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The making of history in Liberia

28 August 2017 at 19:04 | 2648 views

Commentary

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II in Monrovia, Liberia

On Saturday, August 19, 2017, I attended the official launching of the campaign for the 2017 election for the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), a political party in Liberia. I went to the rally as an election commentator. Although I have covered many elections in the US, my coverage of the Liberian presidential election this year is my first in Africa, where presidential elections are different from that in America. Coming to Liberia is coming home, because I am a Liberian.

CDC is one of the over 20 political parties certified to contest in the presidential and representative elections this October 10 in Liberia. As a single entity, the Congress for Democratic Change is the largest opposition party in Liberia. Last year the party formed a coalition with the National Patriotic Party (NPP) and the Liberian People Democratic Party (LPDP) for this election. CDC standard bearer is George Manneh Weah, a soccer icon and senator of Montserrado County. This is his third time in the presidential race. In 2005, he unsuccessfully ran as standard bearer and in 2011 as vice standard bearer for the party. He lost both elections. This time he vows to win.

Monrovia was locked down on that day. Some stores were closed, traffic on major streets was jammed, and some marketers did not sell in order to attend the rally. I took my nephew with me. Although he is underage to vote, he was excited to go and I wanted him to witness the occasion. Moreover, as a visitor in Liberia and one who has been away for many years, I enjoy family member accompanying me when I go out. We took a taxi from Duala in Bushrod Island to in town Monrovia. The driver tried to cut corner driving to get us to Broad Street so we would take another car to the headquarters in Congo Town, where the gathering was held. I cautioned him to take it easy with the driving.

“Yes papay”, he said.

Papay in Liberia means old man, a classification they give to an older man as a matter of respect. I was one of four passengers in the back seat. The sitting was tight, but I managed.

“Shook-up”, meaning tighten-up or close-up, the fourth passenger said as she forced herself in the back.

“Good Morning yah”, she said.

“Good Morning ooh”, we replied.

I could not turn further, the back was packed, no space. Public transportation is difficult here, and it is a major problem. Some cabs take two passengers in front, even though it is a violation and unsafe. They do that anyway. You could spend hours trying to get car. When it rains, some drivers can increase the fare. You have to accept it; you have no choice.

“The traffic is jam-packed, many stores are closed and people are not selling. CDC is really mean business yah”, the passenger next to me re-stated my earlier description of the situation.

“People are just tired with this government, things are hard; prices are up. It is time for this administration to go”, another passenger said. But that passenger, a lady, said that she would not vote, despite her registration to vote. She stated that last presidential election she voted for Madam President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“Sirleaf disappointed me”, she added.

President Sirleaf, by the Liberian constitution, cannot run for a third term. Her vice president, Ambassador Joseph Baokai, is running instead. It would be the third term for her Unity Party if he wins in October. Sirleaf, with Harvard education and with national and international experience, became president in 2006, making her the first female president in Africa. She became president with high international support and with high expectation from the Liberian people.

The international community continues to put billion of dollars into her government even though her party led administration has failed to meet campaign promises made to the people. Economic Analyst Sam Jackson has indicated that the community did so to have a success story in Africa. It wanted to showcase that Liberia, a once war-torn country, is now a developed and prosperous nation, thanks to her international allies.

The president was the darling of the West after the 2005 election. Just before the 2011 election, she won the Nobel Peace award together with two other awardees. CDC 2011 presidential standard bearer Winston Tubman remarked that she did not deserve the award and that the selection was made to influence the election.

The lady passenger in the taxi was one of the thousand Liberians who feel disappointed in the president and in politicians in general. As stated before, she does not plan to vote in this election, despite Sirleaf’s effort to maintain the peace and encourage freedom of the press and speech in Liberia.

“Ma, vote, it is your right; that is the only way we can get them out”, said the driver to the lady.

Obviously the driver is a CDC partisan or sympathizer. He was speaking positively of the party. He had turned the car radio on to “The Liberian Talk” on 88.5 King FM, the station of CDC. We were hearing coverage of the launching with journalist Robert Haynes in the station and Political Scientist Eugene Fahngon in the US commentating.

“The Liberian people will take their country back, as demonstrating by the turnout. The political cartel has to go”, Fahngon went on further naming members of the cartel and how it was formed.

I knew I was taking a political ride. As we rode, a man came near the driver’s window, saying;
“I will die for CDC, for George Weah”, wearing a blue T shirt with picture of George Weah and with the party emblem.

I said to myself, “will he really die for George Weah”?

We laughed at the man’s behavior and exuberance.

CDC partisans, supporters, sympathizers and those interested in the event walked in groups in the streets from 6 AM to the headquarters over 4 hours walk from Iron Gate, Virginia.

Do not get confused with the name Virginia. It is not a part of the state of Virginia in the US. Liberia, as a country, was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society, which shipped and supported Black ex-slaves to Africa; and they later landed in Liberia that year.

The ex-slaves called themselves Americo-Liberians to distinguish themselves from the aborigines. They became the ruling elite of the country and ruled over the majority native Africans whom they met on the land. The Americo-Liberians, the American Colonization Society and other American sponsors named parts of the country after American leaders and states, including Maryland. Virginia, in the US, was a major slave state, where Africans were sold at auction sites. Monrovia was named after James Monroe, American fifth president, who became president in 1817, a year after the founding of the society. He supported the society and stopped the further importation of African slaves to the Americas.

Back to the story: The long walk did not seem to bother the marchers. They sung and chanted as they walked. Also large trucks carried supporters singing with loud speaker sound, “monkey come down”, a popular political song, which refers to the ruling Unity Party. The march was well organized. Groups met at different points with their respective district representatives. The march was peaceful; the police did a good job, acted professionally and cooperated well with the groups.

We arrived at the headquarters about 11 AM. The compound was packed. Surrounding areas, including space near the beach, were used to accommodate additional people. I was lucky to get a good spot near the platform. More people were coming as we waited for Weah and his running mate Jewel Howard Taylor with their entourage. Music was playing, DJ was talking, and people were selling food and drinks to entertain the crowd. The crowd went wild as the party helicopter flow over the headquarters.

“CDC, CDC, CDC, we are ready”, they jubilantly shouted. They are ready to campaign, for the copter will enable them to campaign in remote places of the country.

This is the raining season in Liberia. Most of the country’s roads are deplorable, even the vice president could not travel to his county Lofa to register to vote, because of the poor condition of the roads. On this day, the weather was good; there was no rain. My nephew was enjoying the event, I could tell from the look on his face. I took pictures, videos and make notes of the gathering. Approximately the crowd was about 2 million people.

The waiting was taking too long, and I do not like to stay out late. We left about 8 PM while the crowd waited for Weah and other officials to arrive. More people were coming while we were leaving. But others were leaving too. The Weah group came between 11-11:30 PM. I did not like the long waiting. I felt he and his entourage should have reduced their travel distance and come directly to the compound. But this was a political event and we are in campaign time and season. Therefore they had to pass the convoy from Rehap Community, passed ELWA Junction, passed Red Light, passed Barnerville Junction to the Freeport, to in town Monrovia and to Congo Town.

These passage points constitute some of the main districts of Montserrado County. In Liberia, people vote by districts. The crowd followed the convoy, chanting “George Weah, George Weah, we want George Weah”.

With the crowd and entourage, which accompanied the standard bearer, some observers estimated the entire rally crowd to be about a little over 2 million people. The accompanied crowd with Weah was about thousands of people, according to the video of the march. I watched the remaining program at home.

Weah started speaking later. There were performances. He spoke of his party’s platform, including his plan to fight corruption, the establishment of a special court for corruptions, the creation of a middle class, strategies to minimize poverty, creation of a society where the market people, petty traders and the poor can have better lives, creation of a better healthcare, improvement of agriculture and education, and re-creation of the Agriculture Cooperative Bank.

He gave reasons for him getting into politics and talked about his humble beginning as a child growing up in the ghettos of Monrovia and later becoming a national and international celebrity. There were other celebrities, including Frank Artus, a Nollywood actor and Ivorian musician Frederic Desire Ehui. In detail in his speech, Weah told the public and the international community.

“I would like to make it resoundingly and unequivocally clear that as much as we are going to commit ourselves to a violent free election; make no mistake, we will not sit idly and allow our democratic rights to be infringed upon through the implementation of a electioneering process that will be embroiled with irregularities—which could ultimately produce a leader that wasn’t elected by the people, but selected by a few”.

He further told the crowd. "Because of your resolve, I hereby promise to endeavor at all cost to not betray the trust you have placed in me to be your chief pilot surrounded by seasoned and able patriots to lead our political institution to victory come October 10, 2017. I want to assure you that your sacrifices will not be in vain as we seek nothing, but a first round victory. As your leader, I am battle tested and adequately prepared to lead our party to victory and our country to higher heights; and into a state of endless opportunities.”

He went on to give a detailed picture of his beginning life in poverty, the challenges he faced, the questions he pondered on about his impoverished life and that of his people, his determination not to give up and his decision to enter politics. He told his story, which majority Liberians can relate to, and a dream for his people and for every child.

“I will begin with my personal story. Growing up in Claratown, it was not easy to find food to eat, especially coming up with a single parent. But later I noted that these challenges and experiences were meant to prepare me for future challenges”
He informed that his life challenges and experiences enabled him to answer questions he had have as a boy. “I had always wondered while growing up as to why many of my counterparts and I were subjected to such an impoverished lifestyle while a selected few lived in abundance. But little did I know that these things were caused due to an age old problem consisting of corruption, greed and the lack of vision, unpatriotic leaders, and the in-equitable distribution of our national wealth. My experience with UNICEF even spiked my interest in wanting to do more in my capacity from a larger scale, but I soon realized that I could not solve all of the problems on my own as a private citizen”.

“It was then that I developed the desire to see a better Liberia where the ordinary citizens will be given opportunities to succeed, a Liberia where our national wealth will not just be distributed among a selected few. A Liberia where our people will be liberated from the shackles of poverty, a Liberia where elitism will be abolished and corruption declared a common enemy”.

To Weah, his dream is a Liberian dream and therefore called on other concerned politicians and private Liberians to join him for a better Liberia. He said:
“With love for my country and the love my people have for me, we can all help build the country and make it a better place for all. Dr. Martin Luther King said he had a dream. I too have a dream that Liberia, with the status quo of bad leadership, I bring a new sense of nationalism. I have a dream to take Liberia from the average to excellence from poverty to abundance”.

Throughout his speech, he was interrupted with repeatedly and extremely loud applause, party slogans and salutations. The rally lasted to the next morning.
Personally, I can relate to his story. I was raised in Claratown, a slum community in Bushrod Island, Monrovia. The inhabitants were predominately Kru, an ethnic group. Life was difficult. Our parents were poor and unemployed. They had no permanent work. Some fathers did day job at the Freeport of Monrovia as dock helps or stevedores. Some were temporary seafarers; some were fishermen while our mothers were market women selling at the West Point market. Soccer was our pastime for us the boys for recreation, which was organized by P.S.J., our Godfather who helped and encouraged us to withstand poverty and to stay in school. His role and others who nurtured us in our lives showed that it takes a village to raise a child.

I knew Weah’s father, William or Papee, very well. He was a senior brother and also a soccer player, though not good as his son Manneh became. But I was fortunate. I left Claratown for high school in the US a month after Manneh’s birth. I thank God for the opportunity. Sadly, however, Claratown was demolished in 1971 for no good reasons. But our people were squatters. The Methodist church owned the land and ordered the surprised and sudden demolition. Our people were panicky and scattered. Majority moved to live in New Krutown while few moved to Gibraltar, both ghettos in Monrovia. Most of our people had previously migrated from New Krutown to Claratown for employment opportunities created due to the construction of the Freeport, which was closer to Claratown.

As our taxi passed old Claratown location on my way to the rally, I saw hundreds of people standing and jumping up in jubilation for the Amanda. They cried,
“CDC, George Weah, George Weah for president.

I thought about old Claratown, I thought about the history of the town and saw the making of a new history for the people and the country. It was an Amanda for change.
Critics questioned the estimated crowd count, arguing that the population of Montserrado County is 1.1 million people and that 69.5% of the population has registered to vote this year. In total, 2.1 million Liberians registered to vote according to Liberian National Election Commission (NEC). Therefore, it is impossible for the crowd to be 2 million or plus.

Some observers, however, pointed out that some of the attendants came from other counties, including Margibi and Bong. Also it was reported on radio that there was another crowded rally in Grand Bassa County for the launch. These counties, along with Montserrado, are among the 6 largest counties in Liberia. They constitute majority of the 4.5 million population of the country. The observers further indicated that that yes, many members of the crowd, including my nephew, are not eligible to vote, but the number of the crowd or turnout spoke volume and sent a strong message of the strength of the party. The turnout additionally proved that Montserrado County is still the stronghold of CDC.

But critics told me also that the turnout should not matter, because the party had put out similar number in past presidential elections and have come up short in the vote counts. They are correct. In 2005 the party put out a large number in their assembly at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium and at the party headquarters in 2011 but lost both elections.

CDC supporters, nevertheless, maintained that they were cheated. In 2005 the party planned to take their complaint to the Liberian Supreme Court but later decided to accept the results for the sake of peace. In 2011 after the first round, it boycotted the run-off election for similar complaint, allowing the Unity Party to run unopposed.

Weah alluded to this view in his warning to the public and attention to the international community stated in the speech. Weah seemed to have serious concern about fair and transparent election in Liberia. In his meetings with regional African leaders, he expressed this concern.

Most recently this month, he met with Faure Gnassingbe, president of Togo and current chairman of ECOWAS and called for fair and peaceful election in Liberia. Although foreign leaders cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation, countries are obliged to institute and carryout fair, peaceful and transparent elections. Leaders of other countries can put pressure on a country and her president to comply. Gambia is a recent example.

The rally was one of the largest and uninterrupted gatherings of opposition party members and supporters in the political history of Liberia. It was one of the campaign turnouts with much enthusiasm I have seen in recent time. During the rule of the True Whip Party in Liberia, an opposing candidate and his supporters were denied the right to peacefully march and assemble. The party ruled Liberia with iron hand from 1877-1980. President Sirleaf desires credit and thanks, and the Liberian people and the oppositions should be applauded for the peace and freedom which the country now enjoys.

What does this turnout represent regarding the election?

As I have said in past commentaries, to win an election, a candidate or party must have the number. The current NEC statistics of registered voters reveal that Montserrado County has the largest number of registered voters, follows by Nimba, Bong, Lofa, Margibi and Bassa, to name the six largest counties. Montserrado has 777,503 (35%) registered voters; Nimba 279,572 (13%); Bong 208,150 (9%); Lofa 167,555 (8%); Margibi 154,328 (7%) and Bassa 145,798 (7%), all representing 79% of the registered voters.

CDC turnout proves strongly that the party still has the number particularly for Montserrado. The NEC data also reveal that voters of 18-37 year old constitute 64% of the registered voters and most of that percent is from Montserrado. Breakdown: First-time voters (18-27) 37%, most from Bong. Second-time voters (28-37) 27% and majority is from Montserrado. Thus, the party that is youth oriented stands a very good chance in the election.

Furthermore, CDC vice standard bearer is from Bong and is a senator. She has won the county senatorial elections twice. Nationally, she is well known and is the only popular female candidate in the presidential race. She could attract the female gender votes, amounting to 49% of those registered. Also, Bong and Montserrado account for 43% of the registered voters and have majority of the first and second time voters. These two counties alone constitute close to half of those registered to vote in this election.

Judging from the turnout, over 90% of the participants was 18-37 year old, the youth block, which politically can be referred to as the Critical Mass. If CDC continues to turnout similar number, especially in the 4 large counties (Nimba, Bong, Margibi and Bassa) excluding Lofa, the election could be over possibly in the first round. Additionally, so far, the party has superior logistics to effectively campaign in the interior areas of the country, if the party is not complacent and relaxed.

However, another indication is of concern. Recent polls by internationally credible pollsters show that 45-60% of the electorates are undecided, though Weah is leading in the race. This means that the election is seemingly open and parties need to be vigilant and more serious in their campaigns. But these polls were taken before the official campaigning of CDC and possibly of other major parties. A poll by the end of September would and should give a better picture. Local pollsters tend to be unscientific, political and one-sided, giving reading which supports their political interest. I do not take their polls seriously in my analysis.

Moreover, there is a continual doubt of Weah’s readiness or leadership ability by the historical Liberian elite and the supper educated Liberians. To them he is not a presidential material and should not become president. On the other hand, they never said what constitutes a presidential material, because the Liberian constitution does not express the qualifications for the presidency other than a candidate should be a Liberian citizen, should be of a certain age and of good character and be a taxpayer.

As others have observed but expressed by Eugene Fahngon, in 2005, critics said that Weah was not educated. Weah after the defeat went to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree. In 2011, they said it was not enough. He lost. He went back to school and received a Master’s with honor. They said he did not have government experience. He ran and became a senator of the most populated county. He won by landslide. Yet to the elite and their supporters/surrogates, it is not enough. Fahngon asked:

“What else do they want from this man”?

Analytically, the elite have a love-hit relation with Weah. They see him as a mere soccer player who should focus on sports and leave the leadership of the country to them. But at the same time, they admire his soccer playing talent and his triumph as a player, putting Liberia and Africa on the map as a soccer legend. They would also, because of his national popularity, prefer to have him as their running mate for the presidency but yet they do not find him to be qualified to become president. It is not a contradiction? He can be vice president but not president!

Weah’s silence on issues and his absence from a recent presidential debate have added fuel to the doubt. Opponents viewed that his absence indicates his inability to discuss the issues. His supporters maintained that he was out of the country for a prior engagement. I do not support Weah’s silence. But the criticism regarding the debate was indeed unfair, as evidence proves reason for the absence.

Additionally, a candidate’s absence from a debate does not necessarily indicate his/her inability to articulate the issues. A candidate leading in a race may elect to skip a debate for many reasons, including the view that the candidate’s participation would enhance the opponent’s status to his or her. It is usually the losing candidate who would call for debate.

Further, in most instances a debate does not change or impact an election. For instance, in the 2000 election in America, Vice President Al Gore won the debates but lost the election to George H. Bush who was considered to be dumb and less qualified. In the following election, Bush defeated Senator John Kerry who had won all the debates. Most recently, Hilary Clinton, who was more qualified and experienced, won all three debates but lost the election to a less popular Donald Trump, who had no political or government experience and who, according to sources, has an elementary school level of grammar and reading.

However, the above happened in the US. Presidential debate in Africa may be different and viewed differently. While Liberian population with access to TV and radio is very small and hence debate may be meaningless, Weah should attend the next debate if there would be another one. Potential public perception, especially during an election, may become a reality if gone unchecked and not dealt with immediately.

During my visit in Liberia, I have observed that the Liberian people are not too much interested in a candidate’s education, money, national and international experience and the ability to speak, rather in the candidate’s past record and what the candidate can do to change their objective condition. They are interested in a candidate with love of people and country and with a selfless heart.

“The book people”, as they say, “have failed us”.

They are looking for change!

Editor’s Note: Here is George Weah speaking at one of his political rallies last year, after preliminary statements by party stalwarts:

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