Thinking About Ngafuan: A Refracted Presidential Wannabe in Political Bubble?

Thinking About Ngafuan: A Refracted Presidential Wannabe in Political Bubble?

No one can deny it: Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan will NOT be a Presidential candidate in the October 2017 elections. His rather uninspired Presidential bid formally comes to a theatrical end this Wednesday, 10th May.

Theatrical in the sense that Ngafuan is taking to the podium to bury in tears his inexorable ambition in support of Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai – the governing Unity Party Presidential candidate.

Ngafuan’s pledge of allegiance does not in any way come as a surprise. He was a member of the Unity Party and together with Boakai, they come from the same sub-political kingdom: Lofa County! While supporters of Boakai will reel in enthusiasm, there are important questions for Ngafuan and the overall dynamics of politics in post-war Liberia.

Put it differently, Ngafuan terribly miscalculated his stock on the Liberian political market which remains firmly rooted in the old order but equally straddling with the unfulfilled discourse of populism.

Politically, it is fair to assume that the reinvention of Liberia is still far and despite the critical significance of the 2017 elections, this will be largely an election without change. To understand this point, is to first understand what went wrong with Ngafuan and his failed bid - which by all accounts represents one of the lowest points in his public life, amounting to a political bubble.

German political scientist Gerdes Felix provides a rather brief but contrasting account of Augustine Ngafuan in his book “Civil War and State Formation: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Liberia”. Published in 2013, Felix depicts Ngafuan as “one of the more reform-minded ministers” in the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration.

However, Ngafuan was equally somehow portrayed as one of the Ministers who publicly put up “resistance” to President Sirleaf´s attempts in 2012 to impose a Code of Conduct informed by international standards on public officials of the Executive branch of government.

Ngafuan is quoted as publicly telling President Sirleaf “not to transform public service into public torture”. In this account, Ngafuan is apparently seen as undermining the “rationalization” of the public sector despite his attraction for reforms. This characterization of Ngafuan might be viewed in different context (in fact his statement seems to have been aimed at Liberians whom he “humbly urge[d] ... not to transform public service into public torture”).

But again, his statement is subject to different interpretations as the extent to which Liberians can transform public service into public torture or in what ways were they attempting to do so, is not specified by Ngafuan.

Take that as it may, Ngafuan´s mention of the Code of Conduct, says a lot about the events that have characterized his life since that fateful speech he delivered as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Dean of the cabinet at programs marking the official commissioning of members of the Liberian cabinet in March 2012. Some three years later (October 2015), Ngafuan was no longer a cabinet Minister.

The trigger for his exit from public service was the new version of the Code of Conduct for all public officials (in the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary), which was officially legislated and signed into law in 2014. Particularly, Sections 5.1 to 5.2 (c) of this National Code of Conduct restrict Executive appointed officials from engaging in any political activities; canvassing or contesting for elected offices; using government facilities, equipment or resources in support of partisan or political activities; or serving on a campaign team of any political party, or the campaign of an independent candidate. It goes on [Section 5.2 (a)] to state that:

“Any Minister, Deputy Minister, Director-General, Managing Director and Superintendent appointed by the President Pursuant to article 56 (a) of the Constitution and a Managing Director appointed by a Board of Directors, who desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post at least two (2) years prior to the date of such public elections."

So far, this passage [also like Section 5.2 (b)] is one of the most elevated and controversial sections of the Code of Conduct since it relates to the ever profitable “public elective office” and sets the time-limit for ranking public officials harboring ambitions to run for public office.

They can either choose between staying in their positions or vacate or even (controversially?) be barred from participating in the elections, if they choose to dare the law, on the tricky grounds of their constitutional rights to contest for public office. But it should be said that this debate about constitutional rights is complicated as there are no absolute rights and the very constitution of Liberia limits rights! This is a matter for the Supreme Court.

Hence, Ngafuan agonizingly chose to resign his post on October 2, 2015, directly signaling he had his own ambition (Presidential), or as he initially put it, he did not “intend to be inactive in the 2017 Presidential and General Elections”.

As a now active political player, one of his first decisions was to tender in his resignation from the ruling Unity Party. He spoke critically of exclusionary politics and lack of internal democracy in the party and differed with its two most prominent figures: his former boss Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her vice Joseph Nyuma Boakai. Simply, Ngafuan spoke bitterly of betrayals and contradictions by both Johnson-Sirleaf and Boakai in terms of their repeated statements that they would retire together in 2018 after their second and final term comes to an end and that it was time for the country to be turned over to the next generation of young leaders.

At age 47, and an influential cabinet member with nearly a decade of senior public service in the Johnson-Sirleaf regime, Ngafuan self-indulged his stake to take over from the two elders – even though Amara Mohammeh Konneh and Toga Gayewea McIntosh were also lurking.

But the saddest part for Ngafuan was the astonishing change of mind by the elder Joseph Boakai – whom without initial endorsement by Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf – swiftly staged his own petitioning ceremony in Lofa county in May 2015, where it was told “Lofa Citizens” had asked him to contest the presidency and succeed Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf as her second and final constitutional term comes to an end in January 2018.

For Ngafuan, this was not just a devastating blow but a stab in his back by VP Boakai and some key indigenous players within the Unity Party. Thus, he forced his way out of the UP and later made known his own Presidential pursuit, which would obviously pit him not only against the Presidential candidate of his former party but importantly against his Lofa county kinsman – apparently breaking the unwritten Lofa tradition of a young man tussling his elder in a battle for power.

But, Ngafuan cared less about such traditional disrespect. Hurriedly, he found his way into the little known or irrelevant Victory for Change Party of the disgraced and debarred lawyer Marcus Jones. It was not and never a good political move!

Within few weeks, his membership rights in terms of qualification to serve as political leader or standard bearer of the party was questioned and plunged into crisis. This was yet another blow to Ngafuan and a key signal that his Presidential ambition is nothing but remote. It is thought that, before his move to the Victory for Change Party, Ngafuan had previously been in discussions with the populist based Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) of George Weah.

But like his chaotic bid, the discussions experienced setbacks – apparently on the issue of money! and Ngafuan´s past undesirable comments against the CDC and his time in the governing Johnson-Sirleaf administration which the CDC has in the name of “politicking” branded as a failure.

While these are important reflections, Ngafuan´s own personality in terms of mobilizing and drawing mass support to his Presidential project has been rather flatly poor. From Montserrado to Bong, Lofa and elsewhere, Ngafuan has been largely unable to attract relevant numbers that would persuade anyone that he would be a serious and formidable Presidential force.

His meetings in Liberia with his episodic fan base “Friends of Augustine Ngafuan (FAN)” have been nothing but pockets of young people, gracing an occasion to revel the party after the official event as part of the usual game to reap from ambitious politicians. There might be genuine supporters in such gatherings but the truth is, not everyone that turns out at a political program is a true supporter. This is the hard lesson that Ngafuan has learned. It is a lesson that has clearly unmasked his political calculations and ratings.

For too long, Ngafuan has projected himself as an attractive top-notched political figure with a mass base. Three fortunate scenarios might best explain this: His days at the University of Liberia in student politics during the tyrannical regime of Charles Taylor; his elevated role as campaign spokesman of the well-known and experienced politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf during the elections of 2005; and his top-level cabinet positions in the Johnson-Sirleaf administration. All these seem to have inflated his stock on the political market! This might have led Ngafuan to calculate that he can succeed on his own. The reality is otherwise.

Ngafuan did not realize or seem to have ignored the facts that many persons gained popularity out of the excess baggage of dictator Charles Taylor and rightly he might well fall into that category of prominence through a warlord authoritarian rule. His campaign role with Johnson-Sirleaf also helped his visibility and drew forces whom he seems to have mistakenly taken at face value as an attraction of his own political rhetoric.

His service in government from Budget Bureau Director to Finance Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister and Dean of the cabinet also made him to believe that with power and associated wealth comes the gravity of mass political attraction. Well, the fact is, an elevation to government positions makes no one an acceptable electoral candidate who would pull the necessary political support at the onset.

These are the realities that have wretchedly confronted Ngafuan and now his Presidential ambition is dead. To save face, he has chosen possibly the best-case scenario: pledging allegiance to VP Boakai – the Lofa elder he wanted to challenge. Simply, Ngafuan had no option but to refract his Presidential ambition and accepts the inconvenient truth of his own political bubble.

Whatever role he plays in the Boakai 2017 campaign or future administration (if the elder is elected?) will be an opportunity for Ngafuan to reinvent himself by connecting rightfully with the masses and using a workable institutionalized political vehicle to mount any future political project. This is highly relevant in the context of the dynamics of politics in post-war Liberia.

Professor Sawyer has rightly argued on the differentiating political patterns that emerged out of the 2005 elections in terms of multi-party institutionalization and the building of political alliances – albeit impermanent - to succeed in a Presidential election or even legislative election. German political scientist Gerdes Felix also emphasized such political dynamics in Liberia’s post-conflict politics while British political scientist Nic Cheeseman has highlighted the fact that in African elections, when a retiring incumbent handpicks or endorses a successor, the scenario of a succession battle or split in the ruling party is highly unlikely though not inevitable.

The events in the ruling Unity Party with elder Boakai and President Johnson-Sirleaf seemingly in the same but wobbling boat manifest these scholarly reflections that are useful for lesson drawings for Ngafuan – a scholar in his own right but now a failed Presidential wannabe who has grudgingly veered to Boakai in his own frustrating phrase of “alignment and realignment”. The folks in the Boakai camp and Unity Party know that Ngafuan is coming as a frustrated and unfulfilled man, but do they care? Anyway, he is one valid vote against the hunting opposition!