But here is not just Veep Boakai; but also presidential aspirant Boakai who way back in 2015 threw his hat into the political race with the intention of vying for the presidency on the platform of the ruling Unity Party come 2017. The move has of course left many pundits pondering while throwing up a number of posers: How well will Vice President Joseph Boakai navigate the murky political waters running on a UP ticket amidst mounting criticisms and public perception about the ruling party’s lackluster performance after a decade in leadership? Isn’t there a likelihood of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf openly endorsing Boakai but covertly supporting a much more formidable candidate who could better cash in on the votes just to perpetuate the UP’s third term bid, in case Boakai faltered at the polls?
The pundits’ latter concern could be premised on the fact that even though the UP leadership through its Chairman Cllr. Varney Sherman had openly declared confidence in Veep Boakai’s ability to lead the country as Liberia’s next president after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it would take a while for Madam President herself to openly throw her weight behind her second-in-command. To make matters sticky, the issue of Boakai running unopposed on the UP ticket during its upcoming primaries now seems a pipe dream with the introduction of Dr. Togar Garweah McIntosh, a presidential contender who recently declared his intention to also run on the Unity Party ticket.
Against this potpourri of political intrigue concerning Veep Boakai’s candidature, the Capitol Insider delves into some critical issues that could affect the Unity Party’s bid for a third term if hinged on the wings of a Joe Boakai ticket. What really are the Vice President’s chances in 2017? What does he bring to the table? Who are the brains behind the surge to make Joseph Boakai Liberia’s next democratically elected president? Can he make the grade to land on the nation’s most exalted seat come 2017?
If presidential elections could be won solely on merit, character and achievements and not by dint of a candidate’s popularity in the political arena as is usually the case in Liberia, Joseph Nyumah Boakai should have the smoothest ride to the Executive Mansion in 2017. But the hard fact is that Joseph Boakai, a man who raised himself in life by his own bootstraps, has never shined much in the political limelight throughout his more than 20 years of public service. In fact, when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced Joe as her running mate in 2005, some key party insiders, it is said, were overly cautious about the president’s choice. However, Sirleaf won in 2005 with Joe Boakai by her side. And again she won in 2011 with Boakai. But even before the 2011 elections, whispers were already cascading down Capitol Hill that Sirleaf might dump Boakai for a much more formidable, youthful candidate. Names of diehard youthful Sirleaf loyalists such as Augustine Ngafuahn, Samuel Kofi Woods and Amara Konneh were high on the list. How Joseph Boakai has managed over the years to navigate the rough waters of party politics and metamorphose into a prime candidate for the top job in 2017 remains one of the many mysteries that surrounds the man from Lofa County.
To his credit though, the ability to beat the odds has always been the trademark and strength of the Unity Party presidential hopeful. Evidently, this ability could come in handy for his 2017 bid.
Growing up poor in Tubmanburg, Bomi County, Joe Boakai was the only member of his immediate family to obtain formal education. As a teenager living in Tubmanburg or “Bomi Holes” as the former mining city became known after the departure of the Liberia Mining Company, Joe would leave his guardian’s home to fend for himself, ending up washing laundry for the mining company workers to earn his keep.
“Every day, I would leave my books in the classroom and go to the three bachelors’ quarter and clean their place; take their clothes to the laundry and then come back to school. After school, while my friends were playing, I would go back there and go for the clothes, take their glasses that they would use for the night and wash them. The best part about the glasses is that’s where I got my daily bread from. In the process of washing the glasses, they would cut some bread and put butter in there, wrap it up and hide it in the bucket for me to take home. I did that until I completed the 8th grade as dux of my class,” recalls Joe.
Seeking greener pastures, young Joe left Tubmanburg in 1964 for Monrovia with the determination to enroll at the prestigious College of West Africa, the only elite school at the time. Defying odds, he took the entrance exams and passed.
“When I took the exams and passed, I learned that instead of the two dollars I brought, the school fees was a dollar,” Joe narrates.
When the exams results came out, only Joe Boakai and another candidate had passed. “I had to wait during the vacation period that year to start school; but then I started wondering where I would get money from to buy uniform. So, I took up a job at Rivoli Cinema where I was a waiter. I used to go to work 3pm and leave at 1am,” he tells Capitol Insider.
When school started Joe had to leave the Rivoli job because it interfered with his study. He applied for a janitor’s job at CWA. “I was granted the janitor job. So, after school when the students left, I would go and sweep. I did that until I was elevated from the janitor job to work in the library issuing books to students. Later on, I went to the business office to work with the business department while I was still a student,” he says.
Joe gained scholarship at CWA based on his academic performance, which allowed him to live on the dormitory. Until his graduation he held several positions including President of the Student Council.
“It was a tough competition with John T. Richardson who had said that because I came from Lofa and unseated him, he will never run for public office. Up to this day, he reminds me of that, because he couldn’t see someone coming from all the way Lofa and coming to beat him at CWA,” says Joe amidst short bursts of laughter.
And even after his graduation from CWA, Joe remained loyal to his alma mater, which he served as Dean of Students. Upon the completion of his academic sojourns, Joe would rise to head the newly created Liberia Produce and Marketing Corporation (LPMC) and later become Minister of Agriculture under President Samuel Kanyon Doe, the youngest minister at the time. In fact, it was at the Ministry of Agriculture that Joe made a fateful contact with his current boss, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose late husband Dr. Sirleaf, served as one of the deputy ministers under then Agriculture Minister Joseph Boakai.
Public Perception versus the Joe Boakai Surge
While there is this general perception in town that a Joseph Boakai ticket is the riskiest bet for the Unity Party’s third term bid based on perceived government poor domestic performance, there are many diehard followers of Veep Boakai who think otherwise.
“If this nation Liberia is to make further progress beyond 2017, we cannot afford to pursue the policy of guilt by association, even assuming that the present government has failed as has been alleged by some Liberians. The truth of the matter is that Ambassador Joseph Nyuma Boakai is a man of great distinction. He is best suited for presidency in 2017 because he’s a man of integrity, experience, intelligence, profound wisdom, and above all, a man of tolerance and respecter of fellow human beings. These qualities are required of a leader to place our nation on the path of sustained peace, security and economic development in the years ahead,” says Nyan Mantein, National Chairman of the National Movement to Support Boakai (NAMBO).
As a critical voice of Nimba County, Liberia’s second most populated County, Mantein and other prominent Nimbaians such as Nimba County Representative Matonakay Tingban seriously believe in Joe Boakai’s ability to deliver the goods.
Mantein tells Capitol Insider that it was based on such explicit confidence in Boakai’s leadership ability that Liberians from across the 15 political subdivisions of the country decided in 2015 to form NAMBO, which is actually an offshoot of the Friends of Joseph Nyumah Boakai (FOJNB) that was established 2005 to support the vice candidature of Boakai and the candidature of Sirleaf.
“As the picture got bigger and the dream got wider, so too our approach to things changed and shaped. Consequently, the task of lifting our leader to the presidency could no longer be the burden of a few friends and kinsmen, something the leadership of the FOJNB graciously recognized and concurred that there must be a transition to a bigger vision that reflects diversity and incorporates all Liberians and not few, insofar it is about the president, the highest office in the land,” says Mantein.
Robert Kpadeh currently serves as Secretary General of NAMBO. The former Deputy Information Minister who was also instrumental in the reelection of President Sirleaf, Kpadeh strongly believes that Joe Boakai is the candidate best suited with the character and integrity to take over the presidency after President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. “He has the experience to manage the transition; as UNMIL departs from here, he has the qualities to keep our country peaceful and stable and to maintain the tranquility of the country,” says Kpadeh.
Another Liberian who truly believes in Veep Boakai’s ability to take charge of the country in 2017 is Madea Martin-Wiles. As National Chairperson of the NAMBO Women Committee, Madea strongly believes that of all the candidates that have been petitioned to run for the 2017 Liberian presidential election, Joseph Boakai has the experience, passion, love and interest to lead Liberia.
“Coming from a humble background, Joseph Boakai has experienced the good, bad and ugly of the Liberian society. He has served at all levels in government, put Liberia on the world map for cocoa and coffee and is a political saint. Hon. Boakai served as Minister for the Ministry of Agriculture and Managing Director of the Liberian Produce Marketing Cooperation. During his administration, Liberia was recognized among the highest producing countries of cocoa and coffee. Keeping this in mind and knowing the passion the VP has for agriculture, I am confident that he will upgrade the agriculture sector and lead Liberia,” Madea says.
As for Francis Nyumalin, Chairman, NAMBO County Chapters Coordination Committee, although Vice President Boakai shares the gains, failures and challenges of the UP-led government, people relate more to Boakai because he is people-centered, well-experienced, development oriented, nationally and internationally credible, best prepared, and ready to take the mantle of the nation of Liberia. “Joe Boakai is a radiant hope for our people and a model citizen,” he believes.
Hardcore Electoral Realities
But even if a segment of Liberians sees the same quality of leadership that the Boakai’s fanatics see in their man, there is still a number of burning issues to contend with, such as finding the right running mate who will stand by Boakai and serve as serious shock absorber in times of crisis and criticisms, especially during the heat of campaigns. Secondly, readings from the last two past elections show that no one party can win outright in a first round. Coalition or collaboration with other formidable political parties or candidates therefore becomes the most sensible path to survival. Here again, how a Joe Boakai candidature would navigate the issue of a running mate while forging a formidable coalition with a winsome bloc remains an issue of debate.
In this regard, one group of bookmakers has already started hedging bets in favor of a Joe Boakai-George Weah ticket. The sticky issue with such arrangement is that George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change are not prepared to see their man playing second fiddle to another candidate as was done in 2011 with the ill-fated Winston Tubman collaboration. But even if such deal could be brokered in the case of Boakai, the downside is that the CDC has always only proven most formidable in Montserrado County, its strongest bastion. Nimba County, the second largest populous county, surely matters; and a Prince Johnson partnership cannot be ruled out.
“Prince Johnson as running mate to Joe Boakai would be an unlikely pairing based on his wartime history, but if Prince Johnson throws his weight behind the Vice President as he did to Ellen in 2011, Boakai could win clear-cut in a second round,” says a University of Liberia political science instructor who asked for anonymity.
There is another school of thought which seriously believes that the VP might fare better in his presidential bid with a female running mate, especially someone who holds sway with women voters. Bong County Senator Jewel Howard Taylor has been singled out for the vice presidential candidature if Boakai decides on a female as his running mate.
“Jewel remains a serious force in Liberian politics, especially among the women voters. Also, one cannot rule out the NPP factor. You saw what happened in Lofa during the senatorial by-elections when Julie Wiah won in Boakai’s own county where he openly campaigned for another candidate,” our UL analyst averred.
Campaign War Chest
Presidential elections the world over are expensive expeditions. The pending 2017 election will be no exception. Boakai’s chances of getting to the Executive Mansion will obviously depend on how well stocked is his campaign war chest. As Vice President, and with the explicit and implicit support of his boss, Boakai’s campaign could become the most financial well-oiled, equipped with the best fund-raising machinery to tap into the private sector and other unaccounted sources.
However, pundits believe the recent decision by the presidency to sidestep the appointment of VP Boakai’s alleged choice of Finance Minister could hamper his ability to tap into state resources and build his campaign war chest although he never said that was the intention. Sirleaf’s statement that VP Boakai must strive on his own just as she did during her two forays to clinch the presidency doesn’t help matter either.
In any case, whatever decisions that Joseph Boakai, his campaign team and Unity Party take in the coming months to ensure his formidability for the presidency come 2017, one thing remains clear: Boakai once again must draw from his uncanny ability to overcome adversities and become his own man. How he does that while running on the ruling party’s rocky ticket will be the ultimate test of his leadership ability.