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How and why George Weah won the Liberian presidency

8 January 2018 at 17:12 | 6110 views


By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia, Liberia

The Liberian National Election Commission NEC has declared Senator George Manneh Weah president-elect for Liberia, becoming the first former professional athlete to become president of a country.

Weah, of the Coalition for Democratic Change, CDC, won the runoff election between him and Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party, UP. He won by a landslide. Ambassador Weah will replace President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who will end her two term presidency in January 2018.

Contrary to popular belief, the transfer of power will not be the second time that a democratically elected president would turn over power peacefully to another democratically elected president. Weah election and inauguration will be the first. Before 1944, President Edwin Barclay handpicked William Tubman to secede him from the same party. Liberia was a one-party state run by the True Whig Party. Tubman was basically unopposed and was elected in 1943. He was inaugurated in 1944. Secondly, in 1943 and before, voting right was not extended to the majority Liberians comprising natives until 1946. Tubman and his predecessors were elected by a population largely of the Americo-Lliberians “of less than one per cent of the total population of Liberia”. Progressive Liberian historians know of this fact and hopefully will or should correct this misconception.

How did an ex-soccer star win the presidency out of 19 other candidates who ran for the position?
George Weah was born poor in a slum in Monrovia, Liberia in 1966. He was abandoned by his parents and was raised by his grandmother. As a boy, he washed dishes for a Fulani for food. He was sent home from school for non-payment of tuition. He dropped out of high school and became a soccer player, playing for local clubs. He played under contract professionally in Cameron, another African country, before departing later for Europe, where he played for several teams, such as Chelsea and MC Millan. He became World Best, European Best and African Best.

He used his stardom during the Liberian civil war to encourage UN peacekeepers to come to Liberia, he used his personal money to disarm child soldiers, helped displaced Liberians in neighboring countries, contributed millions to Liberian national soccer team, and became UN peace ambassador promoting peace. He gave to the poor and did not forget his country and people in their darkest days. His story as a boy growing up in Liberia is a true story that most Liberians can relate to; his success as an adult, is a dream and hope many Liberians wish for.

In 2005 he entered politics as standard bearer of the Congress for Democratic Change, now Coalition for Democratic Change, CDC. Although he won the first round, he lost the election to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the runoff. Some observers contributed that loss to the fact that he was uneducated, a high school dropout. Weah went back to school and in 2011 he obtained a Bachelor’s degree. He ran as the vice standard bearer to Counselor Winston Tubman for CDC in that year election. Again he lost. Again he went back to school, receiving a Master’s degree in 2013. In 2014, he ran for the senate for Montserrado County and won by a landslide against many candidates, including Robert Sirleaf, the president’s son. The county is the largest populated subdivision of Liberia with over700,000 registered voters according to NEC 2017 voter stats. After being in the senate for about two years, Weah and his party felt that the time was now for the presidency in 2017.
CDC, other opposition parties and the Liberian electorates may have realized the need for change in Liberia. Corruption, unemployment, and poverty have increased under the ruling Unity led government. The price of rice, the cost of hospital and school fees has gone up, while unemployment remains 85% since UP took power. Additionally, the Sirleaf government has failed in meeting campaign promises:

In the 2005 election, “UP made many promises, including electrifying Monrovia in six months, bringing clean and safe drinking water, reducing unemployment and increasing employment, fostering road connectivity throughout the counties, increasing infrastructural development, and fighting and reducing corruption. However, the UP led government failed to meet these promises”.

Having failed as indicated, the UP government in the 2011 election asked the Liberian people for a second term and made additional promises, such as creating not less than 20,000 jobs annually, providing 24 hours electricity, connecting all county capitals with road networks, insuring Liberian businesses to banking and other loan assistance and increasing the salaries of teachers and healthcare workers particularly in rural Liberia. Again, the Unity Party failed to live up to its promises. In an election campaign, the electorates judge the seating government in the race by its records. In this case, UP has no good record to stand on.

But the government has made some successes entailing improvement of the road from Ganta to Monrovia, promotion of freedom of speech and press and the maintaining of peace, thanks to the Liberian people and the international community.
Thus to the Liberian people, enough was enough and voted for change. There were other factors that motivated the defeat. The Unity Party was disunited. There was division between the president on the one hand and the hierarchy of the party on the other. The vice president’s actions suggested him siding with the latter perhaps unknowingly. This created friction between the president and the VP.

Some analysts see the genesis of this split with VP Boakai’s decision to seek the presidency after an apparent understanding with the president that both came together and both would retire together to give the party younger generation chance to lead. Certainly in 2016, the vice president in response to a petition from his kinsmen in Lofa to run for the presidency, accepted the petition and vowed to run for the presidency. Standing with the VP in making his acceptant speech were some party officials, consisting Senator Varney Sherman, former party chairman and now senator from Grand Cape Mount County and Wilmot Paye, current party chair. The senator and the president were not on good term during this exercise. Seemingly, the president saw the act as a betrayal.

Vice President Boakai, not getting financial support from the president for his campaign, took a bold move by granting an interview with Frontpage Africa, a newspaper in Liberia. In the interview, the VP stated that the president was not supporting him and instead she was supporting an opposition Liberty Party. In a later interview with BBC, VP Boakai blamed the failures of the administration on the president while taking credits for the few successes. These actions deepen the split. Although the vice president appeared to have realized his errors and indirectly appealed to the president’s support, it was too late; the damage has already been done.

Boakai’s selection of Emmanuel Nuquay, speaker of the House of Representative, as his running mate did not help the VP improve relation with the president. Speaker Nuquay may have been popular in the House; however, he was not generally like in his own county, Margibi, a UP stronghold. The vice president made the selection at a time he had promised former senate pro-temp Gbezohngar Findley the position. Findley is a powerful man from Grand Bassa, another populated county where he has followers. This selection made him to join CDC.

Shortly after Nuquay selection, the Boakai campaign called the Boakai-Nuquay team an indigenous ticket, meaning that the ticket was for native people, aborigines of the land. The campaign did not take into consideration of the fact that the Weah-Taylor ticket was equally a native team that had legitimate right for support of the Liberian native masses. The pronouncement alienated Liberians of non-tribal background, telling that a Boakai presidency would discriminate against Liberian of Congo heritage. There were statements saying 100% Kissi and sons of the soil, an indication of Boakai tribe and the pair was native sons. But upon public backlash of this divisive pronouncement, the campaign removed the advertisement.

The Weah team at the same time took a different approach. While Weah could easily use ethnicity to his political advantage, CDC focused on its grassroots strength for victory. An article on ethnicity in Liberian electoral politics discussed this further. “Weah could play the tribal and the regional card and together with his stronghold in Montserrado County, to get votes and could easily win the election, maybe in the first round. It appears that the Weah camp is not playing that card right now, but is focusing on the party’s grassroots base and on Weah’s national concern, care and inspirational appeal”. Weah took advantage of UP mistake of insensitivity and inconsideration.

Speaker Nuquay added to the problem. Upon being named vice standard bearer, he announced that government jobs were the birthrights of those who supported the Unity Party and that after the election when UP had won, he would deal with non supporters who try to get government jobs. The speech did not go well with many Liberians. It heightened more resentment of Nuquay as a wrong selection. The Boakai-Nuquay campaign was called by a radio talk show host “the wicked ticket”. The host paradoxically later made a u-turn embracing the ticket and attacking the opposition.

Lastly, The Unity Party allowed itself to join the Liberty Party in LP complaints to the Supreme Court. Liberty Party came third in the first round election receiving 9.6%, while UP got 28.8% and CDC obtained 38.4%. Because no party received 50% plus one vote in the election, NEC certified CDC and UP as the two parties for the runoff election scheduled last November 7. But LP filed complaints to NEC and later to the Supreme Court of election irregularities and frauds and called for a rerun of the election. At its party headquarters pledging support to LP, UP accused the president on her birthday as the master minder of the frauds. The VP said nothing in opposition to the pronouncement.

Why did the party join in the fight when it did not have a fish to fry? As a contender in the runoff election, why could not it focus on the election and leave the fight to LP? As indicated in a just recent publication on the runoff election, UP jumped into the fight will the hope of getting LP support for the Bassa votes. Grand Bassa County is LP stronghold. UP sacrificed election preparation just for LP support in the runoff and spent and wasted time and money on the case.

At the end, LP lost the complaints, prompting NEC to schedule the runoff for December 26. But UP filed a bill of exception to the court questioning NEC authority to select an election date. The party requested a later date in January. The court demised the bill.

Why would the party question NEC and ask for a further date? The party may have sensed its eventual defeat. If so, why did it not boycott the election? As the saying goes in Liberia,” a small shame is better than a big shame”. UP however took the chance at the ballot box probably under the belief that CDC has a record of losing second rounds. That is true. In 2005 and 2011, the party lost in the second rounds against UP, though CDC boycotted the runoff in 2011 for obvious reasons. But 2017 was a different year and the opposition CDC seemed to have grown and matured.

The Unity Party went into the race without adequate finance to compete equally with CDC. Unlike the 2011 reelection campaign when UP utilized state resources to help fund that campaign, the government was financially broke in 2017 for party campaign financing. Liberian economist Samuel Jackson alluded to this utilization in one of his discussions on the Liberian economy. FrontPage Africa also recently unearthed facts to this expression.

At the same time, there was speculation that the president, through her son Robert Sirleaf, was bankrolling CDC campaign. However, there was no concrete fact to back the assertion. Businessman George Kalondo, who is said to be closed to the president’s family and is a strong supporter of the VP, could not find factual evidence to support the claim.

UP and its supporters tried all propagandas at their deposal against Weah, such as he is dull, dumb, not qualified, speaks incorrect English and does not believe in and support education, but none stick. The more the pronouncements of Weah’s limitation, the more they promoted his candidacy. Pastor Jerry Weagba indicated that such propagandas strengthened the uneducated masses to rally around Weah. He further said, “the masses saw him as part of them”.

The voters appeared to have resolved that it was time for change. Buddee Kamara, a business woman commented that people were just tired of the Unity Party, adding “the sufferings, the hardship was too much; we wanted change”.
In few days to the runoff, Boakai did not improve the situation with the president when he granted an interview with the same talk show host who regularly insults the president on the radio. In the interview, the VP also accused the chairman of NEC as being an American citizen and did not trust him to execute a fair and transparent election. He called for the chairman resignation and the removal of some NEC officials. Here it looked that UP was dying and had no substance to hold. It was losing its power and appeal.

Like George Weah, VP Boakai came from a humble background. Both were born poor and of native parents. But unlike Weah, the vice president grew up among or attended high school with children of the Liberian elites at the prestigious CWA, College of West Africa. He also resided at the school dormitory with the assistance of the late Reid Dennis, commonly called then Uncle Reid.

VP Boakai got to know President Sirleaf also from the high school connection. She attended CWA. Moreover, the president’s late husband, Doc Sirleaf, knew the VP. The president’s selection of Boakai as her running mate in 2005 seemed to have been personal without input from her party inner associates. The vice president was equally surprised of the selection as the associates were. Looking back at this, the president may have felt that the VP showed ingratitude to join her enemies in the political fight particularly with Senator Varney Sherman mentioned earlier.
The party animosity between the president and the senator came to light when Sherman blamed the president for his arrest regarding the Sable Mine bribery case. He was accused of receiving bribes to influence government officials to change procurement law to favor Sable Mining Company, a British firm interested in mining opportunity in Liberia. Sherman felt that the president should have informed him prior, as party chair and major political contributor, of the case before investigation. Because of the case, Sherman was publically humiliated as people booed him when escorted by police to the court. He also shortly and unfortunately collapsed while attending an endorsement ceremony for the vice president; and he had to be taken abroad for medical treatment. The VP was put in the middle.

How did CDC win?
The preceding paragraphs have discussed the factors contributing to UP/Boakai defeat. In short, these factors contain the feud within the party, the lack of adequate campaign funding, the poor campaigning, the VP mistakes, the party failure to meet campaign promises and the general need for change relative to corruption, hard time and poverty. In the following discussion, this paper endeavors to indicate the methods used by Weah party to insuring victory.

By the end of 2016, there were approximately 15 candidates in the race for president. By the time campaign started, NEC certified 19 opposition candidates to compete for the presidency. In total, there were 20 candidates, including VP Boakai of the governing party. In September of 2016, Senator Prince Johnson of the Movement for Democratic Restoration (MDR) party called for a meeting of key opposition parties in Ganta, Nimba County. The goal of the meeting was to form an opposition unit against the ruling Unity Party. At that conference the attended members included LP, ANC, ALP, MDR and the Congress for Democratic Change, CDC. The parties agreed to support any opposition party that enters the runoff against the ruling party. The organizational goal was not achieved because of individual leader ego. None appeared to want to relinquish power to the other for a united force. However, the agreement to support an opposition in the runoff was established.

Shortly after the signing, ALP started accusing LP of collaborating with the governing party. Meanwhile, some heads of the opposition parties were privately and secretly talking and meeting with UP for collaboration for possible vice president spot. Realizing the difficulties of establishing a unifying political entity relative to the Ganta Declaration, the Congress for Democratic Change saw the need to form a coalition with two agreed parties not part of the declaration. The parties were the National Patriotic Party, NPP, and the Liberian People Democratic Party, LPDP. NPP was former ruling party of jailed and former President Charles Taylor. LPDP is a newly established party of former Speaker Alex Tyler. The ex-speaker was a strong member of UP before forming his own party.

Although Charles Taylor was incarcerated, a poll conducted by the Liberian Trust and Communications revealed that a large number of Liberians still support Taylor. In other words, he still has followers, though the party membership has considerably reduced. CDC may have known this. Further, CDC demanded that in forming the coalition, CDC political leader George Weah would be the standard bearer and he would select the vice standard bearer. Certainly such a proposal may not have been accepted by the other parties of the declaration. On the other hand, NPP and LPDP considered the coalition with CDC a good idea, because CDC has the number and a better organization. The new coalition would be called CDC, Coalition for Democratic Change. This was cleaver. The party, CDC, did not have to rebrand itself, an effort which would have confused the electorates, particularly the party grass root members.
Although other opposition parties criticized the formation of the coalition, the arrangement withstood challenges and became the only coalition of opposition parties. This increased the strength of CDC as a party. CDC was able to acquire needed finance, thanks in part to its Standard Bearer Senator Weah. His stardom paid off. The party had the logistics for an organized campaign. There were jeeps, floats and hellecapters. There was a private jet for the international travels of the standard bearer. Weah traveled to other African heads of states discussing the need for a free, fair and transparent election in Liberia. Weah looked presidential each time he met with these leaders. Vice President Boakai did not do any of these. In a presidential debate, he described himself as a race car parked in the garage. Weah did not attend any of the two planned presidential debates; instead, he traveled to gain international support.

According to FrontPage Africa, the vice president’s description at the debate increased his problem with the president. “Many political observers insinuated that Veep Boakai’s criticism of Johnson-Sirleaf’s regime as inferred in his ‘race car’ idiom deepened the feud and cost him her support and the presidency”.

Meanwhile also, CDC structured an effective ground work, involving a Jehovah witness type canvassing, traveling rain or shine on foot with backpacks to rural areas of the country, mobilizing the electorates. The voter registration effort increased party membership and supporters/sympathizers. At the party convention Senator Weah selected fellow Senator Jewell Howard Taylor as his running mate. The pick received favorable response despites criticism of Charles Taylor connection. Even though the senator was a former wife of Taylor, she was a senior senator from Bong County where she was elected twice as senator from a field of politically strong men. Further, Bong is the third populated county in Liberia. All of these moves paid off at the end.
After the first round of voting, which the party won, the other opposition leaders, except MDR Prince Johnson, began to waver in their support to the Ganta Declaration. Benoni Urey, for instance, secretly made deal with the vice president and endorsed the VP. It is interesting that it was Urey and his ALP that had accused LP of regime collaboration. Urey got less than 2% of the national votes in the first round. Though the number was too low to negotiate with, he apparently did in his talk the VP. Brumstine and Cummings decided to be neutral, supporting neither Boakai nor Weah. Brumkine and Cummings are of the historical elites, known as the Americo-Liberians, a social and political class, which had in the past ruled Liberia. The class had maintained the philosophy that “if it cannot be me, nobody else should be”. They would not support an opposition once anyone of them was not in the runoff.

To come back to this philosophy, prior to the runoff election, an analyst suggested approaching the vice standard bearers of the losing parties for support instead. “In Liberia’s Runoff Election”, an article, the suggestion went as this. “Vice standard bearers of losing parties can also independently support any of the winning candidates. The candidates can pursue the vice standard bearers who have numbers and not bother with the political leaders”. UP did not appear to have followed this approach, but CDC did.

CDC was able to influence key members of the losing parties to join or endorse the opposition ticket in the race. This approach worked. Alex Duopo, vice standard of ALP joined CDC; Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh, vice standard bearer of ANC and Honorable Harrison Karnwea, vice standard bearer of LP, endorsed CDC and vowed to help the party to victory. Other key players of the defeated parties endorsed the coalition and hence strengthen the party base. These members included Chairman Benjamin Sanwee, Counselor Fonatee Koffa, and CEO Musa Bility of the Liberty Party. They brought with them additional supporters. Moreover, Senator Prince Johnson’s endorsement led the way, weakening and perplexing UP operation. Thus with this move, endorsement of their respective political leaders was unnecessary.

The new endorsements helped increase CDC votes. Sulunteh and his supporters improved the Bong votes and so were Karnwea, Duopo, and Musa Bility for Nimba votes. Sanwee, Koffa, Bility and Israel Akinsanya and Finkley captured the Bassa votes. They locked down Bong, Nimba and Bassa, three very large counties and hence made it impossible for Boakai to win. Bromskine was powerless; with the court loss and his men leaving him, he had no Bassa votes to trade with. But Bromskine’s legal action, while it discouraged many voters from voting, it made NEC to perform better and it showed that the rule of law is the best way to go for election disputes.

Understanding the cultural and traditional solidarity among the people of Lofa, which compels members to support an elder or uncle such as the vice president, CDC did not focus on Lofa for majority votes. VP Boakai was considered an uncle and would win the county. This saved campaign resources for winnable battlegrounds.
At the end, CDC George Weah received 61.5% while UP Boakai got 38.5% of the national votes. CDC captured all 14 counties except Lofa, VP Boakai’s home county. Weah won counties that are traditionally UP strongholds. The lowest percent he received of the 14 counties he won was 57%, 90% the highest. Weah got 68.4% of the votes in Margibi, Speaker Nuquoi’s home county. He captured 74.7% of the Grand Bassa votes. He also took 81.3% of the votes in Maryland, Cummings’ county. The loss was massive. It was the first defeat of a ruling party in Liberian political history.

Three days before the election, one could feel the mood of the strength of the ruling Unity Party crumbling. The party last gathering at its headquarters was not as lively as that of CDC judging from the program of activities. Although the turnout of the election was lower compared to the first round, the runoff was better organized and well conducted. About 1.2M people voted, not bad considering the long court delay and implementation of the election just a day after Christmas.

CDC’s organization method employed in this election is somewhat similar to that of Obama 2012 reelection. See: ”How and Why Obama Won”. Even though the latter was mathematical and scientific, which took 4 years in the making, the CDC method was equally effective, a lesson or model for other parties in Africa.
AB and Uncle Joe of The Big Show of Liberian radio 96.1 FM called the victory the effectiveness of forming a coalition and the work of a party, which with its grassroots base, could become a movement. They stressed the fact that President Sirleaf has advised that no one party alone can win the election. But the other parties did not listen to and follow this warning except CDC.

VP Boakai before NEC announcement of the final results, conceded to Weah gratefully, congratulating Weah and pledging to work with him in anyway needed. VP demonstrated a mark of a gentleman, a patriot and a man of decency and grace. Some leaders of governing parties would not easily concede but would fight to keep power.

I remember VP very well. We were high school mates and lived in the Methodist Boys Hostel at CWA. He was a senior mate; he was quiet, non active but a gentleman.
On New Year day, President-Elect George Manneh Weah and his wife visited Vice President Joseph Boakai to wish the VP and his family a Happy New Year. Senator Weah also informed the vice president of the intention of the new government to call on the expertise of VP Boakai in the development effort of the country. President-elect Weah’s move is a good one in that it shows that the election is now over and there is the need for all Liberians to come together to work in the interest of the country.

The author, Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II