Like Charles Margai, like Prince Johnson
Charles Francis Margai, for most Sierra Leoneans can best be described with two known adjectives: a learned legal luminary and politician. While he may have a lot of legal victories under his belt, the same could not be said of his political career. Both in 1995 and 2001, he contested and lost the leadership of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) to Ahmed Tejan Kabbah who became Sierra Leone’s President for two terms. Undaunted and hoping it was going to be third time lucky, in 2005, he threw his heart into the ring again and in what another presidential contender, John Ernest Leigh earnestly described as a ‘con-ben-shion,’ he was denied what would have been his only real shot at the Presidency. Solomon Ekuma Berewa, then sitting Vice President and a lawyer like Margai, was given the ticket and Charles Margai once again resigned from the SLPP beaten, battered and bitter. He formed the Peoples Movement Democratic Change (PMDC) and what happened in the 2007 Presidential election was enough material for Historians like Dr Joe AD Alie to scavenge on. (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh, author)
That year’s presidential election presented Mr. Margai a glorious chance to revenge his rejection from the SLPP for three consecutive times. Since none of the presidential aspirants polled the minimum threshold to win the election at first ballot, an inevitable run-off between his former rival, Berewa and then Insurance broker, Ernest Bai Koroma was scheduled for September 2007. Now placed in the vantage position of kingmaker, he waited until the night of a birthday party that was hurriedly organized for him and like a Master of Ceremony at his own party; he stepped onto the stage, held Koroma by his hand and literally anointed him as the next President of Sierra Leone. Within few seconds of that happening, it was headline news all over the place including the BBC where it’s Correspondent, Umaru Fofana broke the news.
While Prince Yomie Johnson of Liberia may not have read law books like Margai, and may not have organized a birthday bash to declare that incumbent Liberian President – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the lesser of two evils and therefore was going to support her ahead of the run-off on Nov 8, what fate has shared in common with both men is or was, their roles as king or Queen makers in their countries respective presidential elections. In Sierra Leone, in 2007, Margai shocked the SLPP by striking an alliance with the APC; while in 2011 and ahead of the presidential run-off election, President Sirleaf may have been surprised about how very easy it was to convince the ex-warlord, Prince Johnson to support her and not Tubman.
Johnson is not only a politician or rather, a sitting senior Senator of Nimba County in the current Legislature of Liberia, but he is also; an Evangelist, a soldier and an unrepentant rebel warlord whose image sipping beer from a Budweiser Can while former President Samuel K Doe was being tortured to death made him the more a reviled figure to many.
Like Margai who was SLPP yesterday, something else today, SLPP again, PMDC in the morning, APC/PMDC at lunch time and now, SLPP/ PMDC; Prince Yomie Johnson in 2005 supported Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Unity Party but hastily broke ranks just like he did to Charles Taylor when he left the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to form the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Reason? He wanted the party’s ticket to contest for Senator in his hometown, Nimba. Johnson contested as an independent candidate and he polled the highest number of votes among all those who contested for seats in the Senate. Needless to say the President’s choice lost and she may have buried her head in shame.
Again, like Margai who has moved in and out of the SLPP like a player in a game of basketball, Johnson’s penchant as a flip flopper clearly exhibited itself when he initially declared that should there be a run–off, he was going to side with the opposition against the incumbent. Barely few days after, he ate his words when he said he was going to support Johnson-Sirleaf who scored 44 percent during the first round as opposed to the 32.2 percent that the Winston Tubman – George Weah ticket pooled. That he pooled 11.8 percent of total votes cast – a distant third, placed him at a vantage position to determine whether or not the ‘baboon’ should continue waiting for the ‘monkey’ to complete its work or not ( a popular figurative mantra being used by Sireleaf’s supporters on billboards, flyers and posters – Baboon wait small, monkey still working). This, he relishes like Margai and even boasts that he was going to negotiate for power sharing with Madam Sirleaf .
However, while Charles Margai may have gone APC and not run to climb the palm-tree in 2007 simply because he had personal scores to settle with a party whose leadership once considered him to be a political nonentity and therefore not a threat to deny them another five years at State House, several reasons could be adduced as to why the former warlord went Ellen instead of Tubman.
In his own words, Johnson had said Tubman, Weah et al apart from being from the south eastern region of the country, they are not for reconciliation. He had genuine fears that should they take over power, himself, the incumbent and a host of others whose names appear on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report may be called to answer for crimes committed during that country’s bloody civil war. The report bars President Sirleaf, Johnson and 48 others from holding any public office in the country for thirty years or so. Should Madam Sirelaf retain power, it is going to be extremely difficult to convince her into setting up a war crimes tribunal to try persons deemed to be most responsible for the country’s brutal past. The deal with Johnson essentially forecloses any such possibility and that constitutes a step backward in attempts at combating impunity at regional level.
What Johnson did not state though is that there continues to be a deep rooted animosity between Nimba (where he comes from) and Grand Gedeh, one of the counties from where Tubman and Weah draw their support from. Late Samuel Doe, a Krahn from Grand Gedeh was accused of selectively targeting his neighbors, the Gios from Nimba and marking them for dead. Thomas Quionwpa, in 1984, together with others sons of Nimba were killed when an attempted coup to topple Doe from power failed. Interestingly, it was ISUs (Internal Security Unit) from Sierra Leone now turned SSDs (Special Security Division), I am told, that teamed up with the deceased for that operation. All this, they say happened at a time when Tubman, now contesting against the incumbent, was Justice Minister and he defended doggedly the actions of an administration he was part of.
It was, therefore, sweet revenge then that when Doe was captured by Johnson, he did not only torture him but got him killed because Quionpwa and others had suffered similar fate from Doe. This in a way exposes the underlying ethnic and regional divides that exist in the body politic of Liberia just like Sierra Leone where the sun will continue to set in the north and the palm–tree will continue to grow in the South. While in 2007, Margai may have used the excuse of going APC as a means of bridging the North-South divide; for Johnson, supporting Tubman – Weah would have meant bringing back to power the kinsmen of the late Samuel K Doe.
Critics of Margai say he is vindictive, erratic and arrogant. Johnson? He is not only a warmonger but a rabble–rouser, erratic and most times; takes rash decisions and he is one that cannot be trusted in political terms. Both Margai and Johnson declared support for their respective candidates of their choice for the presidential run–off elections before consulting their political constituencies. While onto this day, Margai has used every opportunity he has to exhibit his bitterness for Berewa and former President Kabbah by lashing at them, Johnson, a bird of the same feather, until few hours that he declared for the incumbent, had used every opportunity he had to express his disdain for the Sirleaf led administration. They now have a common interest and whether the President may have won a Nobel Peace Prize for her core values in the areas of women’s rights and peace, there is no possibility, at this time, that she can throw him under the bus, someone who was critical of her re-election chances even if a warmonger who is completely at odds with those values. With 44 percent attained in the first round, the incumbent, ceteris paribus (everything remaining equal), only needs 6 percent plus 1 vote to see her back to power. And if that is what is being delivered to her on a silver platter by Johnson, then, your guess is as good as mine that she may now be going to bed with both eyes tightly shut.
Ironically, while Margai fought to kick the incumbent out of power, Prince Johnson, on the other hand is now battling to maintain the status quo. The former helped Koroma to smile his way to State House while in the case of Liberia, instead of Johnson helping Tubman to the Executive Mansion, he helped getting the seventy something year–old presidential aspirant admitted at a UN Jordanian hospital for what his critics now call, ‘Ellen pressure’. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Tubman fainted when he heard that Johnson had declared for Ellen and not him. Good news though, Margai never got Berewa to be admitted at the Choithram hospital even though he had caused sleepless nights for the old man – Berewa.
Invariably, there may have been some similarities and obviously, differences between the two characters. However, what you and I will agree, they have in common is that while Margai tipped the political scale to balance in favor of the APC , Prince Yomie Johnson now has on his shoulder the huge burden of easing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf safely back to power, but can we completely rule out the opposition? Their uphill battle starts now.
By Osman Benk Sankoh
The writer, Osman Benk Sankoh was editor of Concord Times and spent seven years working with the UN in Liberia.
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