The elections will no doubt be a litmus test to Liberia’s political and democratic stability. Not only does it mark the end of President Johnson Sirleaf’s two successive terms in office, it offers a rare occasion for a sitting Head of State to turn power over to another in an orderly democratic transition.
With the stakes very high, the elections are expected to draw unprecedented international interest, particularly as it holds implications for peace and stability.
While Liberia has seen some progress in turning the corner from over a decade of instability, a lot still remains undone. International assistance directed towards rebuilding public institutions and recalibrating the engines of growth has failed to have any meaningful impact on the lives of the ordinary majority. On the streets of Monrovia and in the inaccessible leeward parts of the country, the narratives seem to suggest president Sirleaf has largely failed to deal with overwhelming domestic expectations.
Nonetheless, President Sirleaf must be credited for resetting the clock and putting Liberia on the road to recovery. Her battle against corruption has seen mixed results with public opinion largely critical of her output in this direction.
The growing income inequality and lack of employment in the real sector has all but fueled public tension and provided sufficient ammunition for her adversaries. All of these have overshadowed the very impressive work she has overseen in reversing the country’s downward slide, addressing debt relief and attracting ‘yet-to-materialize’ foreign direct investment.
Her critics say she missed some key moments and opportunities in the early stages of her regime to make immediate and manifold impact. For the best part of six years in the first term not much investment in infrastructure could be counted, save for a handful of World Bank civil works projects around the country.
Her supporters on the other hand contend that saddled by debt and compelled to live within the IMF and World Bank rules, she had little room to maneuver and could only afford to provide a semblance of basic necessity like electricity and water to a few homes and installations in the capital Monrovia.
They point to a number of loan-driven investments that have been accelerated since the second half of her tenure mainly in the infrastructure sector as evidence she was paralyzed to do anything under a colossal debt burden.
Opponents and critics aside, she won’t be seeking reelection but would definitely have some last words during the contest. As the election looms miles away, the growing public interest and debate are starting to gain steam with all the key contenders and major players publicly conceding that a coalition is the most viable route to the Presidency.
The Capitol Insider focuses its lens on the 2017 elections and provides an analysis of the political intrigue, power struggle and winning configuration being assembled by the various political interest groups.
Ellen’s Unity Party: Marriage Gone Sour?
With mixed reviews on the President’s legacy, Unity Party loyalists are privately resigned to the fact that the President’s own public image has been heavily battered by the failings of a regime that has largely been the potpourri of conflicting political interest groups.
Therefore, the multi-million dollar question remains, whether or not President Sirleaf can successfully campaign a Unity Party candidate to the presidency.
Is the President’s approval rating solid enough to draw votes or is her standing so low that any public support could potentially hurt the ruling party?
No doubt, these are questions that would be conclusively answered by day time October 18, 2017 barring a run-off elections, yet the implication of her role in these elections will be a make or break moment for the Unity Party, particularly depending on the kinds of investment she makes now to change hers and the party’s fortune.
Nonetheless, the divisions are clear for all to see and the wounds from the 2014 senatorial elections are still fresh on minds that any mending of the fences would take some serious political work.
The Unity Party’s scathing attacks on Robert Sirleaf’s failed senatorial bid and crushing political humiliation at the polls has moved the bridge even far apart.
Even before 2014, the writings were clear. The cracks could be seen distance away, soon after the elections of 2011, when Johnson Sirleaf chose to run the new administration on a blueprint that showed semblance of a coalition - a decision that left a bitter taste amongst her party faithful.
By going that route, she enlisted strong but controversial allies who took influential positions during and after the campaign, leaving the party isolated, so too its leaders and notably Chairman Cllr. Varney Sherman, a former staunch political opponent.
The infighting became well pronounced when Chairman Sherman chose his moments, launching an unprecedented scathing attack on the government and the administration when selected to deliver the National Independence Day oration in July of 2013. As the Orator, he used his platform to rile the policies of his own government and attempted to rally growing public disquietude over the affairs of state.
While he arguably came ahead in that contest, analyst feared he had crossed a bridge too far and did much harm to his political ambition. The party itself, under his watch, has drawn closer to the Vice President than the President herself. The division is bound to have dire consequences for the party in the ensuing elections and also for Sherman’s political ambition as seen in the recent gamesmanship over his bid to be Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate. And this takes us closer to Cllr. Sherman and his botched attempts to head the third highest post in the land.
Bruised, Inflicted and Subdued: Is it all over for Sherman?
Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman is arguably, one of Liberia’s finest and most accomplished corporate lawyers who has become a serious political actor in the last 20 years. When he joined the Unity Party in 2011 in pomp and pageantry, it was like his moment had arrived and the dice was cast - the natural heir to the throne had been ushered into the party.
Not many analysts and party faithful had been certain of the Sherman game plan, as the shadow of Vice President Joseph Boakai was always lurking in the wings. In 2011, he had managed to secure a merger of his Liberia Action Party and the Liberia Unification Party with the Unity Party, which was called the New Unity Party, with conspicuously merged logo, effectively killing the LUP and LAP.
The party constitution was to be drawn in a way to ensure that one of the two parties to the merger would field the Vice Presidential candidate, placing him a pole position to run as President Sirleaf’s mate. But this was not to be, as constitutionally the President had the choice to select a running mate, leaving Sherman and his dissolved parties in a quite intractable position.
The elections would eventually see President Sirleaf return to the helm and like any shrewd politician, she would play the waiting game on a succession strategy. She would at times offer a sense of hope to most of her trusted aides, leaving the playing field wide open to variety of permutations and guessing game. Sherman was still in the mix though and then the July 26 shots were fired, effectively placing Sherman’s hard fought but partially won alliance with President Sirleaf on the ropes. Advisors who were always skeptical of the Sherman project were seen vindicated and the door was all but shut close.
With the fallout, Sherman would fight to wrestle control of the Unity Party from the President, helping to finance its operations, with the party structure scrambling to stabilize the tenuous and somewhat unsalvageable relationship.
Sherman and Johnson Sirleaf don’t share much fond memories. His decision in 1997 to join forces with Senator Cletus Wotorson to oust Madam Sirleaf from the Liberian Action Party (LAP) was the beginning of a long running feud.
And ever since that time, Cllr. Sherman has been on a losing streak: failed 1997 Senatorial bid in Grand Cape Mount County; poor presidential showing in the race in 2005; and now what seems a clear defeat in his quest to assume the Senate Pro-Tempore position.
Visibly dejected following the 2011 elections, he pulled from the campaign and began setting into motion his takeover of the UP, placing key loyalists on his personal payroll with notably the Secretary General rejecting a cabinet portfolio.
Winning handsomely in the Grand Cape Mount senatorial election, Sherman had hoped his entry into the Senate would open more access to the corridor of power through the Pro-Tempore office. He had barely begun his push for the top job when his strategy backfired and he was soon isolated.
Insiders close to the process believe the venerable counselor had promised to spend whatever it took to win the elections without first soliciting across the aisle consensus with key incumbent senators who were also vying for the position.
So when news broke that he was prepared to spend his way through the process, an opposition arose amongst the incumbent senators.
With the Pro-Temp race all but narrowed to two candidates (Armah Jallah and Joseph Nagbe), Sherman long-term future is still up in the air but the immediate concern for the Unity Party is how they rally quickly ahead of the 2017 elections.
Joe Boakai on a Tightrope
And this brings the question of the viability of the Joseph Boakai candidacy. Sirleaf’s Vice President in two successive elections, Boakai has been the last straw holding the Unity Party together. To his credit, he has worked to diffuse the rather acrimonious and tenuous relationship between the party and the President. In navigating that maze of complex political interests and intrigues, Boakai knows all too well his own future is on the line.
This is only the internal dimension to a much bigger problem. Analysts fear the party has lost control of the government and the President has been visibly lukewarm about party affairs. Though she issued a last ditch call for partisans to vote the Unity Party in the last special senatorial elections, she was visibility absent from most of the campaign activities except for a late showing in Grand Bassa, where she attended the rally of a non-partisan but ally to the regime, Gbehzongar Findley.
Whatever support the party would require will have to be rallied early, as unlike the previous elections, the odds are stacking up against the ruling elites. The general public displeasure over the slow pace of development and the creation of jobs is compounded by an overall dip in the President’s approval rating.
Unless radically focused interventions are engineered and done quickly, a poor approval rating for the incumbent is surely going to cost Boakai the elections. On top of this, Boakai hasn’t done much to place a marker on his ambition. The recent disappointing performance of the Unity Party in the Lofa County Senetorial Election under his watch and in his own backyard shows he needs to reinforce his voice as a key political actor. On the contrary, it seems the youthful Eugene Fallah Kpaka of Liberty Party is fast becoming a powerful figure in the Lofa basin. Boakai will certainly need to firmly establish his grip on the county if he would have a chance to compete in these elections.
The CDC Conundrum: Popularity without votes
When pundits are discussing the 2017 Presidential elections, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and its political leader George Weah feature prominently on the shopping list. The party sees itself as government-in-waiting but analysts are wary to assign that tag. CDC has no doubt grown in maturity over the years, but the lack of a clear strategy and winning formula has meant it has largely operated as a protest movement.
Take the 2014 Special Senatorial Elections to illustrate this scenario. Aside from Montserrado and Grand Gedeh, traditional strongholds of the CDC, the party has not done well in the remaining counties over two successive elections and series of by-elections.
Historically, CDC has never lost Montserrado except for a few legislative seats won in areas they failed to field candidates and in those that had formidable opponents. Elections in Montserrado had been but a ceremonial procession for the CDC.
The statistics in other counties have not been kind to the CDC. Over 95% of CDC lawmakers in the House of Representatives are from Montserrado, with just two seats secured outside the county.
The case is no different in the Senate, where the CDC has been outnumbered over the last two electoral cycles. On account of the recent Senatorial elections, CDC, the main opposition party, will have a measly 11 lawmaking seats from a possible 103 seats across both Houses, representing roughly 10% of all seats.
Pundits continue to argue that CDC is largely a Grand Gedeh and Montserrado Counties party, propelled by a suburban poverty driven political agenda that appeal mainly to residents of Monrovia’s slums and impoverished communities. They are also widely considered to have no national appeal and the 2014 poll was an opportunity to dispel that notion.
On account of the Montserrado results, which was somewhat predictable, analysts believe the turnout, in a county so entrenched with CDC sentiments, suggests the party might be losing some appeal, especially given the fame status of its senatorial candidate in person of George Weah.
CDC must answer the question of trans-national appeal if the 2017 elections will usher them into power. It is early days but the echoes coming from the CDC camp suggest they are now prepared to forge a coalition. The problem with any coalition discussion is trust. The party has been embroiled in some ugly political dealings where money changed hands. The embarrassing capitulation in the deal to bring Charles Brumskine on the CDC ticket still lingers, so does the failed attempt to lure millionaire businessman-turned-politician Benoni Urey into the party’s money siphoning trap.
So the question is, is the CDC popular enough to win the Executive Mansion? The 2014 election results show clearly that the field is wide open. It appears time and missteps have hurt the CDC brand and the party doesn’t really seem the alternative governing arrangement that the country is seeking in the post-2017 administration.
Grand Coalition: Could the Charles Brumskine, ANC and PUP merger tilt the balance?
Far from the political powerhouse he once was, Charles Brumskine still exudes that air of Presidential charm. However you spin it, Brumskine personifies the Liberty Party. With a weak party support base heavily reliant on the Bassa people and a handful of Christian evangelical backers, Brumskine has had a hard time making a compelling case for the Presidency.
Widely expected to defeated Charles Taylor in the botched 2002 elections, his fame has dwindled since. In the two successive elections following that period, Brusmkine has continuously fallen behind on the electoral table, scoring a close third in 2005 and a distant fourth in 2011. But with the political playing field wide open, analysts believe Brumskine could hold all the aces when the dust has settled in 2017.
And there appears to be some revival with impressive electoral victories in Grand Bassa and Lofa counties respectively. Brumskine, who had resigned from politics in the last election, has finally left the door open for a sensational return.
Most political actors and even international observers believe the most viable route to the election of 2017 would be a grand coalition. There are all sorts of configuration being discussed but the latest of these configurations is Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party leading a coalition of the Alternative National Congress and People United for Progress.
The two new parties are in effect off-springs of the two leading political parties - the Congress for Democratic Change and the ruling Unity Party respectively. Both were formed by former stalwarts of the two parties and have gradually begun gaining relevance and political foothold. Winning two seats in the just-ended Senatorial elections, the ANC and PUP seem to be making more inroads outside the Montserrado beltway, building structures in other counties.
It is too soon to place a premium on their investment and ground game, but the PUP looks quite formidable and could cause some serious upset in Bong and Margibi counties. With recent Liberty Party victories in Lofa and Grand Bassa counties, a coalition would no doubt spell danger for the more established political parties.
The ANC is yet to gain a foothold, but the neutrals wary of George Weah and his CDC and others resigned to a Unity Party third term, could easily see an appeal with the ANC in a grand coalition. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the ANC has worked extensively overseas and its growing support base could be a major factor in the battle for electoral financing.
But even with those prospects, navigating a grand coalition is no small feat as the CDC/Liberty Party scandal proved in 2011. Charles Brumskine must therefore negotiate his way past entrenched ANC stakeholders with the likes of Kwame Clement and Co., themselves harboring Presidential ambition.
Speaker’s Bid: Dead On Arrival?
When the 73 million dollar chorus reverberated across Capitol Hill with Speaker Alex Tyler and his band of loyal followers pressing hard their case for each electoral district to be allotted 1 million dollar from the national budget, even the most ardent defenders of decentralization and community empowerment were skeptical.
The skeptics were right on the number. This Legislature holds one of the worse records of self-enrichment and graft. From a general increase in annual wages on a consistent and astronomical basis to downright siphoning of public money through shoddy deals like the 1.2 million dollars oil money, the Legislature has proven unworthy of public trust, hence the furious public reaction to a proposal for the district development fund.
But this was only a smokescreen to a grand political ploy - the idea of producing a leadership for the country from within the ranks of the Legislature. The Speaker was mooted as the face of the project and prospective standard bearer. To the extent they began sending feelers to the media. And most recently Nimba County Representative, R. Matenokay Tingban, confirmed the rumors that House Speaker Alex J. Tyler was eyeing the Presidency.
Prior to Tingban’s disclosure, Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe began flirting with the Speaker’s Presidential bid. The smooth-talking Snowe told a local radio station that the Speaker was fit for leadership, and that he had the “intellectual and nationalistic influence to help put Liberia on par with other nations after the regime of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf”.
These compliments came flying before both men fell apart - a divorce that saw Snowe lose the lucrative Rules and Order Committee in the House. It is unclear if he still harbors those views in light of his recent spat between the Speaker.
The Speaker was one of the founding members of the PUP, though he has since parted ways following some internal disputes over resources and leadership issues. The Speaker is said to be working on his political establishment in the frame of the People Democratic Party of Liberia, PDPL.
Whatever the case, it seems the damage done in the wake of the LACC kickback dragnet and the 1.2 million dollar oil consultation scandal is certainly going to be an unwanted distraction and a big dent in his quest to seek the highest office come 2017.
Unlikely Kingmaker: Prince Johnson and his Nimba Pet Project
Prince Johnson always finds a way of winning and big too. He is so popular, that one tends to forget that this is the same Prince Johnson on the gory video clip during the heydays of the Liberian civil conflict, who sat in his judgment chair to deliver a verdict of slow torture and painful death to slain Liberian President Samuel Doe. Fled to Nigeria where he authored a book and came back claiming he was now a born-again Christian, Prince Johnson has risen to star status in Liberian politics.
He would shamelessly appeal for all Liberians, including the world, to forget his sins and of course pretend that those crimes were not committed, not least on camera. This is the same Prince Johnson that has been back since 14 years now, winning massive electoral victories in his County.
It is a clear paradox but these paradoxes are not uncommon on these shores. After all, his former party, the National Union for Democratic Progress, won sufficient votes to come third in the last Presidential elections, toppling the Liberty Party. He has simply found a way of charming his constituency.
As it seems, he will surely be contesting in 2017, a strategy designed to maintain momentum and keep his political relevance. While the strategy of trading support after first round elections to the highest bidder doesn’t always go as planned, evidenced by his 2005 support for the CDC, it is a significant asset for him to have in his locker.
He is definitely a factor, with the problem being his inconsistency. But there are now whispers that he could consider joining forces with a coalition early to raise their chances of snatching a first round electoral victory. As remote as this seems, there is no doubt that Prince Johnson’s grip of Nimba County is a critical factor to the outcome of the 2017 elections and suitors won’t be in short supply.
Benoni Urey - The Dark Horse?
A former Maritime Commissioner and arguably one of Liberia’s richest men, Benoni Urey has an agrarian background. Though of Americo-Liberian descent, Urey often rejects the tag and sees himself more of an indigenous. “How can one say I’m a Congo man? I have uncles and aunts that have never spoken one word of English. My wife is Kru. My father had three wives and two of them were Kpelle, and they were equally my mothers. I speak Kpelle fluently.”
Very self-assuring, Urey says he is the big elephant in the ring. Unfortunately, not many of his opponents think so. While the millionaire businessman-turned-politician cannot be underestimated, his ties with ex-President Charles Taylor has been a stigma that just doesn’t go away. Of his ties with Taylor, he told Capitol Insider: “With a bullet to my head and a knife to my throat, I will never denounce Taylor. It’s unfortunate he is where he is today because a lot of people should be with him if we are going to hold him.”
A founding member of the National Patriotic Party of Liberia, Urey is still regarded highly amongst party loyalists. He has since parted company with the NPP, and with one eye on the Liberty Party he has started building coalition with key party officials. It is said he helped bankroll the campaign of the Liberty Party Montserrado Senatorial aspirant Benjamin Sanvee in the last election.
Urey chances are widely viewed as scant, but the momentum he is gathering cannot be ignored, especially his community organizing work through his U-Foundation project.
For all his wealth, Urey has very little domestic connection and would need to assess his chances very shrewdly to avoid the embarrassing humiliation Cllr. Varney Sherman faced in the 2005 Presidential elections.
Here Comes the Pretenders:
Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan
It is safe to say, Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan’s political ambition is all but history now. An astute, intelligent and charismatic youth leader, Ngafuan rose through the ranks of student politics and became the youthful face of the Sirleaf administration when he was drafted in 2008 to replace Dr. Antoinette Sayeh as Minister of Finance, having previously served as Director of the Budget.
He was named Foreign Minister when President Sirleaf was reelected in 2011 and has since served in that role. While he hasn’t made any public declaration of his intent, Ngafuan had been viewed as one of few youthful stalwarts of the pro-Ellen movement with a chance of making the cut. As Foreign Minister, he has found a way of pitching his ambition through the corridors of international diplomacy, meeting Presidents and diplomats across the world.
There are two major reasons for Ngafuan’s presidential setback. While his candidacy offers hope to the country’s marginalized youthful population, he is seen as too distant from the very constituency he represents. There are many who maintain that Ngafuan is out of touch, selfish and inward-looking.
And the other major hurdle is, which party can he align with as he is not officially a member of the ruling Unity Party, though he has worked within the party structure to ensure the election of President Sirleaf twice. He must negotiate these issues before any public declaration, but it is certain to say, his bid is all but over.
Mills Jones - Willing Spender
Mills Jones was firing on all cylinders in the last few years, giving loans in excess of tens of millions of Liberian dollars, under a scheme his opponents alleged was being used to drive his popularity in a bid for the Presidency. Central Bank Governor Jones comes across as a very nice man - the economist “willing and ready to take thousands of cash-seeking business people” from the tranches of poverty.
Through Central Bank loans, Jones has been dishing huge sums of Liberian dollars to scores of businesses and different interest groups in mainly impoverished communities. His low interest loans and the scale at which he has rolled out the program have rung alarm bells all across Capitol Hill.
Though the scheme has been noticeably dormant in recent months, particularly following the passage of the Code of Conduct bill, Jones is still said to be harboring an ambition. It remains to be seen which party he would align with as surely the passage of that single piece of legislation has left the Governor grasping for straw.
Kwame Clement - An Eye to the Future?
One of the key architects of the ANC, Kwame Clement is one of the many names that have surfaced on the political dashboard. He gained fame status in the 1980s as a newscaster with the Liberia Broadcasting System and moved to the United States later, where he has pursued an impressive law career.
Seen more as a candidate with an eye to the future, the core of the ANC overseas support has been rallied by Clement. If nothing else, the ANC has effectively neutralized the CDC overseas support base. The entry of the ANC has provided an appealing alternative to young progressive Liberians in the Diaspora with strong interest on the ground.
While Clement might not be politically popular, his integrity, public persona and strong character are assets likely to win more support to the ANC project.
Simeon Freeman - Media Savvy Showman
Simeon Freeman is the man with the mystery calculus and winning formula for the 2017 elections. He seems to have a permutation that will lead him to the Executive Mansion. Freeman’s Movement for Political Change, MPC, is distant from a serious contender for the elections. Nonetheless, the businessman is by far the most vocal critic of the government. He sets his criticisms on key events and moments and uses the media to an impressive effect.
A sweet talker and a political grandstander, Freeman relies on the media for much if not all of his political relevance, with his MPC winning 0.5% or 5,500 of the votes in the 2011 Presidential election. A tough speaking camera savvy politician, he regularly keeps the government engaged with his critical analysis of its performance.
Even with all the showmanship, Freeman has no serious domestic appeal and his MPC is likely to be subsumed in one of few coalitions that are being mooted.