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Liberia: Change versus Continuity

20 September 2017 at 06:34 | 2623 views

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By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia, Liberia.

This report is a continuation of the coverage of the Liberian presidential election, which is scheduled for October 10, 2017.

On July 31, the Liberian National Elections Commission, (NEC), announced the opening of campaign for political parties and independent candidates certified to contest the 2017 elections. On August 19, the Coalition for Democratic Change, CDC, had its official launch in Montserrado County, the nation’s largest county. That rally, as reported, was an Amanda for change.

Like CDC, the respective rallies of the Liberty Party, and the All Liberian Party are all calling for change, change from the ruling Unity Party (UP), which has ruled Liberia since 2006. UP, on the other hand, vows to continue with its government policies.

Launching of the Liberty Party
I attended the official campaign launching of the Liberty Party on the 9th of September. I rode a taxi to the party headquarters in Congo Town, Monrovia. This time, I went alone. On my way, the passengers in the back seats started discussing the rally as partisans and sympathizers of the party walked in large numbers to the headquarters, an approximately one-lot compound. One passenger said that some members of the crowd were of the CDC party and would come from the rally to CDC headquarters, which is a walking distance from the launch.

If you are visiting Liberia and want to hear political rundowns or low-downs, it would be wise to take public transportation. Most often, passengers would discuss what is and what is not happening in the country. As an observer, I usually close my mouth and just listen. We Liberians are generally polite, giving respect to older people, someone like me.

If you are a Liberian from abroad or speak with an American accent, they call it here “Seree”, our people will listen to you respectfully. Mind you, understandably, some are resentful of Liberians from the Diaspora who are given good jobs in the government at the disadvantage of Liberians educated and trained at home. Anyway, let’s go back to our subject.

The crowd at the headquarters was large, covering the compound and adjunct areas, including the Catholic Hospital junction, the SP gas station, and part of the street facing the headquarters. A stage was constructed in the middle of the street, blocking traffic from the ELWA Junction. The music was playing; the crowd was jumping, and some were singing to the songs.

In his speech, Charles Brumskine, standard bearer of the party, said that Liberians should not reelect members of the House of Representatives who pledged support to Vice President Joseph Boakai, UP presidential candidate. Brumskine considered that their action was not in the best interest of the Liberian people. He said that if elected he will reduce government ministers salaries 30% and also reduce his and that of the vice president 30%. He vowed to create jobs, expand private sector investments and socio-economic improvement, including infrastructure and education. He also promised to provide equal justice to all Liberians and improve the overall judicial system. Brumskine’s speech at the rally was well received. The crowd was considered his biggest this year.

In a previous speech to marketers at the Duala market, he promised if elected, to empower market people selling on stalls to own their stores. He would build a daycare center where market women would have their children taken care of while the mothers sell.

After the launch, I walked to the CDC headquarters to verify what the passenger in the taxis said regarding crowd crossover. Many youngsters from the Liberty Part rally in the party T-shirts were at the CDC compound, where a jamboree was taking place.

One group of the crossover said that they came to the jamboree to meet friends. Another told a different story: For instance, Eric said he went to the Liberty Party rally because he was paid $10 US, but he is a CDCian. He opened his wallet to show me the money. Also, Beyon told me that his mother, whom he believed received money, gave him the liberty T-shirt to wear to the launch. He added; “But CDC is my party”. He and Eric pointed to me other individuals they wanted me to talk to.
“I get the picture, but thanks”, I said and left.

The DJ at the CDC compound announced a special dance group. As a picture shows, the group was young people from the Liberty Party launch dressed in the party T-shirts dancing on stage.

“The passenger was right”, I said to myself.

Launching of the All Liberian Party
The next week, September 15, was the official launching of the All Liberian Party (ALP) campaign. I went to the rally. The day was a good day; the weather was great, sunshine, no rain. Unlike the CDC and LP rallies, the ALP had their launch at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS), an estimated 15,000 capacity arena. The rally was widely publicized. Specifically, the Costa Show, which rightfully boasts of its popularity as the most listened to talk show in Liberia, carried the announcement of the launch for days. Henry Costa, the show host, is a representative aspirant in this election. He is a staunch member of the party and a diehard supporter of the party standard bearer, Benoni Urey.

I arrived at the event about 4 PM. Urey and his entourage had not come. I sat on a spectator step not far from where a group of European Union Election Observers were sitting. A man wearing the party T-shirt saw me taking notes and pictures. He ordered me to stop, thinking that I was a foreigner writing bad thing about the party. He kept harassing me so I said to him “Look, I am a Liberian and have the right to write and to take pictures of a public event. I will inform the authorities if you continue to harass me”. He backed off. I later saw him talking to the European Union observers. In few minutes, they left the area to another spot.

I was surprised by the turnout. The attendants covered about 25% of the stadium space. Children used part of the empty space to play soccer. Looking at the situation, I asked a man standing near me when would Urey come and whether people have left the stadium? He told me Urey is on the way and when he arrives the group outside would come in.

At about 5 PM, Urey and his convoy arrived. The audience went wild, singing the song, “Papa Urey, Papa Urey; “The papa will fix it”! They shouted in unison. Although those who were outside came in, the arena was not even full to 30% of its capacity. A young Liberian who has returned from studies in South Korea remarked that it would have been better had the party held the rally at the party headquarters instead at the stadium. “It just does not look good here”, the man said, pointing out the empty space. But why did the ALP, a new party, decide to launch its first campaign rally at the stadium? I pondered.

In his address at the rally, Urey promised a new change, a real change for the betterment of all Liberians. He called his party a movement which started a couple of years ago to make Liberia a better place for all Liberians and not for only the few. If elected, he will make the Liberian economy an agro-based one.

. “We will create jobs for you and put money in your pocket”, he cried.

He promised to reduce the price of rice, the country’s staple food.
Seizing the fact that Liberian education “is a mess”, that the healthcare system is bad, that the economy is down and the roads are deplorable, Urey assured that a new change is coming. He said:

“I know that our education system is a mess. I know our healthcare is also in a bad shape and I know our road network is also bad, but I can assure you my people come January 18 after the All Liberian Party has taken over the government, changes will take place in this country”.

Urey punched the Supreme Court, particularly on its recent ruling, which made the constitutionally mandatory Code of Conduct useless. He promised a system which will respect the law of the land. He told the crowd:

“Our constitution has continually been violated. The Supreme Court made a decision that violated the constitution, but your party, the All Liberian Party, will ensure that our laws are respected”.

Launching of the campaign of the Unity Party
The next day after the ALP launch, the ruling Unity Party had its rally at the ATS. Unlike the weather of the previous day, the UP launch occurred on a rainy Saturday. In the morning, many people thought that the party would postpone the event to another day or change the location. However, the rally continued.

I arrived at the event about 4pm. Lynch Street, from the Anderson Funeral Home to the stadium, was packed. The crowd was standing on the street leading to the stadium. I managed to get to my yesterday spot. At first, I stood, because the concrete was wet. The field was jam packed. The party standard bearer, Vice President Joseph Boakai along with his entourage has not come. The DJ entertained the crowd with music and the audience on the ground were dancing and singing. I saw some young men took off their T-shirts and danced in the rain, as if they were kids playing in the rain.

The rain was coming down strong. Two members of the crowd asked to go under my umbrella. I said OK. They were shaking their heads in response to the sounds and the beats. They were young, they were enjoying the event. I could not take any note. I just had my notepad in my bag, securing it from the rain.

Emmanuel Nuquay, UP vice standard bearer, arrived at about 6. The crowd was jumping up calling his name, “Nuquay, the man da we want”. He had both hands with white handkerchiefs waving to the crowd. Within about 45 minutes, VP Boakai arrived, standing in a float with his entourage waving also to the crowd. Aides or security men helped him to come down the float. He was smiling, waving but looking sickly as he walked.

The crowd went louder; Boakai ooh, da the papay we want, Boakai ooh da the papay we want”. The music too went louder. One of the persons under my umbrella was taking pictures. I asked him to email me a copy. He agreed. The rain was coming down heavily and harder. The crowd started exiting; I followed. The rain was coming down strong. I heard later that Boakai could not give his speech, apparently because of the rain and the crowd was leaving. He will give the address on the radio according to the announcement.

Analysis
As others have observed, campaign crowds are part of this competition in this election. Because of this, political parties can buy crowds. Particularly the younger crowds are the valuable ones. They are because the youth population is about half of the national population of 4.5 million. In this election, the youth, 18-37 years old, constitute about 64% of the registered voters, according to NEC voter registration data. The youth know this and are capitalizing on this reality, especially the need for parties to have their presence at campaign rallies. They can get paid in a country where the poverty rate is very high. Majority of the youth is unemployed.

When I asked Eric, who said he received $US10 from the Liberty Party, why he took the money knowing that he was a CDCian, hereplied with a question.
“If you are hungry and a person offers you American $10 and a T-shirt just for you to spend few hours at his rally, would you refuse?

Eric hits the nail on the spot. Most Liberians would not refuse. Hence having large crowd does not necessarily mean victory. What are important are the ballots on Election Day.

However, campaign rallies, such as a launching in a heavily populated area like Montserrado County, is a strategic method usually learned by experience. A novice may not know and could cause embarrassing results. Certainly the Liberty Party’s decision to launch its campaign at the party headquarters was a good one, which was learned from experience.

In the 2005 election, the Liberty Party was at a high peak of its campaign for the presidency. Liberia had just come from a 14 year civil war. The major political parties, including the Liberty Party, were new. Its standard bearer, still Counselor Brumskine, was in part moved by religious prophesy that he was the chosen one by God to be president. Moreover, international entities, including the Washington Post carried a Sunday feature article, which called him the man who would be president.

The prophesy, the career experience, and the international expectations did not help and neither help change the situation. The Liberty Party took third place and did not make it to second round despite an impressive campaign launch at the ATS.

The Liberty Party however, did not learn from its 2005 mistakes. Under the theme 3 ‘Rs’- Reformation, Reconciliation, and Restoration, the party set for the coming election with confidence fueled also by the selection of Bong County Senator Franklin Siakor as vice standard bearer. In the 2011 election, the party utilized the ATS for launching its campaign, not taking into account the changing dynamics of the Liberian electorates. Not only did the party encounter its worst turnouts at the arena (about 2000 people attended), it was mercilessly defeated at the polls on Election Day, receiving 5.45% of the national votes, a drastic decrease of about 9% from 13.9% in 2005, placing the party to a disappointing 4th place. Moreover, disappointingly and surprisingly, first-time presidential candidate Senator Prince Johnson won more votes over Brumskine in Montserrado County.

This election year, the party appeared to have learned its lessons. Its decision to have its launch at the headquarters was a good move. Not only did this decision save the party money from stadium rental fee, it also stopped possible embarrassment from about low crowd size. Further, though the use of the headquarters created traffic problem, the compound was jam packed giving an impression of a large crowd.
Below an observer discussed excellently the past experience of the party and attests to my expression.

“The Liberty Party candidate spoke Saturday in Monrovia when his party officially launched its campaign at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium with thousands of partisans and sympathizers in attendance. Saturday’s turn out, which attracted over a thousand supporters, was in stark contrast to the party’s 2005 launch during which over 10,000 Liberty Party supporters and members demonstrated through the streets of Monrovia to the Antoinette Tubman Stadium. The LP supporters, who began parading the streets at about 11 a.m., converged at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in the afternoon hours and could, only engulf the VIP wing of the stadium with the rest of the stadium left unoccupied”.

The All Liberian Party, a new political entity, appeared not to have given a proper thought in its first campaign launch. It may have thought that it has the crowd to fill the ATS and therefore dismissed using its headquarters or a smaller space. The result was an embarrassing experience. However, Henry Costa on his Facebook page attempted to shield the disappointment by presenting faked pictures of droid images showing only area of the stadium where there was crowd.

But the party’s error in this regard should not be attributed only to the planners of the event. Rather equally to the standard bearer, farmer and rich businessman Benoni Urey. His thinking that with his wealth, he can pack the stadium and win the election is an illusion which a good campaign manager or an experienced election strategist would be unable to achieve.

Further, the Unity Party though had an impressive and successful campaign launch, an observer also at the rally made a good point when she told me that UP, as a ruling party which has been in power for almost 12 years, was expected to fill the arena. “The party controls state resources and has supporters who have protégés”.

The above point is true. The young man who promised to email me the picture informed me that he works for the government and his boss would appreciate the staff’s attendance to the launch.

There is another point. While the UP launch was remarkable, and the party deserves credit for the turnout, a critical look at the attendance gives a different picture regarding the election. If we consider the 15,000 capacity of the stadium and add 5,000 for those who may have been sitting inside and around the stadium plus another 5,000 for people standing outside of the arena, we would have a total attendance of 25,000 people. This figure is only 3.22% of the registered voters of 777,572 people for Montserrado County for this election. It should be stated also that people were bused from nearby counties, including Margibi and Bomi.

In short, having a large crowd at a rally does not guarantee electoral victory. Mobilizing supporters and making sure that they vote would help achieve success.

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