on the continent.
While the Russia topic is controversial, associates of the erstwhile ruling Unity Party have openly declared admiration for Vladimir Putin and his rule.
“We are under our party’s mandate to determine who our friends are. We have decided that our friend is Putin or Russia. He’s our friend. We don’t care about Joe Biden. We don’t care about who Sunak [UK Prime Minister] is. We don’t care who Macron [French President] is” Emmanuel Gonquoi who heads the Economic Freedom Fighters of Liberia, a group backing the main opposition Unity Party said.
“We strongly believe that a nation under communist rule is the best way forward because we don’t need a government that would always side with the West that continues to exploit our resources without giving back to our country.
“We believe strongly that our allies would be defined by our foreign policy. We are saying to you that in the coming days, the national youth command of the EFFL will be welcoming and hoisting the flags of Russia, the flag of China, the flag of Cuba, and all progressive forces at our headquarters.”
Barely 24 hours after Gonquoi’s pro-Russia sentiment, UP campaign spokesman Mohammed Ali distanced the party from the EFFL foreign policy thinking.
“The Unity Party may not share in the foreign policy of the EFFL as our alignment with the party is only tied to the process of removing President George Weah democratically,” he said.
On August 2, Ali himself expressed love for Burkina Faso’s 35-year-old military ruler’s anti-western speech delivered at the Africa-Russia summit by sharing the video on Facebook.
“This speech by the Burkina Faso leader Ibrahim Troare at the Africa-Russia Summit is one of the best I have listened to,” he,” he said.
“You need to listen to him.”
Diplomatic relations between Russia and Liberia began back in the 1950s and 1960s. On January 11, Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs congratulated its Liberian counterpart on the occasion marking the 67th anniversary of the relationship.
President Vladimir Putin also expressed a strong desire to develop energy and trade partnerships with Liberia as the two seek to develop their economy, it said.
“Despite the challenges Russia is currently facing as a result of its war with Ukraine, it is working hard to ensure that they close gaps in its stale relations with most countries.”
On the margins of the Africa-Russia summit, President George Weah hosted Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Monrovia to solidify support against Russia aggression.
“We stand stoutly with you as the rest of the free world, as you continue to stand in defense of democracy and your sovereignty.
“We eagerly look forward to cementing our already strong ties and in multiple areas of cooperation, while at the same time expanding the scope of our cooperation in new avenues of mutual benefits for our countries and peoples.”
Could Russia Influence October Elections?
Russia is trying to undermine democracy in more than two dozen African countries, according to a new study from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the US Department of Defense.
According to Freedom House, 31 African countries have seen their democracy scores decline over the past 5 years.
“Less well appreciated is the role that external authoritarian actors have played in facilitating this deterioration. Russia stands out in this regard,” the Center said.
“Among other aims, undermining democracy has been a strategic objective of Russia’s Africa policy for the past two decades. Authoritarian governments lacking domestic checks and balances provide permissive environments for enabling Russian influence on the continent.”
While Russia is active in several West African Countries including neighboring Guinea, Liberia’s democracy score as reported by Freedom House made it less attractive though vulnerable for Russia manipulation.
Freedom House said in its 2023 report 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. 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.”
Liberia carries the aggregate score of 60/100.
Hightlights of the Center’s new report:
Russian interference to undercut democracy in Africa occurs across a range of methods with disinformation (17 countries targeted), electoral interference (15), and support for extraconstitutional claims on power (14) being most common.
• Russia’s methods of democratic interference in Africa tend to be reinforcing. Disinformation campaigns are nearly always accompanied by efforts to interfere in elections to keep Moscow-friendly regimes in power, to support their extended tenures in office beyond constitutionally mandated term limits, or to validate coups.
• Russia primarily targets African countries with relatively weak democratic institutions. The median Freedom House freedom score (on a scale of 0-100) for African countries in which Russia is actively undermining democracy is a 28. This compares to a median score of 51 (nearly double) for African countries that Russia is not recognized as undermining.
• In African countries where Russia is most active (i.e., engaging in four or five of the identified undermining elements), the median freedom score is just 19.
• Russia is, thus, helping prevent political rights, civil liberties, and checks and balances on the executive branch from gaining traction in some of the continent’s most enduring authoritarian systems. As a result, despite massive popular protests for democracy in places like Algeria, Guinea, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, exclusionary regimes persist.