Liberians will vote on Tuesday in a referendum on shortened presidential terms, a change that some members of the opposition fear President George Weah will use to extend his term in office.
The ballot papers will also ask voters whether to lift a ban on dual nationality, a divisive issue in the poor West African nation that was founded as a haven for liberated American slaves in the 19th century.
Weah, a former football icon, wants to cut presidents and lawmakers from six to five years; and from nine to seven for senators.
“I strongly believe that this is not the way to keep anyone in power for long,” the 54-year-old told supporters during a meeting in the northwestern city of Tubmanburg last week.
Lowering the time limits is a relative novelty for the region, where aging presidents have followed a pattern of sticking to the office with the help of constitutional changes.
In Guinea, for example, 82-year-old President Alpha Conde won a controversial third term in October after pushing through a new constitution that allowed him to circumvent a two-time limit.
That same month, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, 78, was elected for an equally controversial third term after revising the country’s constitution.
Weah’s critics fear the president is pursuing the same goal.
“President Weah will seek a third term only because the first six years would be under (a) another constitutional arrangement,” said opposition senator Darius Dillon.
A “yes” vote would be a mistake, he said.
Bellwether in support of Weah?
Growing up in the capital Monrovia slums before moving on to a glittering football career with AC Milan and Paris St Germain, Weah was an idol for Liberia’s poor when he was elected in 2018.
But the former striker’s popularity has waned, given the continuing poor standard of living in the nation of 4.8 million people.
Some see the referendum – as well as simultaneous senatorial senate elections – as a wake-up call for support for the president.
Still only during his first term in office, Weah firmly denies that the referendum is designed to keep him in power.
Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 and West Africa’s Ebola crisis in 2014-16.
Weah has faced protests over ongoing economic problems, which include soaring inflation and regular shortages of cash and fuel.
But the president has tried to counter the impression that the referendum is a verdict on his rule. The constitutional changes “benefit all Liberians,” he said in a statement in November.
The Cooperative Political Parties (CPP), a leading opposition coalition, claims to understand the referendum and has called on its supporters to boycott the vote.
“We do not even know what the consequences are when you vote ‘yes’ or you vote ‘no’,” CPP Secretary-General Mohammed Aly told AFP, warning that Weah could seek further terms.
Acarus Gray, a lower house lawmaker from the Weah Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, said rumors in the third term amounted to “political games”.
Prohibition of dual voting with dual nationalities
Liberians are also voting on whether to lift a ban on dual nationality from 1973, a move that any hope can be an economic blessing.
The ban has long been seen as hypocrisy in some quarters, as many members of the US-Liberian elite secretly hold US citizenship and are accused of transferring money abroad.
Hundreds of thousands of other Liberians are also considered to be living abroad after fleeing war and poverty.
Weah’s office said in a November statement that nationality restrictions – which include a ban on property ownership for non-Liberians – are “unthinkable” and “unfair”.
“This administration has decided that once you were born a Liberian, you must always remain a Liberian,” said CDC legislator Acarus Gray, adding that dual nationality would “boost our economy.”
Edward Gayflor, a 48-year-old Liberian who fled to the United States during the Civil War and acquired U.S. citizenship, agreed.
“I think it is time for Liberians to say yes to dual citizenship so that we can have the opportunity to contribute to the development of the motherland,” he said.
But there are fears that rich diaspora members could exert a major influence in Liberia.
If the referendum lifts the ban on dual nationalities, Liberians with two passports will still remain from the elected office.
About 2.5 million people are registered to vote, according to the country’s national election committee.