Anatomy of Failed Campaign: Significant Boakai Character Weakness
Just days before the run-off election, after weeks of uncertainty and court battle, George Weah outfoxed Vice President Joseph Boakai by showing up in Bong County at the site of a groundbreaking ceremony with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The mainstream press and social media went berserk at the release of a smiling Weah in a picture with the President.
The optics looked terrible and gave ammunition to President Sirleaf’s critics who alleged that she supported Weah over her vice President, but the picture also exposed a significant Boakai character weakness: lack of leadership.
This ultimately led to his trouncing at the polls on Boxing Day.
Boakai’s failure to participate in major public events like the dedication of the terminal building at Robertsfield, the groundbreaking for a road project, and others around the country with the President cost him the election.
And while many reasons have been provided, both inside and outside the campaign, one reality has emerged in the days since Boakai’s decisive loss, according to many Liberians interviewed for this article, his campaign made a series of strategic blunders. Here is a sample:
Firstly, the Boakai campaign team made was sticking with a one-dimensional campaign strategy by attacking Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
That approach had been devised despite overwhelming evidence, not only in Weah’s rise but also in Boakai’s struggles during the first-round in crucial counties that many thought he should have won, that the voters were looking for a generational change.
Secondly, the residual effect of running a ‘Country vs. Congo’ and divisive campaign that backfired during the general elections.
Instead of taking stock of their mistakes and recalibrating their message, party operatives continued their plan which crescendoed into scapegoating President Sirleaf and spreading a compendium of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
Thirdly, there was a fratricidal war going on in the Unity Party that fractured the party into four pieces and crippled its chances of winning.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was leading a wing of Unity Party.
There was a Joseph Boakai Unity Party. There was a Wilmot Paye Unity Party. And, there was a Varney Sherman Unity Party, whose animus with the President is longstanding, and only intermittently broken by bouts of calculated likeness.
“Maybe it is a good that Boakai didn’t win because he is an ineffective leader. He refused or was unable to control the insurgents on his campaign from derailing his message,” said a frustrated Unity Party insider based in the United States, who requested anonymity.
“You don’t distance yourself from a sitting President who won back-to-back elections, a Nobel laureate, and an international political superstar.”
Also, the lack of enthusiasm for Boakai among the rank and file UP voters who carried Sirleaf to victory twice could not be overcome with a campaign message focused so heavily on divisiveness and misogyny.
And, enthusiasm is something that can be manufactured. There was an assumption in the campaign that antipathy toward Weah’s gaffe-prone disposition would be enough to mobilize the UP base; a certain lethargy sets in when a party had been in power for a decade plus.
The UP supporters were just not as hungry as the CDC base.
Plus, the UP, like its decade-long administration, ran an incompetent campaign with a very freighted candidate.
And unlike his politically savvy boss, Boakai was not a good candidate to go against a political phenom like Weah, and not a good candidate in a time of change meant disaster at the ballot box.
Boakai pledged to build the economy, a mantra in nearly every speech while promising to create jobs and pathways out of poverty.
He outlined proposals that he said would help deliver new jobs and fight corruption.
But, no overarching or straightforward message tied all those plans and proposals together. Even among some millennial voters disinclined to vote for Weah, that message fell short.
Many observers said there was little Boakai could have done to stop the George Weah juggernaut. It didn’t help that he joined Brumskine and the farrago of losers to challenge the results of the first-round vote.
“It affected us a couple of ways. First, it blocked out the sun,” said a highly placed source who is not being named because he said he was not authorized to discuss these matters publicly.
Additionally, the issue stirred up distaste among some voters, he added.
“It contributed to people who already had doubts about the ticket; it certainly didn’t help, it dampened our momentum.”
The road for Boakai had always been difficult. He is well respected, but his 12 years as second in command of a government that is riddled with corruption and unskilled bureaucrats, some of whom have been in government since the Amos Sawyer interim administration, didn’t sit well with many people.
And in seeking the presidency, the vice President was asking voters to give the UP a third term, a difficult task for any governing party.
There are many thousands of people who did not vote for George Weah because of his limited experience in government and the fear fueled by his coalition with the former Taylor forces.
They voted for him despite the fear. They voted for him out of frustration and disappointment – and out of hope that he will improve their lives.
Finally, what distinguishes Boakai is he assailed Sirleaf’s insufficient support for his candidacy and proclaimed it a political betrayal.
But, long before their relationship schism, however, Boakai believed Sirleaf backstabbed him because of her (rumored) interest in the youthful Weah candidacy.
It is an unfortunate truth that most politicians are serial ideological lovers and promiscuous political mates, leaving behind scores of briefly valued surrogates and supporters.
Boakai should have understood that Sirleaf had had similar trysts with many others. But Boakai felt spurned and now maybe embittered.
Wynfred Russell, Contributing Writer