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Liberian 2017 presidential election: First round saga

20 November 2017 at 19:04 | 4658 views

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia, Liberia.

I have covered the 2017 Liberian presidential election since 2016, over eight months before the start of the campaign in 2017. Liberia’s election was my first political coverage in Africa. I have covered many elections in America. Although the US presidential election is somewhat different from that in Africa, all political parties have one common interest; that is they all want to win.

Political campaigns provide the arena for a candidate to inform and sell his/her platform to the electorate. Elections accentuate and bring to light the democratic principle that power is inherent in the people, and that the people have the power to change their government and officials and to replace them with a system and individuals of their choice. This right constitutes the essence of democracy.
Below I express again the predictions I made prior to the election. I also restate key election results and discuss the aftermath, the runoff election saga.

Predictions
Judging from the history of Liberia and the political behavior of the Liberian people, I arrived at an initial conclusion in 2016 regarding the election. As indicated in my first article; “Preliminary Observations and Advices on the Liberian 2017 Presidential Election”, I stated that majority of the political parties would not do well in the election; that the newer ones, particularly the All Liberian Party, ANC of Benoni Urey, the Movement for Economic Empowerment, MOVEE of Mills Jones and the Alternative National Congress, ANC of Alexander Cummings would not get not more than five percent of the national votes. I based this assertion on the fact that they were new and had no strongholds.

In early 2017, the issue of ethnicity surfaced in the election. Counselor Charles Brumskine, standard bearer of the Liberty Party (LP) and VP Joseph Boakai, standard bearer of the ruling Unity Party (UP) were accusing each other of tribalism; a matter of Congo/Americo-Liberians vs. Natives. Brumskine was called a Congo man and Boakai, a native man, a son of the soil. The Boakai camp and the UP organization also accused Bromskine of receiving support from President Sirleaf. In my article on ethnicity, I pointed out that this issue is historical and will not go away soon. I stated that it would play a role in the campaign.

Surely upon Boakai’s selection of House Speaker Emmanuel Nuquay as his running mate, UP campaigned under the banner “the indigenous ticket”, meaning that Boakai, a Kissi, and Nuquay, a Kpelle, are native Liberians and they should be voted as Liberian next leaders. Brumskine, Urey, Cummings, Jones and others were considered Americo-Liberians or Congos whose forebears ruled and suppressed the natives in the past and so the settlers’ children should not rule Liberia again.

In my second observations, I went deeper into the election predicting that the Coalition of Democratic Change, CDC, would dominate the Montserrado votes, and would go into the runoff if the election goes into the second round. That UP or LP would make the runoff with CDC. I wrote.

The projection of CDC doing very well in Montserrado County is based on the 2005 and 2011 presidential elections and most recently the 2014 senatorial election data. The projection notes also the increase of votes in 2011 together with the increase in estimated first- time voters for 2017.

I further gave the scenario as to how the second round would play out. I stated:
If LP is in, CDC could win easily. If UP in and the standard bearers of the other opposition parties join CDC, the coalition could win by a landslide. If they split their support, CDC could win but with a smaller margin or number. If UP gets all their support along with their counties, UP could win. But that could come with a sacrifice; Brumskin’s political career could end. It could prove that he had been a regime collaborator all along. He would not be trusted politically.

I also said that a Boakai-Weah face up “would be interesting because the Boakai camp would not play the Native-Congo card. Two native sons, Weah and Boakai, would be competing for the presidency. Removal of the ethnic card would disarm the Boakai troop”.

Reality: Election results
The election was held on October 10. The turnout was huge, 75.2% of 1.6M Liberians voted. There were long queues. George Weah’s CDC received 38.4% of the total votes; Joseph Boakai, 28.8%; and Charles Brumskine, LP 9.6%. They received the highest votes. With this result, the National Elections Commission (NEC), certified CDC and UP for the runoff election scheduled November 7.

Contrary to my earlier assertion that the newer parties, including ANC would not receive more than 5% of the national votes, ANC in reality did better; got 7.2%, ALP 1.6%, MOVEE 0.8%. The other newcomers got less than 1%. I misjudged Cummings’ movement. His rise can be easily explained. As indicated in a recent discussion, though he won no county, he did well in Montserrado County. He got most of his votes from inner-city jobless youths, who joined his campaign for change. These youths could have come mostly from the Liberty Party. This is evident in the Montserrado votes of which LP received 7.1% and ANC 10.43%, putting ANC to third place in the county votes. CDC obtained 48.6%, while UP 27.3%, according to NEC final vote results

I acknowledged ANC effort in my last commentary a few days before election. “Today Saturday ANC and UP will climax their campaign gathering at the ATS and at the UP compound respectively”, I said, adding “ANC is showing strength in the final hours”. However, I concluded that ANC would not be among the top three parties. It would come distant fourth or fifth.

CDC won 11 of the 15 counties. UP won 2, including Lofa County, VP Boakai’s home county. LP won 1, Grand Bassa, Bromskine’s birthplace. MDR of Prince Johnson received 8.2% of the national votes, placing him fourth. He captured Nimba, his stronghold, which is the second largest populated county behind Montserrado, the most populated area in Iberia.

CDC won 3 of the 6 largest counties, including Bong and Margibi. These two counties are not traditionally CDC strongholds. But in this election, they fell to the party. CDC won Sinoe and the rest of the Southeastern counties, including River Gee, a traditionally UP stronghold. The stronghold analysis suggests that a party that wins areas not its strongholds would do great in its own terrain. CDC did this according to NEC voting stats.

A presidential election in Liberia would go into a runoff if no candidate received 50% plus one vote. Despite some irregularities, including voter confusion and late opening of some precincts, generally the Liberian people and international observers viewed the election to be fair, transparent and peaceful. However, some opposition parties disagreed.

REALTY: RESULTS AFTERMATH/SAGA
In September 2016, the opposition parties met in Ganta, Nimba County and signed the Ganta Declaration by which they agreed that should an opposition party go to the runoff with the governing Unity Party, all the other opposition parties would support that opposition party. Major opposition parties ran and campaigned for change. “We are tired with the Unity Party; we want change”, said the opposition parties and some voters.

But after the first round, LP, ALP and ANC started wavering in their support for change contrary to the Ganta Declaration. The Liberty Party complained of election irregularities and filed a complaint to NEC requesting a rerun of the elections. ALP and ANC also complained, though all three parties performed dismally in the presidential election, according to the results.

The three parties disregarded the Ganta Declaration. ALP Benoni Urey gave support to UP after privately meeting with Boakai and Nuquay, according to Alexander Duopu, ALP vice standard bearer now a CDC supporter. Interestingly, during the campaign, Urey had told the Liberian people that even if they did not vote for him, they should not vote for the ruling establishment or the “wicked Boakai-Nuquay ticket”. Like the other oppositions, Urey ran for change; change from what UP stands for. ANC Cummings also changed his mind as he set conditions for supporting any of the parties in the runoff. He is now supporting Boakai.

LP filed a writ of prohibition to the Supreme Court to halt the runoff election. The Court ruled for the party and ordered NEC to speedily investigate the complaints. That ruling, accordingly, was based on due process and not on the weight of the alleged electoral irregularities and frauds. Accordingly also, LP can return to the court if the party dissatisfies with NEC. However, though LP legal action may be criticized, the party has the right to seek legal redress. While LP won its appeal to the court, it later demanded the recusal or removal of NEC commissioners on the case. It argued that the commissioners cannot judge a case which they have already denied.

Prior to the ruling, Prince Johnson, who had initiated the Ganta Declaration, pledged support to the opposition CDC under the principle of the declaration. His support is very important in that Nimba, as stated before, has the second largest population. As a presidential candidate, Johnson got majority of the Nimba votes. His endorsement put a chill in the spine of the Unity Party.

In an apparent response, UP called a press conference at its headquarters on October 30th and supported LP appeal to the high court. In a statement read by UP Chairman Wilmot Pay in the presence of LP and ALP representatives, Pay spoke of alleged gross electoral irregularities. Surprisingly, he accused UP standard bearer emeritus President Sirleaf of master mining the electoral frauds, irregularities, intimidation and direct interference. These strong allegations were levered on the president on her 79th birthday. The executive mansion rubbished the accusations.

UP intervened in the LP case and requested NEC voting data, including voter roll and police arrest reports on individuals caught with election document. Also UP brought former NEC chairmen to testify as witnesses. During the deliberation of the case, the party’s lawyers complained that NEC is not providing requested information and therefore filed a bill of information to the Supreme Court to compel NEC to comply. The Court denied the bill.

What is interesting is that some of the data requested are public information which could have been obtained from the police since NEC does not investigate election crimes. The importance and relevancy of past NEC chairmen in this case could not be established. Additionally, UP lead lawyer, Senator and Counselor Varney Sherman, is an alleged criminal involved in the Sable Mining case now pending. Some legal observers viewed that the voter roll should have been requested and reviewed 30 days prior to election and not after the election. They further viewed that the senator should not have been allowed to plead in a criminal case.

Some regular observers think that UP involvement in the LP case was a desperate move after hearing of Prince Johnson’s endorsement and that the president was used as a scapegoat. Moreover, the party used LP complaints to gain sympathy from the court whose members are considered to be UP and LP sympathizers. Even if the court eventually denies LP call for election rerun, UP hopes perhaps to gain support and solidarity particularly from LP in the runoff.

Critics viewed that UP and LP are using delay tactics by engaging in fishing expedition for evidence. Counselor Frank Dean of NEC informed the Supreme Court of this practice in stating that UP lawyers are filing motions after “motions like it’s a court which is delaying the process and they are crying more than the bereaved”. The complainant, on the other hand, accused NEC of delaying and not complying.

Unlike this election, in 2011, Prince Johnson supported UP and his endorsement helped UP win the election against CDC, then the Congress for Democratic Change. But CDC boycotted the runoff after it complaint of frauds did not receive favorable attention from NEC and from the Supreme Court. The party did not try to delay the runoff election. UP celebrated the election victory and stayed in power for a second term. UP celebrated in 2005 when it won its first election against George Weah. But in this election, the table has turned. Liberians in general want change as I observed.
If the Supreme Court dismisses a second appeal, it would be difficult for UP to win the runoff election, despite stated opposition collaboration with the regime. With the Nimba votes and votes from other counties and those from members crossed over from defeated parties, CDC would have more votes for a landslide as predicted in my analysis. Statistically, CDC would neither need leaders of LP, ANC nor ALP to win once the coalition protects its votes.

If the court allows a rerun as happened in Kenya, it will be unprecedented and would have a negative impact on Liberia in many ways, including: the government has no money to conduct a reelection of the presidential and representative elections; there would not be enough time to conduct the elections, for President Sirleaf constitutionally will be out of office in January, 2018; it could create a problem of succession and the installation of a possible interim government; it could create election fatigue resulting in many Liberians not wanting to vote; UP, LP, ALP and ANC could be viewed negatively as infringers on the right of Liberians from choosing their desired leader by election. At the same time, there would be those supporting and cheering LP and its cohorts for the appeal. This polarization could create chaos.
The establishment of interim administration does not usually work well in Africa, as caretakers tend to take opportunity to amass wealth and to stay long in power. The Sawyer interim government is an example of an ineffective and corrupt administration.

This arrangement would hurt Liberia’s fragile democracy. Liberia’s electoral problem has gotten the attention of the international community. In late October Guinea President Alpha Conde, chair of the African Union and Togolese President Faure Gnossingbe, chair of ECOWAS, visited Liberia and met with leaders of the five parties on the election problem. The European Union, the UN Mission in Liberia, UNMIL and the Carter Center have expressed concern on the issue and have called for a speedy resolution on the problem.

Most recently, the United States, through her Embassy in Liberia, “expresses confidence in the integrity of October 10, 2017 election” and warmed strongly Liberia’s political leaders to take consideration of Liberian citizens who stood and waited in long queues to vote on that day. The Embassy stated that “efforts by any actors to impede the expressed will of Liberia’s people for personal ambition could risk goodwill and future investment in Liberia by international partners”. Like the EU, the embassy urged for a speedy resolution of the matter.

U.S. EMBASSY STATESMENT
The US embassy statement should be taken seriously. United States is the traditional friend of Liberia and has helped and continues to assist Liberia financially and developmentally in many sectors. Liberia needs America. The preparation of an embassy statement on a host country situation takes serious thought, involving consideration of various factors.

As discussed in an earlier paper, usually the political section of the embassy drafts the statement, which is reviewed by the country team and submitted to the ambassador for consideration for submission to Washington, State Department for the secretary of state’s attention who may add or subtract suggestions. It looked that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the issue with President Trump during their regular briefing on world matters for official approval making the statement US position on the issue.

Since Ambassador Christine Elder is the personal representative of the president, the ambassador may have communicated directly with President Trump on the Liberia’s issue with the knowledge of Secretary Tillerson. Seemingly, the president took a no nonsense approach on the Liberian saga with advice from the experts. Gone are the days when America saw herself as the world police and imposed her will on other countries. Gone are the days when US foreign policy disregarded the will of the people and sided with minority and corrupt leaders or with US puppets selected as leaders. A country variable foreign policy changes by the leadership influenced by domestic and international conditions. In short, the American society or its world view of the 50s and 60s is totally different from that of today. The same is with Liberia; during those periods, we depended on and related heavily with the USA, but now we have relation with China and other nations.

An embassy statement is indeed the official position of the foreign country on matter of the host country deserving the attention of the foreign nation less interfering in the domestic affair of the host country. The embassy is the direct representative of the foreign nation to the host country. Usually the statement is softly crafted in diplomatic language.

But this embassy statement is straight, direct and strong diplomatically. It appears that America is not happy with the saga and wants the political leaders in Liberia to do something urgently. The statement also erases or should clear the view in Liberia that the Trump administration does not want a particular candidate to become president of Liberia. The statement without doubt mentions that the two candidates who received the highest votes should compete in the runoff and the Liberian people should decide their leader through election.

Indeed the statement said. “The U.S. Embassy urges the top two finishers, who collectively received the support of two-thirds of Liberian voters, to focus on constructively engaging each other and voters as they prepare to compete in the runoff”. In other words, the Trump government would work with the winner, either Boakai or Weah of the runoff election and would not choose who should be Liberia’s president. America wants a smooth, peaceful and democratic transition in Liberia, the statement indicates. The statement also suggests that the Trump administration would find it uncomfortable in maintaining a cordial and bilateral relation with a group, which forces its self on the Liberian people. While majority of Liberians who called on public radio supported the statement, few criticized it as interfering in Liberia’s domestic affair.

Liberia experienced a 14 year civil war in the 1990s to early 2000s in part due to the violation of constitutional rights and to the greed for power. Through the effort of the international community and the Liberian people, peace and security were reestablished. In 2006, Madam Sirleaf became president after the 2005 election. The end of her administration will mark for the first time since 1944 a constitutionally elected president will hand power over to another constitutionally elected president. Hence, it is necessary that the election goes on smoothly and that peace and stability be maintained in Liberia.

Today, as Liberians look up to NEC and the Supreme Court, they ask themselves; where are we heading?

MOTIVES
What is the possible motive of this saga? A look at the history of power struggle in Liberia would throw some lights on the issue.

As stated in previous discussions, leadership of the country since creation of the state was in the hands of the Americo-Liberians until 1980. Power was forcibly taken from them as a result of the April 12, 1980 revolution led by native noncommissioned soldiers headed by Master Samuel Doe. But by 1990, an invasion commanded by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, led to the civil war mentioned earlier. Evidence indicates that some members of the Americo-Liberians, including President Sirleaf and company funded Taylor invasion and war.

President Charles Taylor came into power by the election in 1997. But he too was removed by force in part by internal warring forces for control and by international powers for war crime in neighboring Sierra Leone. His removal paved the way for the election in 2005, which brought into power President Sirleaf and the Unity Party.
The surprise selection of Vice President Boakai, a native Kissi as Sirleaf running mate seemed to have met the approval of most Liberians, particularly the educated ones and Boakai’s kinsmen and other natives. Sirleaf opponent, George Weah, also a native and a well known soccer icon, was not elected specifically because he was a high school dropout accordingly.

Having returned to school and received a Master’s degree, and having being elected senator from Monserrado County, Weah and his party CDC rightfully felt that the time was now to seek again the presidency. The decision may have been influenced also by the fact that President Sirleaf’s term was to expire in January, 2018 and the vice president was not politically active as Boakai has described his (Boakai) role as “a car parked in the garage”. Additionally, the Liberian people wanted change; the Unity Party has made many unfulfilled promises in two terms and sadly in time of extreme poverty and hardship marked by rampant corruption. This condition continues when Liberia received over $16B in international investments and assistance. However, the UP led government has made some achievements stated previously.

While the average Liberians can identify with Weah’s poor background and see him as a hero, the historical elites and their followers see him as uneducated, dumb, dull and too country to be president. Although the major opposition parties agreed to support the opposition in a runoff, the results of the election may have made Brumskine, Cummings and Urey, all Americo-Liberians, to rethink their chances to national leadership for the following possible reasons:

One, the vice president is old, had thought about retiring. Two, he is quiet, not active and easy to be influenced. Three, he grew up with the elites or with their families; he attended high school (CWA) with them. Fourth, a Boakai presidency would put them in powerful government positions. Five, with Boakai’s age and possible retirement as president, the elites see a better chance with him in this scenario; if he retires or possibly is incapacitated as president, his vice president would assume the presidency, making available the new VP position, which any of the supported elites could occupy.

With Weah, the elites may have considered the following facts. He is young, popular and nationally and internationally famous. He did not grow up with them, did not go to school with them and was born in the slum. He is surrounded with some “book people” and with lot of party militants who are dedicated, committed, and loyal to him. Moreover, most likely he could be in the presidency for 12 years. His vice president would run and possible could win, making a CDC presidency for 24 years, too long. Even should he become incapacitated, his VP would become president and the new vice president post would most likely go to a staunched CDCian and not to an outsider.

SCENARIO
Thus with these considerations, the three collaborators may have chosen Boakai as the better option. To make this happen, Brumskine, a skillful and well experienced legal counselor, used the court or legal system to complain of electoral irregularities, frauds and any points available to halt the runoff while negotiating with Boakai UP camp. Brumskine may have seriously considered that this election was his last hurrah for the presidency. He had unsuccessfully tried three times.

Prince Johnson’s endorsement of Weah seemed to have made it easier to seal the deed with Boakai. Urey came along easily, for him had already made a deal with Boakai and Nequay earlier. Cummings, a new arrival to the Liberian electoral politics joined in. They welcomed him on board primarily for his youth votes and for his deep pocket. However, he failed to realize that his followers were leaving for the coalition in disappointment for his betrayer of their trust.

The team’s strategy looks simple: hijack the runoff election as possible to buy time to campaign or to lead to a state of administrative uncertainty and a political vacuum for an interim government; make Representative Edwin Snowe, UP campaign head, speaker of the house thereby becoming acting president; Snowe, also wealthy and whose wife is on the Supreme Court bench, would gladly support this idea and would use personal financial resources to make this deal work; employ as many CDCians and other opposition party members to positions in the new administration to decrease antagonism and to increase support; and meanwhile, the Brumskine-Boakai and their disciplines would be in the background running the caretaker administration for a new election soon as possible. With this possible arrangement, the cartel would have enough time to regroup and thus arrest Weah’s presidential opportunity.
But this scenario strategy is risky and dangerous. The American and other international intelligent operators may have dug this intention. While it may satisfy a group of actors’ self-egos and selfishness, it can lead to national chaos and destabilization. Liberia and the Liberian people have suffered too long to undergo again this calamity.

CONCLUSION
This discussion reviewed my predictions on the election first round and checked them against the election results. Many times election predictions or projections are not correct just like polls. They are not gospels. But by observing the behaviors of the electorates over time, one can try to forecast results. The discussion also looked at the current election stalemate, reviewing behaviors and possible motives and scenario.

Some encouraging signs for Liberia are that the domestic and international communities are concerned and hence are putting pressure on the actors to see reasons for a speedy solution. Going through the legal process is better than going into the streets violently. Also, the LP general complaint has some possible benefits. Despite the infringement of scheduled voting right, the challenge could make NEC to be more careful, serious, and fair and better manage future elections. But using the court system merely as a delay mechanism is equally unlawful, unfair, and undemocratic.

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