Opinion: Unity Party, A Campaign in Crisis?


Finger-pointing or placing blames have never been an efficient political campaign strategy, so I am a bit baffled by the hiccups and blame game bedeviling the Unity Party’s campaign.

The UP was a party with an embarrassment of riches; it had all the boxes checked for success in the 2017 elections.  For starters, they enjoyed the advantage of incumbency, their candidate Joseph N. Boakai, a sitting Vice President had over 40 plus years of government service, including 12 years as the second in command.

VP Boakai had a granular knowledge of how government functioned; unlike some of the other candidates seeking the presidency, there was no doubt about his qualifications to lead. VP had a very limited learning curve, and It goes without saying that he was the most prepared amongst the 20 or so Presidential candidates. 

Besides, he was the only candidate who could point to real-world achievements, i.e., government-driven development projects, including infrastructure such as schools, roads, colleges, hospitals, as well as the growth, stability, and development of a pluralistic democracy all within a 12-year span.

The VP could have served as the evangelist touting the developmental successes of the Sirleaf-Boakai government, the gains made as well as the challenges, and how a Boakai-led government would build on the foundation created by the UP government of which he is a part. 

The Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government is bequeathing a rich legacy, in both policy and political terms, which Mr. Boakai could capitalize. Instead of claiming, as he did during the recent inter-party debates that his party had “squandered opportunities,” his messaging should have been more optimistic, laying out the successes as well as underscoring the challenges that come with governing a post-conflict nation. This is a country that the Sirleaf-Boakai administration took from an $80 million national budget to a budget of over half a billion.

That should be part and parcel of the UP’s campaign spiel. You cannot tell the electorate that you squandered opportunities and expect to be given a second chance, especially when you have 20 plus other candidates that will use that phrase as a bumper sticker slogan. This was a vile example of messaging malpractice. Hopefully, there will be self-correction in the upcoming run-off. The optimism of the future should be a vital component of the campaign. 

Messaging aside, the UP Boakai for President Campaign additionally developed an implausibly bizarre losing strategy. At the heart of this plan is an attempt to keep a distance between the sitting President and Vice President, highlighted by a series of vociferous attacks on the President, even to the point of savagely attacking her on her birthday.

This doesn’t sound like a serious political campaign, more like a situation of the inmates running the asylum. As a student of history, I found this campaign style self-destructive and revolting, to say the least; because history is littered with the carcasses of campaigns that tread that path.  

Exhibit A: Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, after eight years as VP to Bill Clinton, decides to make a run for the presidency. He was a perfect successor to a very popular President; the Clinton-Gore administration brought the longest economic expansion in the US, creating 22 million jobs, and the highest percentage of homeownership in the history of the US.

It seems like the presidency would be a cakewalk, wouldn’t it? No, it wasn’t.  Gore misread the mood of the American public. He felt that the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in which the President was embroiled in and later impeached by the lower house, made Clinton toxic, and so he chose to distance himself. Clinton later related his confusion over Gore’s behavior given the team’s eight years of monumental success.

He complained to White House insiders that Gore never give him a phone call during the campaign, although he was itching to give his VP advice on strategy.  Gore went on to lose the elections to George W. Bush, and later blamed the President for his loss saying that the repercussions from the Lewinsky scandal left a blot on his campaign that he could not recover from.

Nonsense. The fact is that Gore lacked the charisma and the street smarts of Clinton; the American voters saw him as being too stiff, arrogant, and unable to connect with the average voter. 

The Clinton-Gore debacle brought to the fore the fact that going it alone comes with an inherent risk of failure. A sitting President won an election, and In the case of Ellen-Johnson-Sirleaf, she won an election twice.

Additionally, she is perhaps the most honored and garlanded leader in Africa, with a Rolodex of global contacts that any incoming Liberian leader would salivate over. The Unity Party is the only party in Africa that can claim a Nobel Laureate as the standard bearer. So why is the Boakai campaign allegedly severing ties with a President who can perhaps be the most forceful advocate for the candidate and help him across the finishing line?

The answer lies somewhere between a campaign’s rank incompetence and cynicism.  A conspiracy theory that has gained traction within the Boakai campaign claims the sitting President is secretly supporting another candidate, George Weah of the Coalition of Democratic Change (CDC).

Weah, a former global soccer icon, represents Montserrado County in the Liberian Senate. He is scheduled for a run-off with the VP in late December. According to that connivance theory, the President is pulling all stops to ensure a Weah victory, to the point of directing the head of the National Elections Commission, Jerome Kokoya, to rig the elections in Weah’s favor.

The rumor-mongers claim that if victorious in the incoming elections, the former soccer star who has a massive following in Monrovia, will throw his support to the President’s son Robert Sirleaf as his successor in the Senate.

I have heard many mind-bending conspiracy theories in my lifetime, from the moon-landing being staged, to President George Bush planning the 9-11 terrorist attacks, but the President backing an opposition candidate to undermine her legacy, takes the cake.

I tried to run some scenarios and unpack this gossip, to see if there could be a fraction of possibility. So I had to go digging for the origin of this somewhat weird story.

Thanks to social media, my research led me to an interview on VOA by Alan White on Youtube.  

For those who are unfamiliar with the name Alan White, he was the investigator who brought the Liberian leader Charles Taylor before the ICC for Crimes against Humanity. In that interview, White mentioned that he was told this gossip by a Liberian friend of Robert Sirleaf during his visit to Liberia.

When pressed by Shaka Seli, the VOA interviewer, if he had any hard evidence or proof, instead of floating a canard told him by some nameless “friend” of Robert? White admitted that he had no evidence. That he was going by hearsay…so there goes that story.

President Sirleaf’s legacy is bullet-proof. She, and her VP, Boakai, can claim a radical transformation of Liberia from an international basket-case ravaged by 14 years of civil war, to a stable democracy that has seen a dramatic shift in the country’s fortunes during the last 12 years of stewardship.

The gains made by the Sirleaf-Boakai administration can only be protected through the process of continuity.

There is a binary choice for Liberians, the selection of VP Joseph N. Boakai or Senator George Weah.

I believe this should be an easy choice; one candidate has had 40 plus years of government service, including 12 years helping to steer the ship of state. Without a doubt, the Veep has the authority of experience to take this country to the next level building on the development template and foundation he and President Sirleaf created.

Senator George Weah, in my estimation, has not demonstrated any knowledge or capacity to run a post-conflict nation. Liberia is at a crossroads.

The country cannot afford a President with a thin CV in governance and administration; here in the U.S. we are experiencing on a daily basis the consequences and repercussions of a President learning on the job, the difference is, the institutions within the U.S. have built-in safeguards to constrain/restrain the powers of the President. Unfortunately, our institutions are not that strong. 

The chances of the UP winning the elections in two weeks are real, but the VP must bring some adult supervision to a campaign that seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Monyue Cassell, Contributing Writer
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