Apart from the September 2014 incident which led to the closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper, wherein the paper reported that Vice President Joseph Boakai was being “questioned” by the Justice Ministry through the Liberia National Police over his alleged implication in attempts to install an interim government replacing his boss President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, perhaps no other national political news has impacted political observers as much as the announcement that Vice President Joseph Boakai would be running as President in the 2017 Liberia Presidential and General Elections.
Is President Sirleaf An Excess Baggage?
The timing of Veep Boakai’s announcement that he would run for Liberia’s highest office could not have come at a most propitious moment. Rumour mills around Capitol Hill say that President Sirleaf might consider supporting someone, perhaps even outside of the Unity Party (UP) structure, to succeed her, come 2017. The recent schism that erupted between a large following of the UP, led by its tough-talking Secretary General Wilmot Paye, before and after the 2014 special senatorial elections, seems to further lend credence to the rumours, leaving doubts that the President will support a UP third term.
But following the acceptance of several petitions from his homeland Lofa County and other prominent Liberians recently, Veep Boakai has opened himself to the rather slippery task of explaining whether or not he had sought his boss’s blessing and what her reaction was, if he did. President Sirleaf herself has not openly declared whether or not she is behind a Joseph Boakai candidacy under the UP flagship.
However, it is the open show of public support for Veep Boakai by party faithfuls, including its influential Chairman and Senator, Cllr. Varney Sherman, which seems to up the ante in the presidency. It is like an open challenge has been thrown at the “Iron Lady” to toe party line. Pundits are of the opinion, however, that forcing President Sirleaf’s hand to openly support her Vice President doesn’t necessarily translate into actual material support and the UP power brokers might be getting it strategically wrong. There is a political school of thought that believes that both President Sirleaf’s support and the Veep’s alignment are risky.
Pundits who share this line of thinking believe, the opposition will highlight the failings of the President and general public discontent in putting in perspective Veep Boakai’s policy thinking and track record. They will insist that the Vice President cannot detach himself from the failings of the regime and yet benefit from its successes. In other words, aligning with the President could come at a colossal cost. Nonetheless, some analysts still believe it is rather premature and politically naïve to build any electoral strategy on that basis, as much could happen in some electoral hot zones before 2017. They point to initiation of road works from Gbarnga to Zorzor and works from Ganta to Zwedru, as indication that much could change in terms of progress. They also insist that the restoration of the hydro and other power projects before 2017 could be counted as genuine progress no matter how late those arrive. What seems to be an excess baggage could potentially translate to a prime asset.
Political Permutations vs. Public Perceptions
Pundits believe it is by no mere coincidence that the opposition elected to form a sort of grand coalition just about the same time Veep Boakai declared his intention to contest the Liberian presidency. The May 5, 2015 meeting in Gbarnga, Bong County, where major opposition players converged to forge a collaborative agenda to upend the Unity Party after its 12-year political hegemony, seems the perfect vehicle to convey the opposition to the Executive Mansion in 2017.
But is the opposition willing to put forward a prime candidate amidst a horde of self-seeking highly ambitious presidential hopefuls who individually believe they wield the magic wand to resolve Liberia’s perennial socio-economic conundrums? Already, there are whispers on Capitol Hill about serious falling out within the ranks of the socalled Grand Coalition on the issue of selecting a choice candidate that can keep the international community radar focused on Liberia, while at the same time making a success of the country’s enormous domestic agenda.
Cycles of political Commentators and pundits are abuzz with the view that Veep Boakai can capitalize on the opposition’s weakness in forming a common front in this direction. Boakai’s choice of running mate in the months preceding 2017 could greatly impact his chances of winning the presidency. Youth, mass appeal and strong commitment to closing the widening socioeconomic gap between the haves and have-nots should be a deciding factor in Veep Boakai’s vice presidential choice. As the clock ticks closer to Election Day, it shouldn’t be surprising to see serious contenders within the opposition forging an alliance with Veep Boakai but this would require real assurances that the Veep is his own man. By overtly courting the President’s support and perhaps resources, the Vice President cannot at the same time claim an independent identity. It would also mean Boakai finally stepping out of the shadow of the presidency, discarding his vice presidential façade, and becoming his own man during the relatively short period before 2017. No doubt, the public sees in Joe Boakai the exact replica of the failings of the Sirleaf administration. How he overcomes this dilemma is key to his chances come 2017, especially considering huge political permutations that will be stacked against him. However the permutation is structured (Weah-Brumskine / Brumskine-Weah; Weah-Urey, Urey-Weah; Prince Johnson-Weah or vice versa), analysts believe no one political block can edge the other in the first round of balloting. The problem with both the opposition and the incumbent will arise when they will have to go for the next round of voting which would require greater resources and strategy.
Analysts believe Joe Boakai’s first round electoral success could potentially land him closer to a second round victory if pitted against a ticket led by George Weah. The argument made time and again is the relative inexperience of Weah on the political stage and his party’s inability to manage large political configurations. On the other hand, a second round of vote with any of the most serious contenders, Prince Johnson aside, could spell trouble for Veep Boakai. The permutation aside, Veep Boakai seems to be building a quiet coalition behind his political strategy dubbed “continuity for progress”. “We’ve followed Ambassador Joseph Boakai over the many years he served in the public and private sectors of this country.
The Vice President remains one of the very few untainted Liberians when it comes to issues of corruption. He could also be the best person to spearhead our country’s national reconciliation drive, because he has a heart for all Liberians, whether indigenous or settler class. As a hardcore traditionalist and a product of sound Western education, Joe presents the best option for us to remain focused as a country to continue on the path of national recovery,” says Dr. Moses Jarbo, Standard Bearer of the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), and former Executive Director of the defunct NCDDRR. But not many buy his analysis. “Liberians will never vote for Vice President Joseph Boakai in 2017.
We are not stupid. He has no excuse. He is part of the failed regime. Though he doesn’t have voting right in the senate; but as president of the Senate, Boakai is aware of all the bad concessions that were passed into law. We cannot allow the Unity Party government to continue its misrule. We will beat Boakai flat in the first round in 2017,” says a University of Liberia associate professor of Economics, and opposition Congress for Democratic Change stalwart, who asked for anonymity when interviewed. Whatever political permutations play out during the few months preceding the 2017 presidential and general elections, one thing is certain: Joe Boakai remains a serious contender for the presidency having declared his intention.
What Boakai does in the next few months; how the presidency weaves through this damp political minefield to send a signal to the international community and its own citizenry, that despite its failings on the domestic front, Joe Boakai is the best option right now to continue the path of democratization, will matter so much for Veep Joseph Boakai and whomsoever he’ll be selecting as his running mate.