Unlike many parts of the world, where only known political quantities stand the chance of winning elected office, in Liberia people aspire to public office, especially the presidency, regardless of whether they are invisible people even in their own little communities.
Such people even go to the extent of thinking that some accident might happen that would propel them to the presidency. As a result of this, some of them employ the help of marabous from Mali and other places in the sub-region to help make their wishes come through using magic. Others rely on Nigerian preacher men from the Christian faith to perform the magic. Yet still some of them rely on both Christian preachers and Islamic marabous.
But the reality of the situation is that neither the marabous, nor the preachers have any magical part to play in any electoral process. Elections almost always boil down to name recognition, though in more developed systems, policies take a center stage, while in others outright cheat is the order of the day.
In the early to mid 1980s, the first attempt at introducing a real multiparty democratic system to Liberia was embarked upon by the military regime. After suspending the constitution in April 1980 and banning all political activities, the military step up a committee to draft a new constitution and presided over a 5-year transition process.
Unknown Quantities and the Quest for the Liberian Presidency
When the ban on politics was finally lifted in 1983/84, several individuals sprang up and put themselves forward to contest those pending elections. Names like Jackson Doe, Edward Kesseley, Gabriel Kpolleh, Baccus Matthews, etc were thrown around.
Though all these people were putting themselves forward for the presidency, it was clear to anyone watching, at the time that Baccus Matthews, Amos Sawyer and their other progressive colleagues were the most recognized and known characters in the country. Their socialist leanings were already very well-known and they had led the agitation against to one party state.
If the military had not banned the UPP and LPP, while they were still being registered, one of those parties would have definitely produced the president in the 1985 elections. Because they were banned, the supporters of those parties did the next best thing in voting for the Liberia Action Party (LAP), not because they preferred LAP but because they wanted to put an end to military rule.
The military succeeded in stealing those elections because the people who voted for the perceived winners did not believe in LAP and were not prepared to put their lives on the line for that party. They were only trying to rid the country of the military government. That is why LAP could not use street demonstrations to kick the military out of power.
From 1985, it took another 11 years for Liberians to be allowed to vote again. In the lead up to the July 19, 1997, elections which were meant to end the country’s civil war, 13 people registered to contest the presidency. While some of the big names from the 1985 elections finally figured, they performed dismally because their times had past and the population was looking in a single direction – towards eventual winner Charles Taylor.
Taylor’s electoral victory margin, unparalleled in Liberian history, might never again be matched. This victory was not due to him employing preachers or marabous, though I would not argue that he did not use spiritists from both religious groups.
Like the 1985 vote, the ballot was filled with the names of candidates who were unknown even in their own little communities. Like before, some of them were of the mistaken belief that magic was on their side.
Fast forward to 2005 and the same scenario played itself out with 22 candidates. As before the ballot got longer with meaningless names. The uncertainty of the political variables in 2005 perhaps contributed to this.
There was no clear frontrunner going in the 2005 elections. Cllr. Charles Brumskine had been the only meaningful contender against President Charles Taylor if elections had been held as scheduled in October 2003. Cllr. Brumskine lost his frontrunner status when he decided to hibernate for a year of the 2003 – 2005 transitional government.
As the elections got closer, everyone knew that only one of three people stood a viable chance of winning: Charles Brumskine, Oppong Weah and Ellen Sirleaf, but yet there were 19 others that still entered the race.
The scenario is not much different for the 2011 elections, though the length of the ballot, which had consistently grown since 1985 finally experienced a drop as only 14 people, put themselves forward. As before, very few of these stood any realistic chance of winning, though this time round there was a frontrunner in the incumbent followed closely by Oppong Weah.
The 2017 Possibilities
In recent months, there have been a lot of speculations about succession to the Liberian presidency. Like before, names have been thrown around. In two speculative pieces written by Frontpage Africa editor, Rodney Sieh, he names Vice President Joseph Boakai, Augustine Ngafuan, Brownie Samukai, Mills Jones, Varney Sherman, Amara Konneh, Koffi Woods, etc as people who might play their hands in 2017.
With the exception of VP Boakai, Cllr. Sherman and Atty. Woods, the rest of the individuals listed range from the totally unknown to the relatively unknown. Again, of all of them, it is only VP Boakai, Cllr. Sherman and Atty. Woods who are known when it comes to serious policy issues like rule of law, economics, etc. These are known of Sherman because he contested for the presidency before, while Woods’ advocacy for good governance and rule of law is very well known in the country. On the part of VP Boakai, he has won two elections as vice president over the last 7 years.
Further, it is only VP Boakai and Cllr. Sherman that have any meaningful political constituencies. The vice president’s constituency cuts across Lofa County which has a significant voting population, while Sherman’s is in Grand Cape Mount and perhaps Bomi countries and not as vote rich.
Liberia has seriously moved on from the era where someone will put his or her hand up for the presidency simply because he’s a government official, “rich” or loves the country. While these are all good attributes, they are generally meaningless as they fail to tell the population how the person intends to alleviate their sufferings.
Being a government official, “rich” or having a Liberian flag and map in one’s blood stream will in no way make the country’s health care delivery system better. Those attributes won’t provide better standards in the education sector. They certainly will not bring someone justice when their rights are trampled upon. And they would most definitely not put money in the pockets of the hundreds of thousands of Liberians that live in squalor.
In order for someone to become president, that person must start telling the Liberian people where they stand on crucial issues that affect the lives of the population. They must have views on not just the improvement of basic social services, but where they stand on using those services: whether they would send their children to private schools or go abroad for medical treatment/checkup.
They must show the population their plans for making Liberians to have a future that does not basically concern them fending for their next meal. Those are the major issues facing Liberia going forward and this author intends to microscope all serious presidential possibilities over the next several years. Each person will be assessed mainly on policy issues and their prescription for improving the Liberian state and people.
Lamii Kpargoi is a Liberian lawyer and political watcher. Mr. Kpargoi is the author of numerous political commentaries. He is a 2011 US State Department sponsored Community Solutions Program (CSP) fellow. He lives and works in Monrovia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.