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He Was the Face of Liberia’s Endless War. Now He Wants to Govern.

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By Claire Macdougall

Joseph Duo edged his yellow taxi toward the river and boarded a canoe with stacks of grimy Liberian dollars and a backpack full of fliers promising more food, free education and better clinics. He marched down a damp muddy path, until the forest parted into a poor village named Zangar Town. His message was simple: Vote for me.

Fourteen years ago Mr. Duo did not cast the clean-cut, earnest image voters see today in his campaign posters, which are emblazoned with the word “Transformation.”

During the final throes of Liberia’s 14-year civil war, Mr. Duo was photographed jumping in the air: his torso bare and muscle-carved, his face stretched with excitement after he fired a rocket-propelled grenade at rebels. The picture, taken by the photographer Chris Hondros — who died in Misurata, Libya, in 2011 — became one of the defining images of a conflict that killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced more than two million.

After more than a decade fighting in the bush, Mr. Duo put down his weapons when the war ended in 2003. Mr. Hondros, who met him two years later, encouraged him to go back to high school and helped him pay the tuition. Mr. Duo then studied criminal justice at a university in Monrovia, the capital, sold wooden planks and pursued roles as an actor. Then he began training unarmed police officers in Paynesville, on the edge of Monrovia.

This year, at age 40, he decided to try his hand at politics, with a campaign that criticized the political establishment for corruption and failing to deliver on its promises.

“There is still war in this country, but this war is not by gun,” Mr. Duo said in an interview outside his house in Paynesville. “It’s economic war — economic war, because high-class people that are in position, they suppress the vast majority, and only they live better life.”

As Liberians voted for a new president on Tuesday, they also cast votes for new representatives. Mr. Duo was among 984 aspirants across the country vying for one of 73 seats in the legislature. The positions come with an estimated $200,000 annual package that includes gas allowances, phone cards and staff salaries.

On his campaign posters, Mr. Duo uses the old Hondros photograph. But it is accompanied by photographs of him being interviewed by journalists and of him at his university graduation. Mr. Duo hopes his narrative of self-transformation — from child soldier and general to would-be lawmaker with a college degree — will help him win.

Under a wooden palava hut in Zangar Town, Mr. Duo told around 30 community members they were living a “Stone Age life.” Reachable from the main road only by canoe, the small farming community lacks running water and electricity. Yet it sits less than a mile away from the international airport and a recently opened plush, four-star hotel.

“If you people make mistakes every time you elect people, if you elect the person automatically, he becomes what?” Mr. Duo asked the crowd.

“A failure,” one man replied.

“If you elect me,” Mr. Duo asked, “you become what? My boss, my bosses.”

He promised to build four high schools in the district and to provide free education for all its children, an impossible feat even with the budget of a legislator. He promised to build a guesthouse to bring revenue to the district. And he vowed to create a security task force.

Though he criticizes political incumbents, Mr. Duo uses many of their tactics: trucking in voters to register, paying cash and even arranging circumcisions for boys in communities throughout the district. Mr. Duo gave community members in Zangar Town $20 to fix a hand water pump that had been broken for months.

“They feel if you don’t do that, you are not serious,” Mr. Duo said.

Across Liberia on Tuesday, people lined up for hours to vote for a candidate to replace, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in an African country. Most of the polling stations in Monrovia reported few problems, but in Bong County, hundreds of voters at one polling station, many of whom had stood in line since 5 a.m. with voter identification cards in hand, were told their names were not on voting registers. The problem threatened to mar a largely peaceful election day.

Polls closed at 6 p.m., and the counting was underway Tuesday night. The results are expected by Oct. 25.

In recent years, Liberian lawmakers have been mired in corruption scandals, with some accused of taking kickbacks for ratifying natural resource agreements. Liberian legislators are among the highest paid on the continent, yet Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people complain that lawmakers have failed to deliver change and that they survive politically through patronage – paying for school fees, weddings, funerals, bags of rice and cement and zinc to fix leaky roofs.

“Just like I fought for you in the war, I will fight for you again,” Mr. Duo told a community in his hometown, Little Bassa, in a district in Grand Bassa County, southeast of Monrovia, when he began his campaign two months ago.

But cash and ethnicity, rather than wartime credentials, are more likely to win local elections these days, said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian scholar working on a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“When you go in the community and speak, at the end of the speech the next question they are going to ask is, ‘What did you bring?’ ” Mr. Nyei said. “Because of the desperation, the poverty. And so they don’t have any faith in the system anymore.”

Mr. Duo has been campaigning in a Nissan Sunny, with fluorescent stickers reading “Boss” on the frame. He carries a few hundred T-shirts and laminated photographs attached to neck straps. On his final day of campaigning, community members in his hometown fought over the dwindling number of faded shirts he had left to hand out. Mr. Duo threw candy into the air as people scrambled to scoop up pieces from the ground.

“Politically, the vast majority of our people are completely excluded, except when you have elections and people reach out to them,” said Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, a founding member of a pan-African socialist group called the Movement for Justice in Africa and a security adviser to President Sirleaf. Mr. Fahnbulleh, who is a presidential candidate this year, advocates a legislature in which seats are reserved for unions, teachers and professionals.

In one small community off the Grand Bassa Highway, Mary Gaye, 44, a women’s leader, cassava farmer and coal seller, spoke cynically about politicians. Only a few candidates had passed through, she said. In recent weeks, Mr. Duo provided the community with 3,000 Liberian dollars — about $25 — and had 12 boys circumcised, which she said was cause for optimism. But she urged him not to “forget about” the community.

Ms. Gaye sees few avenues for holding lawmakers accountable between elections. “We not get no power over government,” she said. “When you not do it for us, then what we got to do? We’ll forget it.”

There are signs that legislators may be held more accountable this time round. The Daily Observer, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, working with a tech-focused nongovernmental organization called iLab, is developing a promise tracker based on recent debates among the candidates. And some candidates have signed on to development and governing agreements with a number of communities.

Still, the old ways continue. On the eve of the vote, as the sky became inky dark, Mr. Duo stood in the back of a small pickup carrying 20 people to a voting location. He clutched a wad of Liberian dollars in his palm.

Correction: October 12, 2017

A picture caption on Wednesday with an article about the former child soldier Joseph Duo who is seeking political office in Liberia misidentified the location of one of his campaign rallies. It was in Grand Bassa County — not Little Bassa, his hometown.

Credits/New York Times


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