How We (UP) lost the Elections in 2017
I was asked the same question repeatedly, by everyone from everywhere. From Paynesville to Abidjan to New York and Washington, DC as well as in Nimba, the same question was posed to me. How could a ruling party, with good human right records, good partnerships around the world, and an iconic female leader lose an election? Almost two years have gone by. How did we get here?
My friend argued that “If Ellen had supported Uncle Joe (Vice President Joseph Boakai) Weah would have never won.” There was a well-established belief in many quarters among Liberians and non-Liberians that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could have stopped George Weah from winning the elections. But it wasn’t that simple.
I first talked to VP Joe Boakai about his candidacy early 2014. He wanted to run but wasn’t sure how to bring it up with the President. He spoke about pressure from some party members as well as people from Lofa who wanted him to run to carry the torch left burning by the late VP Harry Moniba. President Sirleaf had promised in 2011 that she and VP. Boakai would leave UP in the hands of the next generation in 2017. His desire to run was breaking that promise. While still pondering on how to break the news to the President, he went to Lofa, and was petitioned to run and he accepted. Informing the President even harder. In the end, it was Hon. Morris Dukuly who served as messenger between the two: to tell President Sirleaf that VP Boakai wants to run and to VP Boakai Joe that President Sirleaf had no problem with it and would support him.
President Sirleaf often said that although her name would not be on the ballot, her legacy would be the central theme of the campaign, with one group coming in to dismantle it and another group who would want to build on it. She was aware that Mr. Boakai was the only one who could safeguard her legacy and not blame her for the failings of the government.
I had my first conversation with President Sirleaf about her succession in March 2013. We were in Abuja for the launching of the Common African Position on the Post-2015, which she chaired. I asked her during a break if she was giving any thought to 2017. She enumerated many potential “good” candidates. She put them in order of preference and wasn’t sure if the VP would run. After talking about each of them, she said, “but if Joe [VP Boakai] decides to run, that will change everything. We will have to make sure he wins.”
President Sirleaf asked VP Boakai at some point if he wanted to run on the record of the UP administration or take a distance. VP Boakai said he would run on the legacy of the UP administration. When the Liberia Action Party (LAP) – led by Cllr. Varney Sherman – joined UP in 2010, the agreement was that (UP) Ellen would pick a vice presidential candidate from LAP for the subsequent elections (2011). However, after the deal was signed, at the Convention, Mrs. Sirleaf decided to stick with Mr. Boakai. Her argument was summed in a football parlance: “One does not break up a winning team.” She pushed further that if elected for a second term, she and Boakai will lay the groundwork for the next UP generation and retire. Thus, the famous “generational change” slogan among UP younger politicians.
However, things started to disintegrate in 2014, when Mr. Robert Sirleaf, son of the President decided to run for a senate seat in Montserrado County where he ended up losing to Mr. George Weah. Although President Sirleaf had little to say in Mr. Sirleaf’s decision – he sued her and the government over electoral issues – UP blamed her and accused her of being “enemy of the party,” along with her son.
The other shoe dropped with the indictment of Senator Varney Sherman, former Chairman of UP, in the Sable Mining corruption saga. This led to a further deterioration of the relationship between the two leaders of the UP. Mr. Sherman had grown close to the Vice President – both working in Capitol Hill – and until the indictment, there was an assumption that VP. Boakai would pick Mr. Sherman or someone from the former LAP faction as running mate. Cllr Sherman also had his ambitions, expecting President Sirleaf to retire with Mr. Boakai and hand to him a well-rounded state machine. Several others wanted to run but ended up joining Mr. Boakai or moving to different parties.
VP Boakai cut short a foreign trip to “assess the situation.” The Chairman of the Party, Mr. Wilmot Paye, led a group of partisans to protect Cllr. Sherman by physically barricading his house. These two reactions began the schism between the President and the Vice President. It also divided the party between Ellen supporters and Cllr. Sherman supporters – which included the VP and the Chairman. A friend of Senator Sherman even said that the indictment had all been concocted by the President, “with the help of George Soros who funds Global Witness. I told Varney, that the Old’Ma will never forgive him for organizing that LAP convention in 1997 while she was on her way to Monrovia… You see…” Or could it be from that speech Cllr. Sherman gave as orator and he attacked the administration record on corruption and the senatorial campaign in Cape Mount in 2014 when President Sirleaf is said to have not shown support for Cllr. Sherman, the UP candidate?
The conspiracy theory was amplified when President Sirleaf appointed Mr. FonatiKoffa, the former Chairman and an official of Liberty Party (LP, opposition) as special prosecutor to investigate the case. There had been attempts to have Mr. Charles Brumskine (LP) to merge with UP and face Mr. George Weah’s CDC but Mr. Boakai, as he would, rejected him and other names suggested by President Sirleaf. I once asked the President if anyone imposed Joe Boakai on her. She said “no” and I then asked her why she wants to impose a vice president on him.
Everything fell apart when Dr. Toga McIntosh ended his tenure as Vice-President of ECOWAS and returned home. He declared his intentions to run for President on the UP ticket, against Boakai in a primary. Boakai’s camp accused President Sirleaf of bringing Dr. McIntosh to deprive Mr. Boakai of his chance of becoming president. Meanwhile, Dr. McIntosh was angry at Madam Sirleaf for not pushing his candidacy for the presidency of ECOWAS and was planning an anti-Sirleaf campaign. He ended up joining the CDC.
The Vice President had stopped showing up at Cabinet and other functions with the President. In one of his first and most notable campaign speeches, he compared himself to “a race car that had been parked” in a garage and was asking Liberian voters to give him a chance to prove himself. This was his campaign tagline that came to haunt him.
Either by choice or constraint, Mr. Boakai’s team was headed with people who had personal issues with President Sirleaf. One of his most important and vocal surrogate group was run by people who had tried to expel Madam Sirleaf from the Unity Party in the early 2000s and never accepted her leadership. By an uncanny coincidence, everyone in the leadership of the campaign had had a fall-out with President Sirleaf, one way or the other, either leaving the administration unceremoniously or being fired. How did that impact the campaign?
There are countless situations that showed the widening gap between the President and the VP. Here is a good example.
The Ministry of Public Works was planning a groundbreaking ceremony in Bong County for a road to Lofa, Boakai’s hometown. Boakai’s campaign theme had been “roads, roads, roads.” President Sirleaf was to be there. I asked her if she had invited the Vice President and she responded that invitations were issued by the Ministry to all cabinet members. Later I called VP Boakai’s campaign and asked if they were aware of the program and I was told they were meeting to discuss it. Later that night, I learned that their candidate had a different schedule. A person close to the campaign said there was nothing for “Uncle Joe to gain by standing next to Ellen, she is too unpopular; we don’t need her.”
On the day of that event, Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh was joining the CDC campaign after ANC failed to advance to the second round where he was second to Alex Cummings. Senators George Weah and Jewel Howard Taylor were both in Gbarnga for that program and decided to attend the groundbreaking ceremony. And in the glare of cameras, President Sirleaf tried to pass the shovel to Senator Taylor who declined and deferred to Senator George Weah her senior on the campaign ticket. The picture was probably the most defining and symbolic moment of the campaign. The same people who said that there was nothing to gain for Mr. Boakai to be next to the President turned around and started to call her “traitor.”
A day later, the New Democrat carried a headline quoting former ALP candidate Benoni Urey yelling ”Ellen wicked.” I called and met with UP-Chairman Wilmot Paye at a restaurant and showed him the caption. I told him that whenever they published such stories, they lose die-hard supporters of Ellen who may have been leaning towards supporting Boakai. I told him that the person to beat was George Weah and not Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. No matter how unpopular, a sitting president would always have 20-30 percent of supporters. He laughed when I said that 20-30 percent could be the margin by which they might lose. He said, “we shall see.”
As the gap between Mr. Boakai and Ms. Sirleaf became wider, anyone close to Mrs. Sirleaf was an “enemy” or a “spy.” Without falling into gossips, the UP campaign turned down the support of the Superintendent of Montserrado County, the largest vote market in the country, simply because she was a friend of Mrs. Sirleaf. On the first meeting of the transition team headed by President Sirleaf and President-Elect Weah, she sat with the CDC team.
While President Sirleaf and her Vice President stood “their grounds,” others made sure a wall rose between them and in the end, they could no longer see each other.
CDC became a natural alley to the President and to some of her followers. From there, the rest was history. President Sirleaf did not have to help CDC, UP was doing all the work. Self-preservation took over the legacy.
Former President Pro-Temp Findley – current Minister of Foreign Affairs had worked for years in Bassa County to regain his footing in preparation for 2017. He walked away from UP and joined CDC. He was rumored to be on a short list for running mates to VP Boakai. By the time it was all over, UP had expelled Mrs. Sirleaf and her close “allies.”
The misunderstanding between the two leaders of UP reached such high pitch that on the day of President Sirleaf’s birthday, UP under Boakai held a special meeting and issued a communiqué accusing her of betrayal and deciding to expel her from the party. It took several interventions to stop President Sirleaf from holding her own press conference.
VP Boakai was facing serious challenges. The youthfulness of the electorate, with more than 60 percent of voters under age 35, most of whom had veneration for the CDC leader, was a factor not to dismiss. UP had been in power for 12 years, this led to a general fatigue and a desire for change. The Vice President had been in the limelight for 12 years and therefore vulnerable to attacks. How could he reinvent himself? How could he walk on the thin blue line between legacy and change? The VP was also the target of the other opposition parties who all thought they could defeat Mr. Weah. The UP’s defeat can now be counted among loses by ruling parties in the region in this decade, from Senegal to Nigeria, through Ghana, Sierra Leone, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire and The Gambia. However, it did not have to happen in Liberia.
When the results of the first round were announced, Liberty Party (LP) of Cllr. Charles Brumskine decided to contest the results and took National Election Commission (NEC) to the Supreme Court. Rather than prepare for the second round, the Boakai campaign spent its energy and time to support a lawsuit that was doomed from the onset. LP was seeking to annul the results and start all over. As the elections were mostly donors funded, there was little enthusiasm to do a rerun. By the time the Supreme Court rejected the case, CDC had locked down the country while UP was in court. The VP had only a few days to get back on the campaign trail.
One night, a group of senior cabinet ministers, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Marjon Kamara, Minister of State Sylvester Grisby, Defense Minister Brownie Samukai and the Minister of Justice Frederick Cherue crisscrossed Monrovia, trying to patch up things between the President and the Vice-President. The two agreed to meet. But the phone never rang and UP continued its path of self-destruction. It was too late.
The question of who is responsible for the debacle of UP at the polls in 2017 will have many answers but one thing is certain, the campaign failed. In the end, all the CDC had to do was to wait patiently to harvest the fruit that UP could not nurture. How the party would regroup and regain its standing will still depend on the capacity of the two leaders to make peace for the sake of the party. They owe that much to the partisans and people who were caught in the crossfire. Will they allow UP to fizzle away as all former Liberian ruling parties? Or would they regroup, bury the hatchet and pass the baton?
The much touted “generational change” is inevitable, as time and nature command. Will UP stay in “protective” collaboration of opposition parties or will it get its troops back in line and stand on its own? Will the current collaboration lead the way to the formation of one opposition party before the 2020 and 2023 suffrages, such as a repeat of the Grand Coalition of 1985? Would the young people who worked so hard be able to reach out to each other and “wake up” UP? Time does not wait, and History has no reset button.
The biggest irony in all this, President Sirleaf and VP Boakai never uttered one public negative statement about each other. It was all done by surrogates through the media, everything built up through rumors.
“In school, you take a lesson and then you are tested, in life you are tested and then you learn a lesson,” Uncle Joe told me the last time we met, in June 2019. Can the elders make peace and pass the torch, and can the youth look back at their tracks and regroup? As Dr. Amos Sawyer said, “what did we do with what we had? Could we have done better? And can we do better?” Abdoulaye W Dukulé