By Lindsay Barrett

(Left) The road to Ganta: Chinese built highway is one of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s great legacies of renewal.

As soon as the West African Heads of State and Government concluded their historic Summit in Monrovia earlier this month Liberians were hardly given time to savour the reverberations of what turned out to be one of the most controversial regional meetingsin recent years. By the end of the week in which the Summit took place at the new five-star Farmington River Hotel, situated at the famous Robertsfield International Airport, activities surrounding the commencement of the race to inherit the mantle of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Africa’s oldest republic had diverted domestic attention from issues arising from the international event. While the rest of West Africa queried whether the unprecedented attendance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the regional meeting was responsible for the equally unprecedented absence of Nigeria’s sitting Head of State (in this case Acting President Yemi Osinbajo) at the Summit, Liberians were much more interested in the flag-off of party conventions to select aspirants for the exalted office.

This process gained enhanced symbolicrelevance when two parties chose the weekend following the ECOWAS Summit to mounttheir conventions in Ganta, a market town inNimba County in NorthernLiberia. The political parties involved could hardly have been more dis-similar.These were the perceptibly populistLiberty Party chaired at the time by a youthful technocrat named Benjamin Sanvee, who was to step down a few weeks later, and the Liberian Peoples Party (LPP), an offshoot of the progressive movement founded by radical intellectuals during the years of resistance against the conservative tyranny of the True Whig Party. The LPPwent to Ganta chaired by Joseph Jallah, a lawyer and serving official of the Central Bank and while it held a low key convention the outcome of its deliberations raised the stakes for choice in the race noticeably when the serving National Security Adviser in the Government Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh emerged as the party’s flag-bearer. In his acceptance speech Dr.Fahnbulleh unearthed the rhetoric of radical disenchantment with corrupt leadership and pledged to stand firm against the enshrinement of privilege over commitment in governance.

left: Liberty Party flag bearer Charles Brumskine (in white shirt) and his Vice tour Ganta after the convention. Photo right: National Security Adviser Boima Fahnbulleh accepts nomination as flag bearer of the Liberian Peoples Party

Observers of the Liberian political arena have noted that the demographic profile of the electorate has been transformed by the explosive growth of the nation’s population of young people. The Liberty Party’s flag-bearer Counselor Charles Brumskine was virtually crowned at a celebratory event that was reminiscent of American-style political carnivals. He appeared to have found new strength and support among a multitude of young voters that has raised the prospects of a more successful run for this perennial candidate this time than he has achieved in previous contests. The campaign for his third run is being crafted by a team of facilitators led by popular entrepreneur and Liberian Football Association Chairman Musa Bility. Bility has made conscious efforts to key into the youth factor and the huge crowd of dancing supporters that the Liberty Party mobilised for its convention gave the impression that the party’s objectives have gained traction among a substantial body of supporters.

(Photo left) Musa Bility businessman and LFA Chairman took on the task of selling Brumskine as the candidate of change. (Photo right) hundreds of young voters turned up for the LP convention.

The selection of Counselor Harrison Karnwea, a leader of the populous Mano-Gio ethnic group in Nimba County, as Brumskine’s running mate was touted by manyspeakers as reflecting a desire for communal reconciliation and the complete rejection of divisive sentiments from the past. However these events in Ganta occurred against the backdrop of a broad non-partisan consensus on electoral harmony encouraged bysenior figures in the nation’s polity. This was symbolised by an initiative promoted by former Interim President Dr. Amos Sawyer in his role as Chairmanof the Governance Commission, an institution established to guide and monitor the conduct of political aspirants. The Commission brokered a meeting at which all parties signed a pledge to be of good conduct and to accept genuine results arising from the electoral process. Dr. Sawyer who was one of the pioneering founders of the Liberian Peoples Party is seen as representing the conscience of the democratic process in Liberia and is no longer regarded as a partisan figure. In fact Dr. Sawyer’s role is indicative of the complex nature of the Liberian democratic order that has emerged as a consequence of the twelve year tenure of the Johnson-Sirleaf Administration.

The journey to Ganta illustrated one of the most positive aspects of the legacy of the incumbent government. The superbly renovated and rebuilt highway leading all the way to the border with Guinea is evidence that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf did endeavour to restore infrastructural credibility to parts of the Liberian countryside.Her greatest legacy many ordinary Liberians say is the stability and peace that she has sustained during her term in office. In fact it was noticeable that while Counselor Brumskine suggested several new policy initiatives in his acceptance speech he also appeared to be promising to continue her legacy in some ways. The overall impression gleaned by some analysts suggests that precisely because of the legacy of stability that the Administration can lay claim to the incumbent Vice-President Hon. Joseph Boakai might very well be the front-runnerin the race for the presidency at this time. Signaling that he is considered to be their main adversary several speakers at the Liberty Party convention excoriated him for not showing enough dynamism and being hesitant over naming his running mate. On the other hand several legislators and professional political activists from a cross-section of parties and interest groups have announced publicly that they will be supporting Boakai who is expected to emerge as the flag-bearer of President Johnson-Sirleaf’s own Unity Party

Elder statesmen Dr. Amos Sawyer (left) working hard to make sure the process is credible and Vice President Joseph Boakai (centre) offering himself as the candidate of continuity. Photo right Senator Geraldine Doe-Sherif carrying the torch for Vice President Boakai in the Senate.

In the meantime rumours flying around Monrovia and beyond allege that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has not thrown the full weight of her incumbency behind her Vice President. This is in spite of the fact that she has stated more than once that she will support him if and when the party announces his candidacy. Liberians love political intrigues and the fact that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has been impeccably objective and circumspect in promoting equity and regulatory probity in the democratic process might be being interpreted as reluctance to support her number two man. However other major figures such as the powerful and popular Senator Geraldine Doe-Sherif, Chairperson of the Senate Committee on the Executive, have been openly supportive of the Vice President’s aspiration. Doe-Sherif had been a major motivator behind the surprisingly virile challenge of the former football star George Opong Weahon the ticket of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) in the last two contests. Since then she has left the CDC and is serving as an independent senior Senator although she is still relatively young. She commands incisive loyalty from her compatriotsin Maryland County her home and her constituents in Montserrado County, which she represents in the Senate,and she believes that the best interests of the ordinary citizens of Liberia will beserved if the stability and developmental momentum implemented during Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s Administration is sustained by her successor. According to Doe-Sherif Joseph Boakai is not the slow operator that his detractors try to portray him as but is rather a cautious and experienced administrator who will provide a safe pair of hands for the future.

Echoes from Liberia’s tragic history of conflict and insurgency are still playing a part in the political agenda of the nation. In recent weeks fresh aspirants touting themselves as being distant from that legacysuch as a former Coca Cola executive and a one-time Governor of the Central Bank have thrown their hats into the ring.  However the most notable utterances from contestants have probably been the announcement from ex-warlord Prince Yormie Johnson (notorious as the torturer and killer of President Samuel Doe) that he might consider seeking a slot as Vice President to a Boakai candidacy, and Opong Weah’s decision to select the jailed warlord Charles Taylor’s ex-wife Jewel Taylor as his running mate. Common wisdom has it that Opong Weah’s choice exposes the failure of his alliance with some elements of the progressive group that gave his earlier challenges near success. It is also widely believed that Prince Johnson’s suggestion of support for Vice President Boakai is borne out of the perception that he might need state protection against prosecution for crimes that he is alleged to have committed during the years of conflict. With these impulses rearing their heads at this time well ahead of July 31st,the date scheduled for the official commencement of campaigning, it is clear that the contest for Liberia’s Presidency has already heated up considerably and that the tournament will probably be a historic one both in the formalities of the process and in the consequence of its outcome.







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