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Nimba is Not One-Man’s Land

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Since January 2010 when Nimba County Senior Senator Prince Y. Johnson imitated President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by declaring himself as a “formidable” candidate in the 2011 elections, much has been debated throughout the length and breadth of Liberia as to the direction our county – Nimba – would vote. This debate is premised on the fact that The Senator is one of the well-known citizens of Nimba and, given the tribalized nature of Liberian politics, the assumption is that he would win the county by a landslide.

This assumption is faulty in many respects. In the first place, it is stereotypical to think that the people of Nimba are so far removed from the dynamics of national events, so consumed by tribalism that they are ready to lend their blind support to any fellow Nimbaians who throws their hat into a race. Well, to those who believe this way, the facts about Nimbaians is a far cry from that.

Yes, we love one another, irrespective of our internal differences, which, at times, get violent. But there are similar disagreements across the country. Counties with just one or two ethnic groups have witnessed incidents far worse than what currently obtains in Nimba.  The unresolved eastern Margibi massacre in 2007 is a case in point.

While it is true that Nimbaians stand together on a whole host of issues, this common front is should not be interpreted as the county being a political monolith, i.e., a place that will solidly back a single candidate merely on the basis of that candidate being a Nimbaian. Our choice is not based on where the candidate hails from, but what the candidate has done and can do. So the skeptics need to revive their analysis of Nimba as a foregone victory for Senator Johnson.

The second thing that is wrong with the perception of Nimba as a “Johnsonville” is the lack of understanding of the local dynamics of current Nimba politics, especially with the PYJ factor included in electoral equation. Let’s recall the fact that Senator Johnson served as a senior frontline commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia under Mr. Charles Taylor. Let’s also recall that at that nearly the entire rank and file membership of the NPFL was Nimbaian, including over 150 “special forces”, i.e., those trained in Libya and Burkina Faso. It was this group’s association with the NPFL that attracted the huge number of Nimba youths to the Taylor led rebellion.

As the fighting unfolded, these “special forces” grew in stature as their fighting skills and prowess was relayed to their families and communities through their younger comrades-in-arms, or “junior commandos”. In no time the Special Forces became folk heroes who were celebrated in songs and war narratives. But something else also happened that most people outside of Nimba might not know, even after the wars have ceased. That is reports and allegations which persist up to this day that PYJ executed several of these trained rebel commandos, thereby undermining the command and control structure of the NPFL. As far as the NPFL’s military and political strategies were was concerned, General Johnson’s alleged actions clearly sparked the rift with Charles Taylor.

Aside from that, it created a huge gulf of suspicion between PYJ on the one hand and all of the surviving Special Forces on the other. While the Taylor dimension might have played itself out with the revolving door syndrome whereby at any given time since 1992, one or the other has been in force majeure exile whenever the other is in Liberia, PYJ’s rift with the Special Forces has not been healed. If anything, it has only been plastered over with a very thin layer of cordiality. This is why the Special Forces do not make common cause with any political entity that includes PYJ. When he opposed Taylor, they supported Taylor. When he supported George Weah in second round of the presidential election in 2005, they opposed him. When he announced his presidential bid in 2010, they opted for other political parties.

Because of this continuing feud which PYJ as both a senior official of Nimba and a former trainer and commander of the Special Forces has made no effort to bring to an end, the people of Nimba County are worried about potential dangers that a PYJ presidency would pose. Some Nimbaians fear that a President Prince Johnson would want to exact revenge against the Special Forces for what he considers his abandonment in favor of other political leaders. Such attempt would possibly lead to an anti-PYJ rebellion centered around or led by the Special Forces. Does this sound far-fetched? No, because the Nimba people are quick to cite Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor as examples of what happens when a militarized candidate who is not reconciled with his battlefield enemies assumes the presidency.

A third problem with the Nimba-is-Johnsonville stereotype is the presumption that the people of the county are either ungrateful or politically naïve to the effect that they evaluate candidates only on the basis of whether or not the candidates are from Nimba or elsewhere. While it is true that in Liberia and all African countries, the ethnicity of a person impacts on their support from region to region, the people of Nimba are far more sophisticated to know that beyond the identity of a candidate, they look for the net balance between the positive and negative attributes. They want to know what a candidate has done or are capable of doing, whether positively or negatively. This is the debate that is going on now in the cities, towns and villages of NimbaCounty as the people evaluate the two leading contenders for their votes – President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Senator Prince Y. Johnson.

From the mountains Yekepa to the forests of Gbi-Doru, from near Guinea Ganta to Yorpea on the boundary with Grand Gedeh, and from Loguatuo near Ivory Coast to Sokopa, the last Nimba town on the road to Monrovia, the people are discussing and debating the credentials and performance records of President Sirleaf and Senator Johnson. For want of space and time, I will provide a few samples of the principal theme the people are discussing: between the two presidential candidates who loves Nimba more.

Since he is a native of the county, I will state his case first. Supporters of Senator Johnson say the most important reason for which he deserves the Nimba vote is his capture of late President Doe who at some point turned his wrath on the people of Nimba. For this he is regarded as a liberator who deserves to be rewarded. However, they fail to remind themselves of his philosophy that was captured in the title of his book The Guns that Liberate Must not Rule”. Other supporters believe that by virtue of his Nimba origins, he will prioritize the county in his development plans. Here they again fail to recall a similar strategy deployed by late PresidentDoe and how it backfired against his fellow Grand Gedeans, including those who did not get a penny or a single mile of dirt road from him.

Another thing that the Johnsonists do not bring to the attention of Nimbaians is the fact that the Senator’s deeds do not match his declarations of love for his home county. He is undertaking a crucial development project in this country – a church and school complex in the Paynesville community. The Senator clearly is aware of the fact that between Paynesville in Montserrado and Gormanplay in Nimba County, the latter needs these structure more.

More besides, the Senator chose to register as a voter in Montserrado instead of his native Nimba which he represents in the Senate. Is the fact that Senator Johnson will not be voting in the county he represents a critical factor to his qualification as a presidential contender? Certainly not, but in the context of the love-for-Nimba theory which is the major theme of his campaign in the county, it is very significant.

Come Tuesday, October 11, 2011, he will be casting his vote for representative and senatorial candidates from other partiesin Montserrado because his own party does not have a candidate on the ballot for Montserrado. Hon. John Grupee who is running on his party in ticket for Nimba County senator will be deprived the benefit of his standard bearer’s vote. The same goes for Baccus Zeh of Nimba Constituency 7, Jeremiah Koung of Constituency 1.

For Madam Sirleaf, her supporters argue that when her entire political career and some of the decisions she has taken as a President are compared with the Senior Senator, and given that she hails from a county almost 200 miles away, she has shown the greater measure of love and concern. A case in point is that her entire political activism from 1985 to now has been devoted to the cause of Nimba, including an episode in which she came close to death. She was prepared to forgo nine year tenure at the Senate, risk her international career and came face to face with death for the sake of a Nimba politician – Jackson Fiah Doe – who was robbed of the Presidency in 1985.

Other examples include the executive decisions she has taken on behalf of Nimba: her insistence that the Mittal iron ore contract be revisited to include a social development fund; the decision to locate the first public community college in Nimba; and the location of the first major postwar health facility in Tappita, Nimba County. Even during this campaign, she has visited more places and slept in more locations in Nimba than any county.

But the most important point that dominates the pro-Sirleaf argument, which even diehard PYJ supporters readily concede is that Madam Sirleaf has brought peace. There is an overwhelming body of opinion that of all the candidates in the 2011 elections, President Sirleaf is the peace candidate. Several indicators are cited. Her tolerance of criticisms – and sometimes insults disguised as free speech – sets her above all others. In addition, she has made it possible for Nimbaians and Grand Gedeans to freely associate with each other given the background of bloody hostility between the two peoples. The people of Nimba still recall the war years and the misery it brought them. As a resilient people who do not wait for government before they get moving with their lives, they have made great plans for their future. And they unanimously believe that these plans cannot come to fruition in the absence of peace. 

The main question that Nimbaians are debating in the presidential race not who will bring them development for they are noted for self-help initiatives. Neither is it the issue of neglect or marginalization because they recognize the numerous projects the Sirleaf presidency has brought to them. Instead their key concern is who will bring them peace. This question was effectively answered by way of a dramatized illustration during a recent town hall meeting in Kpaytuo, a town between Saclepea and Tappita previously thought of as an overwhelmingly pro-PYJ community.

Suppose that I am in urgent need of a tool, say, a cutlass or a knife for some routine purpose. There are two persons with the needed tool: one of them is my own brother and the other is a total stranger. The cutlass or knife in my brother’s hand has just been taken from the fire and id red hot. The one held by the stranger is at normal temperature. Obviously, the audience preferred the one in the stranger’s hand because it poses the least risk to me or those around me. Yes both are cutlasses, but the red hot cutlass from my brother has the potential to burn my, burn someone else or bend out of shape if I attempt to use it because iron is easily bent when hot. The unheated cutlass from the stranger is the one that I need for use as a cutting tool.

This illustration was repeated several times in different communities away from Kpaytuo and the reaction has been the same: better go for the normal cutlass in the hand of a stranger than the red hot one held by a relative. In order words, Nimba prefers Madam Sirleaf whose first six years has brought them peace on every side than to the Senior Senator whose chairmanship of the Nimba Legislative Caucus has been characterized by quarrels, bickering and lack of consensus on almost every development program.

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