Liberia: Playing with the Tiger’s Tail.

19 November 2005 at 01:36 | 463 views

Abu Shaw lived for many years in Liberia where he worked as a journalist. In the early 90s he returned home to Sierra Leone before relocating to London where he now lives. In this piece, he critically narrates the present political stalemate in the country of the lone star.

By Abu B. Shaw, Vanguard London Bureau Chief.

It is obvious that the long sustained peace process in Liberia has been
threatened if what is unravelling in the country is any thing to go by.

The angry protests by George Weah’s party and the clashes with UN peacekeeping forces and police officers that followed the presidential run-off highlight the political imbroglio in Liberia today.

Elections Commission’s warning

The National Elections Commission issued a stark warning to the Unity Party standard bearer Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf not to declare herself as winner and this move took every one by surprise considering the speed with which the
electoral commissioner came out after sensing danger looming in the horizon.

The chairwoman of the National Elections Commission in Liberia, Frances Johnson Morris did not mince her
words: “Madam Sirleaf has no rights to declare herself winner. Only the NEC does.” Advising Ms Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party to put on hold on any planned victory celebration, the Electoral Commissioner disclosed that the
presidential results would be announced by November 23.

She noted that this could be done only after the completion of the alleged rigging investigation
reported by George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party (CDC).

Weah’s CDC has filed a sheaf of complaints with the National Elections Commission alleging ballot tampering, fraud, intimidation and harassment by supporters of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf during the November 8 elections run-off.
A senior CDC adviser, Mr Sam Twea, said candidate Weah does not want to do anything to compromise the electoral process. “He is doing everything in the interests of peace,” Mr. Twea stressed.

Though Weah has warned his supporters comprising thousands of former combatants to remain calm, a top CDC official Max Doyen, has warned the Elections Commission not make the mistake of declaring Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
winner. “Any attempt to declare her the winner will meet up with stiff resistance,” the CDC official reiterated.

Mr. Doyen told journalists in Monrovia that they will intensify their non-violence approach, spread it to the 15 counties, ground the country and demonstrate every day until the entire election result is annulled to pave
the way for a free and fair election.

As Liberia awaits the final yes, the vote appeared certain to give a decisive win to Harvard educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, making her the first woman to be democratically voted as president in Africa. The
former UN diplomat has 59% of votes compared to 41% of former world footballer of the year Mr George Weah, who has shown no sign of conceding defeat. NEC confirmed that about 61% of the population turned out on elections day.

The Unity Party leader, Ms Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, also a former Liberian Finance Minister, has already promised Oppong Weah a cabinet post. Political analysts described Ellen’s political gesture a ‘panic measure.’ Mr Weah,
arguably the most famous Liberian alive, wants the elections nullified and a new poll conducted.

Dismissing the claims of ballot rigging by Mr. Weah Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reiterated that her rival would hopefully get over his disappointment for the sake of peace. The West African regional grouping, ECOWAS has also urged losers to accept the result with dignity and grace.

Weah’s CDC supporters took to the streets and marched to the US embassy at Mamba Point, where they clashed briefly with United Nations peace keepers and officers of the Liberian police. Outside the headquarters of the UN
Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia, George Weah’s party presented a petition to the 15,000 strong UN mission. The CDC stalwarts handed their grievances to the US Embassy as well.

Wary of further provocation and tension in the war-scarred capital, the veteran politician Johnson-Sirleaf has kept her supporters off the streets until the result is announced. She said in an interview at her home in
Monrovia that when the final votes are announced they will go out before the Liberian people to thank them for their support and trust and then celebrations will follow.

African leaders’ say it’s free and fair

Weah’s political adviser was also candid enough to admit that too many people are against them, including the international community. Both western and African observers have praised the elections as broadly free and fair.

Seven African leaders have hailed the Liberia poll during a recent African Union meeting in Abuja. They includeNigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, South
Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Ghana’s John Kuffuor, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade as well as those of Algeria, Ethiopia and the chairman of the African Union Commission.

The African statesmen described the ballot as peaceful, transparent, free and fair. A note of warning however from the African leaders: “Anyone who disagreed with the vote outcome should use constitutional means to seek
redress for any grievances.”

MPs on boycott threat

Reports of about 18 members of parliament from Liberian football millionaire George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party planning to boycott parliament is not good news for the peace process in Liberia.

The 15 CDC members of the House of Representatives and three senators from the same party have all made it clear their intention to walk out of both the lower and upper houses of law makers if the massive electoral fraud is not
addressed adequately and quickly.

Mr Weah’s CDC party has the highest number of parliamentary seats in the new fragmented parliament with representatives of 11 other parties plus 10 members of parliament representing independent candidates. Ms Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party, has eight representatives and three senators, her party thus having the second highest number of seats in parliament.

Liberian footballers blast Weah

Prior to the first ballot on October 22, an unlikely source of opposition for George Weah came from his own backyard. His football colleagues in Liberia were very critical of his presidential ambition saying he lacks the
experience for the job. Prominent among the critics were former Liberia strikers James Salinsa Debbah and Jonathan Sogbie.

Salinsa, who is Weah’s cousin pointed out that he will not be supporting Weah because it will be an injustice if he voted for him. He was speaking to the media
in Monrovia. People were really astonished to hear such comments from a high profile football star second only to Weah in Liberia’s football history.

Playing for Olympic Lyon and Lille football clubs in France among others, Salinsa said: “My disqualification of George Weah is not based on the fact that a lot people say he’s not educated. My main reason is that he will be
brought to public ridicule, as he is a political novice who would not understand the intricacies of politics.”

He warned that all the things he has worked for over the years could be taken away from him, if he does not perform as president. Salinsa has been a close associate of Oppong Weah playing side by side in Liberia’s
national football team, the Lone Star for a decade.

Another Lone Star, Jonathan Sogbie alias Boye Charles who also played alongside Oppong in Liberia’s Invincible Eleven FC, is equally not impressed with Weah’s credentials for such high office. Sogbie plied his trade in Switzerland during his hey days.

Sogbie, currently based in United States, told a news conference in Monrovia that he knows George Weah better than his opponents in the elections.

“Liberia has serious problems which need serious people to resolve them, both past and present. How can Liberians vote for Weah who dropped out of high school in 1987 to take up the Tonnere Clara Club offer in Cameroon from
Liberia club Invincible Eleven IE.”

Reacting to Salinsa and Sogbie, Mr Weah said he regrets that his cousin does not seem to understand why he is getting into politics at this time. He noted that James Debbah knows about his leadership ability as evident when
he captained Lone Star. “If he says I’m a novice to the presidency, he should know that no one goes to the presidency with the requisite experience, except that person has served before,” Oppong hit back.

Mrs Taylor backs Johnson-Sirleaf

As November 23 draws nearer, a date slated by the Electoral Commissioner to announce the result, a European Union observer in Liberia has recently given the strongest hint that any future president should make it an obligation to bring Charles Taylor to the UN courts in Sierra Leone. The EU observer recommended that donors weigh their financial commitments to Liberia against
its co-operation with global efforts to bring Taylor to justice.

The former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was a major supporter of Taylor’s 1989 rebellion against the late military dictator Samuel Kanyon
Doe. How Charles Taylor was able to ’escape’ from a US prison to lead the NPFL rebels in Liberia without the help of outsiders brings more questions than answers. Ellen only became his fiercest opponent less than a decade later
after Taylor decided to declare himself president if his NPFL forces kicked Doe out of power.

This is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s comment following the EU observer’s suggestion: “I think it helps us secure our own future, as I do not think Liberia is ready for the return of Charles Taylor.” Experts on Liberian politics do not believe Ms Johnson-Sirleaf will bring Taylor to the UN court especially following the close rapport between Ms Johnson-Sirleaf and Mrs Charles Taylor during the recent elections.

The wife of Charles Taylor, Mrs Jewel Taylor, was openly supportive of Ms Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the presidential run-off. This move has triggered speculation that Charles Taylor is in safe hands as far Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is concerned. Mrs Jewel Taylor, also an economist by
profession, was recently elected to the Liberia Senate during the first ballot. Mr. Charles Taylor is currently exiled in Nigeria with 17 counts of UN war crimes hanging over him.

Personal note...

The odds are against the footballer to have a re-run, meaning the banker may be declared winner. But personally I see this development as unfortunate for Liberia with such a vicious recent past and with the youths involved in the struggle feeling they have been outvoted by American

The most famous son of Liberia, the footballer candidate, would have been the best answer to bringing the youths back to sanity, not high brows from Harvard. Memories still go back to the days of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the
first American black president in Liberia, who was not recognised by the United States because of his colour.

There has always been a generally sour attitude towards America in Liberia which, perhaps, George Weah could have broken down. Johnson-Sirleaf will not manage that. She is too ’American’ to bring the Liberian underclass back to normal life, the recipe required for real democracy.

Photo: George Weah.