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Rhythm and Blues of Liberia’s Presidential election

Rhythm and Blues of Liberia’s Presidential election

The second stadium in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Antoinette Tubman stadium was packed to the rafters. For the first time, both ex combatants and victims of the country’s civil war had formed themselves into football and kickball teams to play a Peace and Reconciliation nationwide soccer tournament that was organised by the Community Outreach Unit of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in collaboration with the Sports for Peace Task Force of which I was part of.  In return, the winning team takes home a giant – size trophy, a set of football jerseys, certificates and above all, a presidential handshake and photo opportunity.  (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh, author)

A regional team had qualified for the Grand Finale and they were now placed to lock horns with a team from the city on the day. In the jam-packed stadium was the Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf otherwise known as the ‘Ol Ma’ (because of her age). She was not dressed in sporting gears but rather, in her trademark head-kerchief style and a cotton suit designed in lappa.

She was determined however not to be overshadowed by the youths at the stadium and particularly her leading opponent in the 2005 Presidential elections, George Weah, who had youthfulness and charisma. Weah was once Africa’s best, European best and World’s best footballer.

And when whistle blew for her to do the kick –off, she exhibited the skills of a dribbler, allowed the ball to float a bit and took a kick that reminded of the best days of Brazilian born Roberto –Carlos. You can imagine the applause.

The message was simple: though old, she still had in her the agility of a monkey to run the country for six years during her first term and even probably more.

Today, as the Ol Ma contests for a second term in office- though she was on record to have said she was only going to be a one –term President, her supporters are now using monkey figurative to ward off any attempt to deny her another sting at the Executive Mansion .They say, “Monkey still working. Let baboon wait small ya.” But with the critics saying that the monkey has completely finished eating all the juicy bananas on the tree and it is now time for them to replenish the lost stock, will the Ol Ma get an easy ride back to power?  Will she be dethroned by the leading opposition, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) headed by one time UN Special Representative to Somalia, Winston Tubman with George Weah as his running mate?

The Old Ma is contesting in a crowded field of Presidential aspirants with at least fifteen others. She, together with two other women are contesting against the traditional boys club that also include Prince Johnson, a former warlord turned Senator. Johnson was the guy who broke away from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and supervised the torture and killing of former Liberian President Samuel K. Doe- and even filmed the gory incident.

The 2005 presidential election was about experience, international respectability and acceptability and education. Weah who, for the better part of that election gave the Ol Ma sleepless nights was a well liked soccer star. What was however lacking was formal academic qualification. Though his supporters had transformed the “whether you killed my ma or you killed my pa, I will vote for you,” anthem that helped popularize former President Taylor’s rise to power through the ballot and not bullet anthem into, “you know book o, u nor know book o, we will vote for you,” at crunch time, perceptions gave way to reality. Ellen won the second round and Weah cried foul.

For this election, however, Weah is not only contesting on the crest of having spent at least four years  to attain a university degree, he has also dropped one step down to make room for Winston Tubman, also a Harvard graduate like the incumbent to give her a good run for her money. Tubman may not be as popular among the youths like Weah but as nephew to William Tubman, Liberia’s longest serving president, he is simply not a pushover.

Back in 2005 when the first post war elections were held, Liberia was in a state of comatose. The UN and the rest of the international community were trying to resuscitate a nation that was at war with itself for fourteen years. The Robert International Airport (RIA) was like an airstrip in war torn Mogadishu. The roads in the city were pathetic if not terrible. Government buildings were pale shadows of their former selves and even the National Elections Commission (NEC) was housed in a building that could have best been described as a warehouse. In fact, most able bodied Liberians were either in Ghana or the United States and had vowed never to return to the land of sweet liberty.

That spectacle, on the eve of elections in 2011 has changed drastically. The Presidency may not be operating at the Executive Mansion at the moment. The promise of electricity and pipe borne water to all nook and crannies of at least the capital may not have been achieved in its entirety but six years down the line, Liberia and Liberians have something to be proud of.

They are taking the destiny of their country in their hands and business is booming while infrastructures are sprouting all over the place. With the latter and especially in this political season, come billboards of all shapes and sizes with messages or slogans from the various political parties and candidates. You can’t miss the smiling face of a much younger Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Tubman or any other of the other aspirants craving for recognition in the limited spaces available in down town Monrovia or on the highways that lead out of the city. And to counter the President’s supporters  ‘monkey still working’ slogan, opposition supporters, I am told are now going around  town with monkeys  placed in cages and vowing not to release them until after the elections. Some have teddy bears and hitting them to send a message that the baboon will not allow the monkey another banana on top of the banana plant.

Critics say that during her six years in power, the Ol Ma stifled the opposition by appointing key members Ministers or to top government posts. For her United Party though, it was a government of inclusion. The opposition has also cried foul over the President’s inability to implement key aspects of the TRC recommendations particularly that which would have prevented her from holding public office amid over thirty years.

For an outsider, one may be tempted to ask whether or not Taylor, the former President who is currently behind bars at The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity has any effect in the elections. In 2005, his ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, a Senator from Bong County, joined ranks with Ellen with the hope that her husband or ex was not going to be handed to the court. Whether a deal was struck behind the scenes or not, Taylor was handed over and Jewel fell out with the Ol Ma. She now supports the Tubman – Weah team and it is her dream that those Taylor loyalists may throw their weight this time behind this ticket. Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) is no longer a potent force in the political equation and whether for good or bad, Taylor’s days of glory and reign in Liberia are gone.

Make no mistake about this, this year’s election is going to be a hard nut to crack for the incumbent if only we are to judge by four propositions which she and her party supported and campaigned vigorously for during last month’s referendum in other to make some changes to the constitution .The opposition, led by the CDC wanted no changes and when the votes were cast, it was some form of victory for the latter.

What however may have revived the Ellen’s brand even to the kid just born today is the fact that just on the eve of the election, she, together with another Liberian, Leymah Gbowie and a Yemeni were announced winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for peace. This is some form of endorsement from the international community, which seems to be saying Ellen “is my beloveth daughter in whom we are well pleased.” If this is not a palace coup for the opposition, then tell me what it is.

But this seeming endorsement may backfire. The opposition is already weaving it as another attempt by the international community to install the Ol’ Ma, making a quick reference to the last elections. This may have a galvanizing effect.

As it now stands and judging from the last election, traditionally, Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party may snatch a sizeable number of votes from Grand Bassa County. Prince Johnson from Nimba may also give the President a good run for her money in that area and the Krahns from Grand Gedeh (the country where Samuel Doe hails from) may vote Tubman-Weah instead of Ellen.

Are these cast in stone however? Things may have changed and the tables turned but in whose favour, I would not know. And unlike here in Sierra Leone where party political difference are now a do or die battle, got the better part of us to the extent that it is now a do or die battle, Liberians, as was demonstrated in 2005 and even now may have their differences but they have never resorted to burning down houses or party offices or raping their women or even attacking and wounding their political rivals. Instead, they use rallies for merry making, they distribute flyers, posters and erect billboards to make a case for their candidates? Can we learn something from them?

Best of luck to all Liberian who have campaigned vigorously from Lofa to Sinoe, from Grand Kru to Grand Bassa and even Nimba and beyond. No matter who matches to the Executive Mansion in January next year, you are all winners.

So, go out there and vote the choice is yours. The world is watching.

Extract :  And to counter the President’s supporters  ‘monkey still working’ slogan, opposition supporters now go around  town with monkeys  placed in cages and vowing not to release them until after the elections. Some have teddy bears and hitting them to send a message that the baboon will not allow the monkey another banana on top of the banana plant.

By Osman Benk Sankoh 

The writer,  Osman Benk Sankoh is a former editor of Concord Times and worked with the United Nations in Liberia

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