I survived Liberia’s civil wars. Here’s my advice to American voters.
Joseph Jimmy Sankaituah, Search for Common Ground
Note: Joseph Jimmy Sankaituah is the country director for Sierra Leone and Liberia at the peacebuilding organization Search for Common Ground. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Dear American voters:
I’m writing as someone who has never cast a ballot in the United States but who has a deep respect for your traditions of democracy. Let me explain why.
I was born in Liberia, where civil war raged from 1989 to 1996 and then again from 1999 to 2003. When I was 15, my family fled our homes to escape the violence, and we went to live in a displaced people’s camp in Liberia’s Salala district. I spent a lot of time playing soccer, captaining a team of local kids.
In 1997, Liberia held its first national elections in 12 years. Everyone was nervous because the memories of violence were fresh, and even though a peace process had taken place the year before, we knew how quickly violence could break out. During the civil war, Liberian leader Charles Taylor had led forces known for their exceptional brutality, with violence spreading from Liberia to Sierra Leone. Now the warlord-turned-politician — who was later to be convicted of war crimes — was campaigning for President as some of his supporters chanted, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”
When Taylor claimed a landslide victory, post-election violence forced my family to flee again, and I went to find them. Like many families, we had suffered greatly during the war, losing my father and one of my brothers — may their souls and the souls of those before and after them rest in peace. I was so grateful, however, to reunite with my mother and siblings in Nimba County, near the Ivory Coast border, and to begin a new chapter for Liberia.
In 2005, we faced a great test as a nation, voting again in national elections. What would happen if Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the candidate for the Unity Party and loser of the 1997 election, emerged triumphant? Would a peaceful transition happen, or would we return to the dark days of violence? No one knew for sure because we had few precedents.
At that point, I was president of the National Youth Council, representing the voices of young Liberians. The election taught me that local groups like the YMCA of Liberia, where I served as a youth leader, had earned everyday trust. In 2005, institutions like the YMCA helped to boost confidence in a fair vote, and Johnson Sirleaf stepped into office on the strength of ballots, not bullets.
We were worried again about voter confidence, so we helped to form a public committee to oversee and monitor votes, led not by politicians but by prominent citizen-leaders: women activists, religious authorities and media officials. Thanks to years of steady work, these figures had earned community trust and could promote a fair and peaceful vote.
When I think about your choice, American voters, it brings to mind these memories. I think about the winding path of Liberia and also Sierra Leone, where I worked similarly to help strengthen the electoral process. Today, as I read news about the US and observe all your fears, debates and worries, I wish to share some thoughts…