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Liberia newsSpecial Feature

Liberia: 2023 Presidential Election Updates One

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II

August 5, 2023, marked the start of the 2023 Liberian presidential and legislative elections campaign. The Liberian people and the international community are looking forward to October 10, the election date. Incumbent President George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) faces 19 other candidates, including former Vice President Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party and businessman Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP). These three entities are the current major political parties in Liberia.

In the 2017 election, Weah overwhelmingly defeated Boakai in the second round, winning 14 counties out of 15. Boakai only won his birth county, Lofa. Numerally, of the total votes cashed, Weah received 61.54%, and Boakai got 38.46. Boakai was vice president under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for 12 years. But in this election, he vows to win by selecting Nimba County Senator Jeremiah Kuonh. Nimba has the second largest voting population, second to Montserrado County in Liberia. Further, Senator Prince Johnson, also from Nimba, has endorsed Boakai’s presidency. He is politically influential and considered Nimba’s kingmaker and Godfather. Johnson is a former warlord. In 2017, he supported Weah in round two and helped in Weah’s massive victory.

Nimba was a problem to CDC in 2005 and 2011 elections. In 2005, Joseph Korto, a presidential candidate from Nimba, supported Sirleaf in the second round. Prince Johnson did the same in 2011. Their support contributed to CDC’s loss in both elections.

In 2020, the Unity Party (UP), the Liberty Party (LP), the Alternative National Congress (ANC), and the All Liberians Party (ALP) formed the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP). It was a collaboration of the main opposition parties, and it won more legislative seats and handily defeated the ruling party in that year’s election. 

 However, some analysts now view the opposition as being weak and divided. UP and ALP left CPP. Moreover, LP has split. One faction headed by Senator Nyongblee Karnga Lawrence supports Boakai. ANC and the legally recognized section of LP chaired by Musa Bility remained in the CPP and backed ANC’s leader Alexander Cummings. Recently, ALP has withdrawn its support to Boakai. The party’s action could affect the Boakai election. Its political leader, Benoni Urey, a businessman considered a millionaire in Liberia, has been a key Boakai backer. He now calls Boakai a betrayer and a tribalist.

The feud between the two politicians started with Boakai’s selection of Kuong as running-mate. Many people thought Boakai would have picked Senator Lawrence or Henry Costa. Kuong was neither in the picture nor a CPP nor UP member. Costa is a popular radio talk show host and a strong Urey supporter. While selecting Kuong would help Boakai in Nimba, it creates three significant problems.

 Firstly, Kuong is a protégé of Prince Johnson, whom the US has sanctioned for corruption. Many Liberians fear Johnson would influence Kuong and possibly become an unofficial Vice President if Boakai wins. Secondly, Costa has accused Kuong of selling human body parts. Kuong has yet to deny the allegation. Thirdly, Costa has expressed that Boakai has a serious heart illness; doctors have advised Boakai that he could collapse in six months if he engages in a stressful activity.

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Before the breakup, Costa had a close and personal relationship with Boakai and is said to have helped arrange Boakai’s medical treatments. While Boakai and his camp have not commented on Costa’s claim, some individuals viewed Costa as incredible and a blackmailer. They see Costa’s statement as a sour grape and ask. “Would he have said that had Boakai selected him with Kuong’s blessing?”

 But Costa is a great mobilizer. In 2019, he organized the Council of Patriots (COP), which held the largest protest in Liberia and called for Weah’s resignation. Though Costa has declared not to back Weah in this election, he has been inconsistent in his relationship with the president. Interestingly, the opposition, particularly UP, cheered Costa and viewed him as credible when he voiced against Weah. But now, the party criticizes him and calls him unpatriotic. Meanwhile, CDC’s partisans are replaying Costa’s allegation for political gain.

 This presidential election is different from the 2017 contest. In 2017, LP, ALP, and the Prince Johnson party, Movement for Democratic Restoration (MDR), participated in that election. LP and MDR took third and fourth place, respectively. LP alleged massive fraud in the first round and took the complaint to the Supreme Court, which disagreed. But in this presidential election, these three parties would not partake. As indicated earlier, LP divided since the death of Counselor Charles Brumskine, LP’s founder and political leader.

 Also, in 2005, twenty-two presidential candidates, including one independent, existed. In 2011 and 2017, the number dropped to 16 and 20, respectively. Now in 2023, the National Election Commission (NEC) certified 20 parties and an independent for the presidency. The number would have been more this election had nine other parties not pledged support to the ruling party. However, there are 46 political parties, including 16 new ones in Liberia. All the 2023 presidential candidates, except two, are males.

NEC also reported that 2,471,617 Liberians have registered for this election. Of this number, the females are slightly over the males, amounting to 1,237,257 females and 1,234,360 males. The figures differ from 2017, where the females were four percentage points less than the males, 52-48%. The total number of registered voters was 2.1 million. Montserrado County accounts for 36% of the total registrants for this election. Nimba County is second with 12%, and Bong County is third with 9%. For 2023, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) observed the impressive participation of first-time voters, primarily youths, in the registration process. Youth constitutes over 60% of Liberia’s population of 5.4 million.

The above statistics indicate that the candidate with immense support from the females and youths, particularly in Montserrado, Nimba, and Bong Counties, would have a good chance of winning. Indeed, numbers win elections. Before the start of the campaign, each party tried to show strength through mobilization. In February and July 2023, CDC pulled out a large and impressive crowd at its Montserrado County rallies. UP did likewise at its gatherings in Grand Bassa and Margibe counties. CPP also had a big crowd in Maryland County and Grand Bassa.

 Nevertheless, crowds do not vote. A large political turnout at a function does not necessarily result in an election victory. For example, in the 2019 special senatorial election in Montsurrado County, CDC candidate Representative Thomas Fallah pulled out an impressive crowd parked at the SKD Sports Stadium. But surprisingly, he lost to CPP’s candidate Darius Dillum, though Montsurrado is considered a CDC stronghold.

 Turnout at the polls would be important. A 75 to 85% voter attendance would constitute a high turnout. A 50% or less would be low. Some Liberians think that a low turnout would benefit CDC. That could be true. Some opposition voters may stay home, thinking CDC already has the election in the bag. 

 The information below states the views of the three key parties regarding Liberia’s conditions based on their pronouncements or statements.

COALITION FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE

CDC says it is running on its records. It maintains that the government met a broken economy of $7M from the Sirleaf Unity Party administration. It explains that the UP government was out of funds from the consolidated account, operational money. Therefore, the UP administration continually borrowed from the Central Bank reserves to meet expenditures, including officials’ high salaries and benefits. This practice caused a broken economy; in other words, the government had to borrow to make ends meet. Ministers determined civil servants’ pay unevenly and unfairly. Some government officials earned US $30,000 monthly, while civil servants made about $150 monthly, and “the average Liberian lived on less than US $1.25 a day”, creating a vast income disparity. This situation hampered the Sirleaf government’s ability to adequately meet national development, despite the infusion of $17 billion from foreign aid and direct investments and $4.6 billion in debt relief.

Moreover, UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) pumped millions of dollars into the country’s economy annually for the mission operation during Sirleaf. Meanwhile, a significant part of the national budget went to recurring expenditures, monthly payroll, and other repetitive expenses. Further, many high-income officials sent a substantial portion of their earnings in American dollars to families living abroad. This capital flight helped cause the shortage of the US dollars and increased the dollar exchange rate in Liberia. Partly, the flight occurred because the government hired officials who once resided in the US upon the administration coming into power. According to the Washington Post, while Sirleaf’s government improved the GDP to 12%, the growth decreased to 4% by the end of her 12 years in office. CDCians and other critics argued that the behavior and decline resulted from mismanagement. Former Vice President Boakai has confessed that the Sirleaf administration “squandered opportunities.” 

 The CDC administration further states that when it came into power, it had to implement the necessary structure, including implementing IMF and World Bank recommendations not to borrow from the Central Bank, applying a salary harmonization program, and mobilizing domestic resources. The government reduced salaries and removed projects considered wastes. Despite many challenges, specifically COVID-19, the Weah-led government expresses that it achieves many tangibles, such as road connectivity, hospital, housing, and marketplace constructions. It especially built paved roads in Lofa County, the road from Ganta to Saclepea, Nimba County, maintaining that in less than six years, it constructed over 400 kilometers of roads than the Sirleaf’s administration did in her first term. Moreover, it built the Duala new market in Monrovia, the Military Hospital, the hospital in Gbarpolu County, and housing projects in various counties. It increased doctors’ earnings, hired healthcare workers layoff by the UP regime, and boasts of reducing inflation from 36% to 7%.

Further, Statista, a world source, points out that under Weah, the Liberian unemployment rate was downed from 3.84% in 2020 to 3.63% in 2022. The administration makes tuition free for public colleges and universities. It pays WASSCE fees for 12 graders. This educational assistance helps students and their poor mothers who sell on the streets. Economically, World Bank reported that the economy grew by 4% compared to 3.2% in the UP administration. The Bank stated that the growth could increase to 5.9% in 2024. IMF further reported that the government provided macroeconomic stabilization. Until recently, the administration subsidized the price of imported rice, Liberian staple food. The party repeats Weah’s earlier statement that in less than six years, he has brought more developments than any past president in Liberian history since 1847. Some observers maintained that the administration achieves these improvements with little or no foreign investments brought into the country.

 The administration believes it would do more if given an additional six years. The construction of roads would enhance agriculture productivity and the economy as farmers would transport their goods to the market. Based on the cited deliverables, many CDCians and their supporters think Weah will win in the first round. But they also considered that despite many challenges and failures, Sierra Leone’s President, Julius Maada Bio won re-election on the first ballots. However, some observers, including Othello Garbla, publisher of the New Dawn newspaper in Liberia, said that “Liberia is not Sierra Leone,” and the consideration may be a “false hope.” He discussed that, unlike Liberia, Sierra Leone’s politics is tribal-based. But if his view were utterly accurate, Samura Kamara, Bio’s primary opponent, would have won, or the election would have gone second round. Kamara is of the Temme tribe, which makes up 35.5% of the population, while Bio is Mende, which constitutes 31.2%, according to Wikipedia.

The prediction of a first-round victory may not hold. Such a forecast may be a political statement intended to energize the base and scare the opposition. For instance, in the 2011 presidential election, UP boasted of winning on first ballots, but that did not happen. CDC said the same in 2017 but failed, though both parties won in the second round. In Liberia’s presidential history from 1995 to 2017, only Charles Taylor won the presidency in round one. In the 1997 election, he received 75% of the votes. The turnout was over 80%. Foreign observers, including American President Jimmy Carter, rated the election fair and free. But that does not mean CDC’s prediction would not be accurate. 

 Some viewers complained about Weah’s seeming violation of the Liberian Constitution by influencing the legislature to pass the dual citizenship bill, though the Liberian people overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in the 2020 referendum. The Constitution does not allow dual citizenship. It says that only the Liberians can change the Constitution through a referendum. Opponents of dual citizenship said the president’s action accommodated his interest and that of the legislators with children or family members who naturalized abroad. Many Liberians in the Diaporas willingly naturalized in foreign countries, knowing that they would lose their Liberian citizenship. While proponents cheered the president and the bill, rivals held that dual citizens would use Liberia as a farm for land and political reasons, creating a future social dichotomy and division similar to the Americo-Liberian and native divide. They maintain that most Liberians with dual citizenship would live in America or Europe and use earnings from Liberia to their foreign bank accounts. But proponents argue that dual citizenship would bring investments and development to Liberia.

On other matters, some Liberian citizens accused the legislature of playing to the executive’s tone, approving most proposals from him. They alleged the lawmakers were corrupt and wished most would not return to office after the election.  

George Weah came from a poor social background. He dropped out of high school and became a soccer icon, winning European, African, and World Best. As a star, Weah helped Liberia and Liberians during the civil war. Upon his return to Liberia, he unsuccessfully ran for president and vice president in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Weah went back to school and earned a college degree in the US. In 2014, he became a senator for Montserrado County. In 2017, he won the presidency.

UNITY PARTY

UP has questioned many of the CDC’s achievements. First, it doubts that the CDC administration met the country broke. Indeed, the Weah-led government did not audit the Sirleaf administration when he took office and has rated her regime 85%. It further points out that the Liberians are suffering more than before under the ruling party, and poverty has increased. The prices of essential commodities have increased, questioning the CDC’s claim of reducing the inflation rate. For example, UP indicates that the market price for a 25 Kg bag of rice has risen from $13 to $17. A UN food and agriculture organization has reported that Liberia is among the 40 countries facing food insecurity due to increased food prices. The CDC administration has failed to meet its 2017 campaign promise to lift 1 million Liberians from poverty. Liberia, the oldest African republic, is among the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, under Weah, some public schools are poorly equipped, and teachers are not receiving pay timely. 

 Also, UP said the government has failed to fight corruption. Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) confirm UP’s allegation regarding corruption. The party has factually pointed out that the US government has sanctioned three of Weah’s officials for corruption, including the minister of state and presidential affairs. CENTAL’s State of Corruption Report (SCORE) indicates, “90% of Liberians think the corruption level is high in the country with declining confidence in the executive branch of government to fight against corruption from 30% to 26%.” The report also indicates that the president lacks political will by delaying corruption investigations. US former Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, expressed regrets that the administration has failed to follow up on the corruption sanctions.

In 2022, President Weah pardoned Brownie Samukai and two co-defendants convicted of embezzling army pension funds. They committed the crime during Sirleaf’s tenure when Samukai served as defense minister. That year, the Supreme Court confirmed their guilt and ordered their imprisonment. But Weah freed them, and the government paid the stolen money under a repayment arrangement. Samukai, a UP candidate who had won a senatorial bid in Lofa County, lost the seat because of the crime. Joseph Jallah, an independent candidate powerfully supported by CDC, won the seat after narrowly defeating Galakpai Kortimal, a UP partisan heavily campaigned and backed by Boakai. While the loss embarrassed Boakai and somewhat diminished his influence in Lofa, critics indicated that the president forgone the fight against corruption for political benefit.

UP accuses President Weah, a few months after taking power, used public money to build personal condos and fly a private jet. But it neither gives proof nor the president answers to the claim. Because of corruption, UP concludes that foreign companies and investments are not coming into the country.

On the other hand, in 2013, CENTAL observed corruption in the country’s timber and oil operations under the UP’s administration, as Thomas Nah of the agency indicated that “money is being passed under the table, and the citizens have no trust in the credibility of the government.”

UP says that under the CDC, Liberia has declined and needs redemption. Therefore, UP plans to rescue the country. The party calls Boakai rescue number one, Jeremiah Kuong rescue two and Senator Nyongblee Lawrence rescue mother. Boakai further stated that he would win in the first round. Upon ascending to the presidency, his government would audit Weah’s administration and bring to justice corrupt officials. Considering where the party took Liberia from, UP maintains that it made many achievements: under Sirleaf, the national budget increased to over US$563 Million. World Bank data show unemployment reduced from 5.6% in 2006 to 2.3% in 2017. The administration improved infrastructures, held peace, free speech, and press freedom, though peace in the country was fragile.

 But while the party takes credit for Sirleaf’s accomplishments, it tries to distance Vice President Boakai from the administration’s failures, saying that the VP functioned only as an assistant as the Constitution prescribes. Additionally, it portrays him as a saint of corruption, despite available documents or facts, including the New Dawn report contradicting the assumption. Boakai had described himself in Sirleaf’s administration as “a race car parked in the garage.” However, under his leadership as Senate president, the body passed 66 bogus concession agreements out of 68, according to Moore Steven, a London-based accounting firm.  

Like Weah, Boakai was born poor. He completed the College of West Africa (CWA), a prestigious junior and senior high school, in Liberia in 1966. Some of his schoolmates who knew him at the dormitory remembered him as a quiet, easy-going guy who loved playing checkers. He mainly associated with his tribe members from Lofa County. The late Willie Knuckle willed his social skills to Boakai in the school yearbook. Boakai graduated from the University of Liberia. Former presidents Samuel Doe and Amos Sawyer appointed him minister of agriculture and the Liberian Petroleum Company manager, respectively. From 2006 -2017, he served as vice president under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

COLLABORATING POLITICAL PARTIES

 CPP considers itself as the alternative to CDC and UP. It views that both parties have ruled Liberia without tangible outcomes and caused suffering and abject poverty. They have spoiled the country, “making the same mistakes and expecting a different result,” says CPP’s leader Alexander Cummings. 

 Like UP, the party accuses the administration of corruption and holds that Liberia needs fixing. CPP will fix the country. Hence, it calls Cummings and his running-mate Charlene Brumskine fixer one and two, respectively. Upon becoming president, the administration will take a different approach involving macroeconomic restructuring and stabilization. The CPP administration will increase the national budget to $1 billion. The government will use a more significant part of the budget for national development. “I am ready to fix the country,” Cummings repeats. 

 However, CPP’s critics argue that Cummings and his running-mate are novices lacking government experience. Putting the government in their hands would be like having the blinds lead the way. Cummings is a former Coca-Cola executive, and Brumskine is an international lawyer. Both have worked in the private sector. Because of their corporate experience, their supporters say the pair would bring investments and employment to Liberia. The running-mate is the daughter of LP’s founder, Charles Brumskine, mentioned earlier.

 But governmental experience is not always necessary for election success and effective public administration. For instance, Donald Trump, a businessman without experience in government, won the US 2016 presidential election against a well-experienced Hilary Clinton. She was a former senator and secretary of state.

Cummings ran in 2017 as ANC standard bearer. He received 7% of the total votes in the first round. ANC did not win a single legislative seat. But some analysts viewed his performance as better, considering his first time in a national election. For example, he took second place in Monserrado County, better than Boakai and Brumskine.

 Unlike Weah and Boakai, Cummings was born to middle-class parents. But like Boakai, he graduated from CWA. Cummings did his university education in the US. He became a corporate executive and lived in America for many years. Critics say that with his wealth, he did not help Liberia during the civil crisis.

He headed ANC after its first political leader, Cllr. Kwame Clemens forcefully left the party. Upon returning to Liberia after the war, Cummings established the Cummings Foundation, which provides charitable assistance in Liberia. President Sirleaf appointed him to the board of BWI, Booker T. Washington Institute. Some friends and supporters had advised him to first run for the senate or become a vice president candidate before running for the presidency. Still, he refused, wanting to become president. As stated before, he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2017.

OTHER CANDIDATES, AND CALL FOR FAIR AND PEACEFUL ELECTION

One of the new candidates in this election is Counselor Tiawon Gongloe, the standard bearer of the Liberian People’s Party (LPP). LPP, under the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, and the Freedom Alliance Party of Liberia, has unsuccessfully participated in Liberian presidential elections since 2005. It ran as LPP in 1997. In the 2005 election, it joined the United People Party to form the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, winning three seats in the Senate and five in the House. LPP is a grass-root, pan-Africanist, and progressive party founded by Togba-Nah Tipoteh and other progressives in 1983.

 Gongloe is a native son of Nimba. His candidacy could take significant votes from the county and make Nimba competitive. Like Boakai and Cummings, Gongloe sees corruption as a major problem. Using the broom as his symbol, he intends to sweep corruption in the government if he wins. In July this year, he and some of his supporters staged a campaign parade against corruption in Monrovia.

 Gongloe is a popular human rights lawyer known for advocating social justice. He was a minister in the Sirleaf administration. However, John Morlu, a Sirleaf official, rated her government as the most corrupt administration in Liberian political history. Besides financial misappropriations, according to New Africa, she employed 20 of her family members in the government, though, in the 1970s, she criticized the late President William Tolbert for nepotism.

Noble prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who served as an advisor in the Sirleaf administration, resigned because of the corruption in the government. President Sirleaf had admitted to being unable to fight corruption. No record indicates Gongloe’s stance on corruption during the president’s regime, nor has his camp spoken about his past corruption stance. Gongloe received praise for visiting the other political parties urging for a peaceful election.

 Another new candidate is Sara Beysolow Nyanti, one of the two female contenders for the presidency. She is the standard bearer of the African Liberation League, a recently formed grass-roots party. Nyanti calls herself a non-politician, believing that politicians have failed Liberia. She seeks “to transform Liberia through education, development,” and women’s business empowerment. She is a former UN diplomat.

 Women’s candidacy in this election is regrettably low, though females are over 50% of the Liberian population and, as indicated, are registered voters more than the males in this contest. Of the one thousand thirty (1,030) political candidates registered with NEC for this election, 15% are females, and 85% are males.

 There have been initial local opinion polls, some giving Weah and Boakai the lead. A recent survey by OK FM radio gave Boakai a far lead over Weah. But the polls are unscientific. The bigger the sampling size, the better is the accuracy. In 2017, a local poll continually gave Boakai a lead over Weah. But the International Political Polls had Weah leading. Though polls are not always correct and not gospels, in most cases, they correctly tell who is leading and who is not. There will be more surveys as the campaign advances.

 The campaign is on. Each party seeks support, endorsements and sells its message to the electorates. Over two months ago, of the 103 legislators, about 30% endorsed Boakai. Most of the remaining lawmakers gathered at CDC’s headquarters and pledged support to Weah. Interestingly, many of the president’s backers are opposition legislators, including UP partisans. Apparently, because of this move, they are running for re-election as independents. For instance, UP former Chairman Senator Varney Sherman of Cape Mount County and Sinoe County Senator Milton Teahjay campaign as independents. This factor could hurt Boakai. The candidates have personal supporters who will vote in the presidential election. Most recently, a church group endorsed Cummings, saying he is the right person to lead Liberia.

CDC has shown its campaign schedule, involving canvassing the 17 districts of Montserrado County, spending five days in Nimba and three days in Bong Counties. It would end the campaign in Monrovia two days before the election. This schedule is strategic, focusing on the three counties previously discussed. As mentioned, Weah was a senator of Montserrado County. His mother was a Nimbain bore in Nimba County, where he is said to have brought many developments. His vice president, Jewel Taylor, was a two-term senator from Bong County. Capturing these counties would be crucial. As of this writing, the other parties have yet to make their schedules known to NEC as required.

Both national and international entities have called for a peaceful, fair, and transparent election. Early this year, the political parties signed the Farmington Declaration in Liberia, pledging a violence-free election. Moreover, in July this year, former Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck led a delegation of permanent Africans to Liberia regarding a peaceful election. Also, ECOWA and African Union representatives visited Liberia on the same matter. A group of young Liberians recently signed a non-violent manifesto for the election.

 Whoever wins this election, the loser or losers might not readily accept defeat. In most African presidential elections, the losing candidate cries fault, justly or unjustly. An election dispute, as just occurred in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, could create a problem and possibly instability. One suggestion for this situation is implementing a fair, credible, and transparent election. Foreign and party observers must be present in the counting of the ballots. The Liberian National Election Commission, the Supreme Court, the media, and the international community must commit to this effort. The interest of the country must be number one. An election is the essence of democracy to foster peace, unity, and national development.

 I am glad that the political parties have signed the Farmington Declaration. I hope they will abide by it. I am also happy that the African leaders have shown interest and concern about the Liberian election. Liberia cannot return to the dark days of civil war and conflicts.

 As I did in 2017, I will give further updates on the election.

Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II is a Liberian national. He is a permanent resident of the US and is in Liberia, covering the election. He is an author and a political commentator specializing in elections. He has covered elections in America and Liberia since 2000. He is a graduate of Georgetown University. Contact: dagbayonohnyanfore66@gmail.com.

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