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Romancing with Liberia’s septuagenarian presidential hopefuls

Romancing with Liberia’s septuagenarian presidential hopefuls

Even in his heyday as an undisputed world heavyweight champion, Iron Mike Tyson would always wait until the third or fourth rounds to send his opponents to the ropes and out.  For several years, until he met with James Buster Douglas, he did this with effortless ease as if he was a robot in the ring fighting against mere mortals.  Names like Frank Bruno, Trevor Berbick, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and a host of other boxers suffered the wrath of his upper-cuts; his own weapon of mass destruction.  (Photo:  Osman Benk Sankoh, Author)

However, though she may not have the physical strength and posture of an iron Mike Tyson, incumbent Liberian President; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who many Liberians also refer to as ‘Iron lady,’ will for the second time put her presidential aspirations to the test at a second round presidential run-off.

In 2005, it was the former FIFA World, European and African Footballer of the Year, George Weah, who locked horns with the Harvard trained economist in the Presidential election. His intention to transfer his highly qualitative soccer skills to the political arena left ‘Ma Ellen’ (as she is fondly called) trailing at a distant second, forcing a run-off election.  Then, for Weah, Liberians went agog. The former soccer icon made use of his celebrity and cult hero status to appeal to the younger generation.  The ‘yana’ boys, the ‘Pempe’ riders, the shoe-shine boys, former combatants and indeed, most of the young people of Liberia who had followed his soccer exploits, hung off his every word.  The much younger presidential hopeful was simply cruising to victory.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a reality check.  Weah’s political experience and academic qualifications, among others, were hotly debated.  They were examined under a microscope. And like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf’s presidential ambition which had literally suffered a state of coma, was revived.  Women galvanized behind the Ol Ma. Like Jehovah Witnesses, they organized door to door sensitizations; the old folks invited their siblings into the quiet confines of their homes to convince them that Liberia at that time needed a much more experienced person instead of a former footballer whose only trade was kicking a round leather object in an eleven-aside soccer pitch and scoring goals. And, on the last day of that campaign, she hired a Paramount helicopter from Sierra Leone which dropped flyers and posters from the skies on jubilant supporters devoid of political affiliation. The final result-which gave Ellen victory- put Weah’s presidential ambition in tatters, even if, temporarily. While Ellen marched her way to the Executive Mansion, Weah opted for the classroom in the United States to acquire a university degree.

Just as in 2005, the incumbent is facing a somewhat strong challenge from Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party (CDC).  However, this time it is from Counselor Winston Tubman, CDC’s new standard bearer, who is also Harvard trained.  Weah is still running on the same ticket, but as the vice presidential aspirant.

 At the just concluded Presidential election, Sirleaf secured around 44 percent of the total votes cast, while Tubman won 32 percent. But with the support of former warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson who is the Senator of Nimba, Liberia’s second largest country, CDC’s hopes of wrestling power from the Iron Lady may have dampened.  One may be tempted to ask, though, whether the re-election of Sirleaf is now a foregone conclusion.

Just recently, the incumbent’s support for four propositions that may have changed some portions of Liberia’s constitution was out rightly rejected at a referendum. The opposition galvanized and challenged the President on the issues and when they won, the victory was trumpeted as a resounding rejection of a second term for the Iron Lady.  Whether that initial rejection was significant or not, that ‘MaEllen’ led in the first round with 44 percent may have put smile on her face as she only needs 7 percent more of the electorate to vote for her to remain in the Mansion- all things being equal, of course .

That the Nobel Peace Prize Committee chose the eve of the first round of the elections to announce Madam Sirleaf as a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was enough ammunition to send signal to the entire Liberian populace that the Ol Ma is still the darling of the West and that they are appreciative of her work.

While the above may be a plus for Sirleaf, it is worth remembering that Liberians- not the international community have the power to keep the incumbent at the Mansion.  Already, the opposition has questioned why somebody who supported the destabilization of the country, albeit at the initial stage, should be allowed to govern Liberia. Sirleaf has admitted she initially backed Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia in 1990 to rid the country of Samuel K Doe’s dictatorial regime, but said as soon as she realized the man Taylor was becoming something else, she withdrew all her support .The President is one of fifty people on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) list barred from holding public office in the country for the next thirty years. She immediately rejected the recommendation, stating that it was ‘unconstitutional,’ and that it denied citizens the right to due process.  That recommendation, along with many others, is yet to be implemented.  Her self- professed support for Taylor, as well as the challenges confronting her administration has not been lost on the opposition, who keep questioning her selection for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Tubman had hoped on cashing on these weaknesses to make it to the Mansion, and even declared that he would ensure that those war criminals involved in Liberia’s long and brutal civil crisis are brought to justice. This position may have come back to haunt him and his political party.  

Prince Johnson, the man who came at a distant third in the just ended Presidential election has interpreted Tubman’s comment to mean he is an anti – reconciliation person. Perhaps Prince Johnson needs reminding that peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. There can never be genuine peace without justice.

Prince Johnson was one of the key architects of the country’s woes and if romancing with the incumbent means evading justice, it is only reasonable, even if selfish, for him to throw his weight behind someone he has openly described as, ‘the lesser of two evils’.  Prince Johnson may very well be a flip-flopper who seeks only personal aggrandizement but his declaration for the ‘Ol Ma’ may have taken away some of the mojo from the opposition. Tubman may have deluded himself for thinking that he had a trusted ally in Prince Johnson, who had not only been  a fearless critic of the incumbent, but had even promised to join the opposition against the President should there be a run-off. Now, there is a run –off. Contrary to his earlier declaration, the former warlord now wants to share power with the incumbent. In fact, rumours are making the rounds that he is asking for thousands of dollars from the President to deliver his votes to her, although it has been denied by both quarters.

While Prince Johnson may be relevant today, his alliance with the incumbent clearly marks the end of his presidential dreams, and I guess he would be the first to admit it. He said he was joining Ellen because if she wins, she will no more run for the Presidency, whereas the Tubman – Weah ticket will be eligible to run for another term.

Calculatedly, he may be looking for payback from the Unity Party after the ‘Ma Ellen’ era, but what he fails to realize is that he may be dumped by Sirleaf after the run-off election, and will never endorse him as her chosen successor.

For the CDC, they have an uphill battle at hand. Yes, but that should not deter them from going back to the electorate to continue selling their manifesto. Tubman has openly said he is only focusing on becoming President and only when he achieves this goal will he decide what CDC party will do for the country. If they can stop the internal wrangling and fighting among party members, they should, and I would imagine, have a strong case to make. It is open secret that corruption and impunity still thrive in Liberia. Liberians are also somewhat frustrated about the slow pace of development in the country, as the result of the election shows. Essentially, Madam Johnson- Sirleaf lost to the opposition, which polled a total of 56 % of the votes.

Electricity and even pipe borne water are still just a pipe dream for most Liberians. However, the opposition needs to demonstrate that it has better alternatives to transforming the country’s fortunes and that will be key.

It is fair to mention that in the last five years, Monrovia has seen a rebirth in road constructions and public buildings. Incumbent Johnson Sirleaf has also helped rid Liberia of nearly 5 billion US dollars in crippling foreign debt and transformed the country into a business friendly arena that has attracted a host of investors. These are dividends she can take along to the electoral bank as she prepares for the run-off

Obviously, this is a battle of two Septuagenarians who have had the opportunity of not only attending Ivy League institutions in the US but have also had stints working with the United Nations. Their international connections may not be questioned but at the end of the day, what matters the most is addressing the basic bread and butter issues that Liberians grapple with everyday. For now, the question is this – who among the two can best make Liberia look like the Singapore of Africa? I can’t wait for an answer.

By Osman Benk Sankoh

The author, Osman Benk Sankoh was editor, Concord Times and worked with the UN in Liberia as a Public Information Officer.

Editor’s  note – This article was written well ahead of the anticipated presidential  run-off in Liberia  but the dynamics have changed as the opposition , Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party led by Counselor Winston Tubman has said they will be boycotting the run-off to the held November, 8, 2011

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