Monrovia – Liberia’s ruling Unity Party is embarking on a third-term quest for state power, mired in a recurring state of uncertainty and controversy stemming from noticeable and visible strains between the incumbent vice president and standard bearer, Joseph Boakai and the departing President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
“I don’t have any problem with anybody. I have differences with people on the way they think, they want things to happen.
“I cannot say I do not need support from a partisan of the Unity Party. All partisans of the Unity Party, including the President, their contributions to the ruling party are welcome.
“So, how can I say a President who has been at the helm of this body for twelve years, how can I say, I won’t need her help – if it’s not forthcoming, well, I cannot say I don’t need it. I need everybody’s support” – Joseph Boakai, Standard Bearer, Ruling Unity Party
With some eighteen candidates vying for a shot at succeeding Sirleaf, Boakai faces a daunting and challenging road ahead.
Fresh off his recent tour of the Southeast that took him to Grand Kru, River Gee, Rivercess, Maryland and Sinoe, VP Boakai sat down for an exclusive interview in which he addresses for the first time a number of issues that have been dogging his candidacy including recent statements by the party’s former Chair Varney Sherman dismissing support from Sirleaf, uncertainty within the party’s hierarchy and efforts to contain mixed messages coming from various fronts, launching attacks on the party’s departing leader.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: With only a few days remaining to Election Day, what is the state of your campaign?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: The campaign as far as I see and I know is coming on very well. I have been to fifteen counties in this country besides that, I have met a lot of prominent people who have given me endorsements.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: You mention going to fifteen counties. You just completed a tour of the southeast, can you describe for us what you saw – and the people there, what do they want?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: Incidentally, about a year ago, I started my lobbying in the southeast and to be very precise, in Sinoe County and I toured five counties – and again I terminated my fifteen-county tour in Sinoe County. All the counties I visited and major cities, along the roadside, I was very impressed, people were very receptive, and the turnout was very encouraging. But there are a lot of challenges in the Southeast, particularly the road network. It takes you hours and hours. My trip between Grand Gedeh and River Gee, it took me almost twelve hours, you can’t move faster than ten, fifteen miles per hour. The roads are the main challenge in the Southeast but we were able to do it. I think it’s a very good experience, not for the first time, but in a short time doing the same thing. It gave me an idea of the challenges we have out there.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: One of your rivals raised an issue about fact that you flew into the Southeast instead of travelling by road. The indication is that you should have experienced the bad road conditions that Liberians are experiencing.
JOSEPH BOAKAI: Unfortunately, some of these people, this is their first time even going outside Monrovia, I have been throughout this country so many times and most times by roads. All of the counties I’ve visited, if I can save time for another assignment, I think it is the wise thing to do. I didn’t fly from Grand Gedeh to River Gee, I didn’t fly from River Gee to Maryland, I didn’t fly from Maryland to Grand Kru, I didn’t fly from Grand Kru, so if I hopped from here to be able to make up time, I think that person need to put on their thinking cap.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: The ruling Unity Party is officially launching their campaign on Saturday. What would you be telling the people? What are your expectations?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: The first thing is that the launch in Montserrado County, we consider it as a national level because this country represents the huge number of people from all the counties and I believe it is a good opportunity to capture the audience, it is a good opportunity to share with them some of the things that I believe are important to moving this country forward. We all can say what we want to say but our country has a lot of challenges. I may not be able to say it all but it will be an opportunity to thank them, to give them a little bit of what I think and what I know should be looked at during our administration, so I think there are a lot of opportunities.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: Everyone is making a big issue about crowds nowadays and who has the most people on the streets. Do you think your supporters will turn out in full?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I think this is the largest crowd Liberia will ever see. It’s going to be a Tsunami. Even now, the requests for T-Shirts, we can’t cope with them. This city is going to be locked down completely.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: You have said before that you want to succeed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf because you want to continue the good policies that she had put in place – development, peace and reconciliation; you have also said there are some pitfalls. But some of your competitors are saying that twelve years is enough and Vice President Boakai should leave the stage after President Sirleaf. Do you have any comments?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I think they are quite right, twelve years is enough for being a vice president. So, I’m not running to be vice president, I’m running to be president of this country; I’m running to continue the good things that this government has done but I also believe that I have my own ideas on what needs to be done, on what could have been done for 170 years. So, I think this is an opportunity for me to do that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: But some of your critics counter that why you didn’t do those things in the past twelve years.
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I’m not President, and my role is very clear, I have done my job as a vice president and I am going to the work of the President of Liberia.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: One of the key members of the ruling Party, the former chairman Varney Sherman said recently that you did not need President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s support. Is that the case and do you need the President’s support? Is there some problem within the ruling party or within your camp?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I don’t have any problem with anybody. I have differences with people on the way they think, they want things to happen. I cannot say I do not need support from a partisan of the Unity Party. All partisans of the Unity Party, including the President, their contributions to the ruling party are welcome. So, how can I say a President who has been at the helm of this body for twelve years, how can I say, I won’t need her help – if it’s not forthcoming, well…But I cannot say I don’t need it. I need everybody’s support.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: What do you mean by if it is not forthcoming? She’s been the leader of the party for the past twelve years, one would think that she’s going to be on your bandwagon, cheerleading the support for your elections?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: That would have been an obvious situation but I’m not complaining about it. The party is moving forward. As and when people decide to contribute, we welcome it. Some people want to begin early, some people want to begin in the middle, we’re still waiting for those who want to come in at the time they want to do so.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: Some people have made the comment that they think you are old to run for President at this age. What do you say to those people?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I say to them, that God has time for everybody and the constitution does not say how old to continue or to become a President. They have a minimum age at which you can become President of this country. I don’t think the constitution barred me from running as President. The Liberian people feel very comfortable and it is the Liberian people who will determine who becomes President and I can see that the Liberian people love me very much because my age has given me the opportunity to know what this country needs. My age has given me the experience and my age has proven that you can live as long as you want to and it is not easy for people to serve long or to live long or to continue to create an image that would attract people and I think I have achieve that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: Are you in the best of health to carry on that because the Presidency is a very hectic job?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I think all the candidates in the race, if they want to be realistic, they now know that I’m more than healthy to be able to go all through this country on these kinds of road conditions, to be able to respond to all of the different demands, nobody can dispute. I’ve worked twelve years in this government; I’ve not taken a leave. I’ve not missed a day except when I come from out of town, who can be healthier than I am. You ever heard that I’ve been hospitalized? God is on my side, this is the time for me to serve my people at this level.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: A lot of pundits are talking about a possible second round, is Vice President Boakai looking forward to a second round or is Vice President Boakai looking to win it on the first ballot?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: Well, I think it is a wish for them. But for me, it’s not an option, we’re gonna to win first round.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: What is your view on immunity for vice president or for the President?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I think the laws of this country will determine that. It is not something that I should set aside. The law of the country would decide what should be the immunity, it shouldn’t start with me, it shouldn’t start with anybody, it should be within the law. If the law of the country says the President is entitled to immunity? Fine! If not, we stick to the laws of the country.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: You have been accused of running an ethnic-based campaign on tribalism.
JOSEPH BOAKAI: How are they saying that? I don’t belong to all the tribes here but all the tribes are supporting me. I go to Grand Kru, they accept me, I go to Maryland they accept me; I go to Nimba, they accept me – which tribe are you talking about?
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: You recently made a comment that Liberians should not vote for a footballer. Were you referring to Senator George Manneh Weah?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: If you want to quote me correctly, I didn’t say, don’t vote for a footballer because a lot of people play football. What I did say was that Liberians have been kicked around for so long that we should not allow ourselves to get the last kick from a footballer, that’s what I said.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: There have been some concerns regarding the surroundings of the party. Some of your aides have been speaking, perhaps without your knowledge and making statements that have been contradictory to your stance and positions on a number of issues. What are you doing to address this?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: I think we have to stick to the rules. For every organization, you have a spokesperson and I think that a party at our level, we should begin to stick to those rules. Not everyone should just go out there and say things to represent the party and I’ve been trying to address that and I think I have addressed that. We should speak with one voice when we are addressing major issues. So, we are trying to have meetings to be able to correct that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe, a member of your campaign team, during an appearance on state radio’s the Bumper Show this week made a plea to partisans to desist from launching what he described a unnecessary attacks on the departing standard bearer of the ruling Unity Party, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Are you aware that this has been going on and what’s being done to address it?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: Well, you know me to be a peace-loving person and I am not here to attack people. What the Liberians need and what I’m looking for is, what is the issue with Liberians, how can we correct it? How can we improve the lives of the people. A lot of people don’t know this country because they sit in Monrovia. You just take barley five miles out of town here, this country is backward. Unity Party-led government has done well but twelve-year rule cannot cover up for seventy years of a lot of problems that we have here. So, I deal with issues and I encourage everybody to deal with issues in this country, not attacking personalities. You haven’t heard me do that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA/VOA: Liberia has been through a lot over the past several years. Particularly prior to the 1980 coup war where the country, Africa’s oldest was under a one-party-rule. As a result many are beginning to fear that a third term UP victory could easily lead to another twelve years, with the possibility of one party being in power for 24 unbroken years. Is this something that bothers you?
JOSEPH BOAKAI: You see, the concern in this country about one-party rule is not a concern that relates to this present situation. We had a one-party rule for many, many years. We look at the dividend of that rule. We’re talking about a country that has existed for 170 years. I believe that Liberians are more concerned about how their lives will improve: The corruption issue, the deprivation of our people, building roads, being able to feed ourselves in a country that is so rich. The people who are concerned about rule are the people looking for power. We want leadership that will put food on our people’s table that will give quality life to our people that will give good, quality drinking water to the people that will have school campuses that represent true, quality education.