Liberia: VP Boakai Treading Familiar Path Amid Resurging Missteps From EJS Fallout

Monrovia – The straw that finally broke the camel’s back came during the celebration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s last birthday as President of Liberia.

It was in the midst of a bitter election that saw rival opposition political parties duke it out to see who would eventually succeed Africa’s first woman head of state to the seat of the Liberian presidency.

At a hastily-arranged news conference, members of the then ruling Unity Party hierarchy took turns slamming the president for not supporting her Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai’s bid to succeed her.

The issue of EJS’s support to her Vice President triggered a ricochet across the subregion with next-door neighbors Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria dispatching emissaries to Monrovia in a bid to ease the tension between the pair.

Among the interveners was Ghanaian Finance Minister, Mr. Ken Ofori Atta, who was sent in to broker some kind of peace pipe between the departing President Sirleaf and her vice president, Boakai, who was not Sirleaf’s preference to succeed her.

To date, it is unclear why the former President did not give her full blessing to her Vice President.

Echoes of 2017 in the air

Nearly four years later, echoes of those strains appear to be resurrecting amid concerns that Mr. Boakai, making his second bid for the presidency may be treading similar paths which dealt a wedge between he and his former boss.

In the dog days of the Sirleaf presidency, the former President quietly expressed fears that her Vice President was allowing surrogates and his supporters to undermine her amid claims that she was supporting his rival, Weah for the presidency.

Although both declined to publicly acknowledge a feud, it was evident from body languages between them and daily verbal assaults from rival supporters and surrogates.

By the time Sirleaf’s birthday came around on Oct. 29, 2017, the feud had reached boiling point.

Boakai went on to break an eleven-year tradition by rejecting calls from his supporters to attend Sirleaf’s birthday bash. Things became even more complicated when Wilmot Paye, then chair of the ruling UP hosted a news conference during which he and other partisans rained verbal tirade against Madam Sirleaf.

Feud Blows Wide Open

At the time, it was widely believed that the news conference was sanctioned by Boakai, to Sirleaf’s dismay. Nearly a month later, when Boakai celebrated his birthday on November 30, 2017, Sirleaf returned the favor and did not show up at Mr. Boakai’s residence to wish him happy birthday.

Sirleaf was bitter that Boakai, now standard-bearer of the party and his supporters had accused the President of rigging the October 10 elections.

Without mincing words, Chairman Paye accused President Sirleaf of breeding corruption, waste, mismanagement and selective justice over the 12-year period she led the country.

Vice President Boakai, at the time remained quiet while Presidential Press Secretary, Jerolinmek M. Piah, debunked the allegations.

At the time, Paye was seen as one of VP Boakai’s problems – a major hurdle in gaining President’s Sirleaf’s support in the presidential elections. But Paye was not alone.  Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman,  Chairman emeritus of the party, credited for pulling resources together for President Sirleaf’s 2011 campaign, was also seen as part of the problem.

In fact, Boakai, in an interview with the Henry Costa Morning show, in the aftermath of the saga, declared:  “I am guilty by association; that is the only crime I have committed against my long-time friend Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. My association with Cllr. Sherman and Party Chairman Wilmot Paye, who won the chairmanship on white ballot, is the only crime I have committed,” he said.

Mr. Boakai said at the time that it was former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who told him that his association with the pair is the cause of President Sirleaf’s cold shoulder towards his presidential bid.

It was widely reported at the time, that President Sirleaf had once requested Vice President Boakai to shun his affiliation with Sherman and Paye if he wanted her support. But in a tone that suggesting that Paye and Sherman are necessary evils in his political sojourn at this point in time, VP Boakai iterated that Paye was elected as Chairman of the Unity Party on white ballot. 

Cllr. Sherman’s bad blood with President Sirleaf heightened when she ordered his and other top past and current officials of government’s investigation and prosecution due to their linkage to a Global Witness Report that they received bribes to alter the Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC).

On the first day Court Sheriffs attempted arresting Sherman, Paye and a group of UP partisans gathered in their numbers in front of Sherman’s gate and obstructed the arrest – with Sherman claiming that the arrest was politically motivated.

The bitterness between Sherman and the woman he fought so hard as party chairman at the time to get her reelected, became sour.

In a news conference, Sherman said, “I was sitting down doing my thing as standard bearer of the Liberian Action Party when President Ellen Johnson Silrleaf invited me into a merger. I raised money, millions of dollars for President Sirleaf’s campaign, and I worked through the nooks and crannies of this country campaigning for her and she eventually became President. Is that the way to pay back somebody who worked like that for you?”

In 2017, Sherman was a major financier of VP Boakai’s campaign, donating US$50,000 and working to clock to raise more.

While Sirleaf was on record for saying she supported her Vice President, that support was rarely visible.

Boakai went on to break an eleven-year tradition by rejecting calls from his supporters to attend Sirleaf’s birthday bash. Things became even more complicated when Wilmot Paye, then chair of the ruling UP hosted a news conference during which he and other partisans rained verbal tirade against Madam Sirleaf.

Weah Photo-Op Reshaped Elections

In fact, a simple appearance between Sirleaf and Boakai’s rival, George Weah, side-by-side at a groundbreaking program for an 81-kilometer road in Bong County in December, sealed the notion that Sirleaf was all in for a Weah presidency.

An embarrassed Sirleaf tried to ease the tension by giving some credit to her vice president for the project, expressing admiration that the long-awaited day that Liberians will “begin to dream”, had come, pointing to the difficulties travellers on the Gbarnga-Menikoma highway experience especially during the rainy season. “I am so sorry that my vice president Joseph Boakai is not here to dedicate this road along with me but this is his project,” she said.

Ironically, Mr. Weah’s vice President Jewel Howard Taylor was also in attendance. Mr. Weah, a senator at the time, did not speak at the gathering, but his running mate, Senator Howard-Taylor, a native and lawmaker of the county, did.

Senator Taylor, at the time, lauded the government for the progress, saying, “the government, under a female president had built more roads” in the country.

The presence of Mr. Weah at the groundbreaking program also sparked mixed reactions from some residents who witnessed the occasion, especially in the absence of VP Boakai.

To make matters worse, Sirleaf never attended any of Boakai’s campaign activities neither did she attend the campaign launch.

Boakai Finally Opens up on EJS

Explaining her decision for not attending the VP Boakai’s campaign in October, President Sirleaf said, “Thousands of people go to rally, thousands of partisans go to rallies, not many people spend their time going way to a rural village to break ground for a clinic for a community that has never had it. If that’s a wrong priority in the views of some, I accept their view, I respect their view,” Pres. Sirleaf said in an interview with the Cyrus/Pat Fame Show.

Ironically, Boakai, had become jittery while speaking on his boss’ support to his presidential ambition – perhaps in a trick not to further hurt an already sour relationship.

At one point in time, he said, “Fellow Liberians, contrary to the assumption and expectations since the start of the formal campaign process for the 2017 Presidential and representative, neither my campaign nor the Standard Bearer Emeritus – all attempts by me or individual operating upon my instructions to extend a hand of cooperation to the Standard Bearer Emeritus have yielded little or no success. Instead, the Standard Bearer Emeritus is on record for making statements to the international media that, wittingly or unwittingly, have the net effect of detracting us from our quest for the presidency.”

The President’s cold attitude towards the party ignited several comments – some derogatory – from members of the party to Sirleaf’s dismay.

For Boakai, the beef was not his fault. “Anyone who has followed my relationship with President Sirleaf over the past twelve years will know that not one day have we had any occasion to be disrespectful to each other. “Accordingly, I wish to admonish all UP partisans, our collaborators and well-wishers to continue to exercise deference and to accord due courtesies and respect to party and national leaders, especially our Standard Bearer Emeritus, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”

So, what went wrong?

Dr. Abdoulaye Dukulé, a long-time advisor to Madam Sirleaf recalls that things went completely bad, thanks to a campaign stacked by anti-Ellen, JNB received funding from Sirleaf’s friends.

Fury Over Ouattara’s Emissary, US$500K

Multiple sources from both camps recall that by mid August of 2017, inspite of the strained relations between Sirleaf and Boakai, Sirleaf still felt the need not to starve JNB financially.

During one of the last ECOWAS meetings with Sirleaf as ECOWAS Chairlady held at the Farmington Hotel in Liberia, Sirleaf reportedly arranged a  meeting between Boakai and the Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé,  who then donated US$200,000 to the Boakai campaign. 

By then the Moroccans were finalizing a contribution of US$500,000 all in support of the election of Boakai,.with the hope that Boakai would reach out to reassure Sirleaf of her family’s security and comfort.

But a close aide to Sirleaf, speaking to FrontPageAfrica strictly on condition of anonymity, says that Boakai surprisingly, did not reach out to President Sirleaf at the time. 

Further to Sirleaf’s assistance with reluctance, a very senior Ivorian government official came to Monrovia in a special presidential jet to meet with Boakai and Sirleaf,  bearing a US$500,000 donation for Boakai’s campaign.

That meeting was held in Sirleaf’s office but ended unfavorably when Sirleaf spoke privately with the Ivorian 0fficial and sought his intervention in the strained relations between she and her vice president, hoping that Boakai would be conciliatory. However, the source said, when the Foreign Minister tried to ask Boakai about the state of relations, Boakai became incensed and only asked the Ivorian official whether that was what EJS told him?

At the end of the attempted intervention, the Ivorian official did not gave Boakai what he had brought and took back the US$500,000. 

Two weeks later, again through Sirleaf, the senior Ivorian official returned and met with Sirleaf at the Roberts International Airport. This time, Boakai was called. The former Vice President rushed to the RIA where he received the US$500,000 to support his efforts with the hope that he would reconcile with Sirleaf.

A simple appearance between Sirleaf and Boakai’s rival, George Weah, side-by-side at a groundbreaking program for an 81-kilometer road in Bong County in December, sealed the notion that Sirleaf was all in for a Weah presidency.

Rift Spurred Major Political Calamity

The source, who was an influential presence in both President Sirleaf and her vice president’s circle, recalled that VP Boakai did not reconcile with Sirleaf.

By then it was very clear that the rift between Sirleaf and Boakai had suffered a major political calamity. “The end result was clear that in African politics you cannot ignore the support of an incumbent if you are to succeed.  The case of Artiku and President Obasanjo in Nigeria was again repeated in Liberia.  Both Artiku and Boakai lost miserably and embarrassingly,” the source told FrontPageAfrica Monday.

UP, ANC Shift Blame

Fast forward to 2023, the former Vice President is once again in the middle of yet another controversy amid concerns that he is one again remaining silent while his surrogates, .Benoni Urey and Facebook chatter, Henry Costa rain havoc on his main rival, Mr. Alexander Cummings of the Alternative National Congress.

Critics say Mr. Urey may have broken the balance of CPP by jumping behind Boakai early, creating an atmosphere of tension and distrust long before CPP became a reality.

On both sides of the aisle, surrogates and supporters in both camps have been unrepentant in their support of the choice to head the CPP ticket and challenge the incumbent Weah for the presidency. It appears that no one, at least for now, seems willing to give in or leave room for a compromise in hopes of brokering some kind of peaceful end to the ongoing saga.

Diplomatic and political observers say both Mr. Boakai and Mr. Cummings must demonstrate leadership by taking charge of the ongoing brouhaha. For Boakai in particularly, avoiding the lapses that dogged him in 2017, could go a long way.  “His complacent strategy is becoming a visible disaster for the survival of the CPP,” the source said Monday.

The source however added that on the other hand, it is quite obvious that Mr. Cummings has very limited experience in dealing with such political platonic relations.  Cummings visible inability to transform his extensive and outstanding corporate managerial skills into political leadership has shown an inherent weakness in stepping forward to lead and man up, instead of  emotional outburst.

“Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not just a shadow hanging over the Unity Party; she still commands a solid following, and this is a reality Joseph Boakai must face. Again, as he did in 2017, JNB is remaining quiet as his surrogates reign havoc on opponents;JNB flew to Conakry to seek funding from former President Conde who was surprised that EJS did not know about the trip and saw Boakai at the airport on his way out of town. Weah did not need defeating the Unity Party campaign, the work was done by Boakai’s surrogates.”

–      A close advisor to both former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and former Vice President Joseph Boakai, who was privy to behind the scenes discussions during the run-up to the 2017 Presidential elections.

Surrogates Urged to Remain Calm

The ongoing tension appears to have finally prompted executives of both the ANC and the UP to take steps in a bid to put surrogates and partisans in check. Last week, the ANC’s political leader, Cummings called on his partisans to step back on attacking other members of the CPP. On Monday, the UP follow suit.

A statement Monday from the office of Cornelia Kruah-Togba, National Assistant Secretary General for Press, Publicity & Outreach in the UP cautioned against attacks by partisans and officials on the leaders of the constituent parties of the CPP. 

The statement read: “The Party would like to reiterate that there exist internal conflict resolution mechanisms which she believes the current leadership of the CPP seeks to harness. Unity Party Partisans, therefore, are advised to conform to the official position of the party on all matters that are arising which would be communicated through the official spokespersons of the party to include: Mr. Amin Modad, National Chairman; Mr. Mohammed Ali, National Secretary General and Cornelia Kruah-Togba, National Assistant Secretary General for Press, Publicity and Outreach. We encourage all partisans to continue to foster the spirit of unity and oneness as we prepare, as a party, to take over the leadership of the CPP in couple of days. Key on our agenda, if a resolution is not reached, will be to settle the current conflict through all amicable legal means and with the participation of all constituent parties.”

Political observers say, this mix of inept and stubborn verbosity within the CPP must end now or it will make it a toxic relationship for a potential CPP ticket of JNB and ABC.  Although Mr. Cummings has ruled out running second to Boakai if he does not get the nomination of the CPP, it is becoming increasingly clear and inevitable that under such toxic atmosphere between and among the leaders within the CPP going into 2023, the next Vice President to either JNB or ABC will have to be someone else.

One observer added Monday that whoever eventually gets the nod as a VP to either candidate – JNB or ABC must have characteristics that are not necessarily limited to extensive political experience, advocacy, knowledge, temperament and critical thinking, in order to stabilize the situation and give impetus to the strategy and cohesion of the opposition to remain united in order to defeat the CDC and make it a one-term administration.

As Boakai Takes Over CPP, Challenges Loom

The concerns over the lapses of the 2017 presidential elections come as former President Boakai is poised to take over the chairmanship of the CPP.

The party has announced Monday that Boakai is expected to take over the party from the departing chair, Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

Mr. Boakai’s tenure comes amid uncertainty over the CPP and Boakai’s silence amid ongoing tension within the collaboration.

His ascendance will also serve as a litmus test to his leadership of an organization on the brink of what many see as a near collapse even amid concerns that Mr. Boakai has been idle while his surrogates, led by Mr. Urey, throws the CPP into disarray.

In a recent message exchange with Mr. Musa Bility, Chair of the Liberty Party, Mr. Boakai appear to suggest that Mr. Cummings altered the controversial framework document of the CPP. Mr. Boakai wrote: “I am a bit confused that the LP chair, and now the EC chair for LP is the one defending an act that was committed during the ANC chairmanship. By the way, I do not understand that a collaboration, not opposition, is finding it difficult to produce a valid document in its own interest. We all should be on the same page to ensure the document we have is what we approved and sent to NEC. There should be no one on the defense, we are simply saying let Collaboration have a genuine approved document that represents us. Please let’s make sure this happens.”

Mr. Bility, in response informed the Vice President the LP was simply awaiting the UP to take over and begin steering the affairs of the CPP at their earliest convenience while stressing: “”I don’t see any reason why we should still be asking for the Framework Document when we all have it by now. There is no question the CPP requested a team of lawyers to review and revise the FD after the signing ceremony on May 19, 2020. This being the case, the current chair of CPP has also obtained a copy of the Framework Document submitted to NEC by ANC.”

Mr. Bility told Mr. Boakai: “It is only fair to treat each other with respect instead of the bullying and characters assimilation being meted out against the ANC. It is simply wrong, and it must be stopped. This naked attempt to vilify one member of this coalition is turning out to be more damaging to the CPP than we could have ever imagined. The people are losing hope in this project. We need to act quickly to revive their hope or go our separate ways to preserve the future.”

Mr. Cummings has insisted that he did not alter the framework document and has accused the departing CPP chair, Senator Lawrence of having ulterior motives. “This false accusation of nefariously altering the provisions of the CPP framework document to benefit me in this race for the CPP nomination is an assault on my character only intended to tarnish my hard-earned reputation and try to present me to the Liberian people as being the same as the accusers. This may be politics to them, but it is evil and malicious.”

In fact, Mr. Cummings insists that the Framework Document signed on Zoom on May 19, 2020 was under the leadership of Mr. Urey during the heat of the COVID crisis. “He turned over to me on the Zoom ceremony with no turnover notes, documents, resolutions or signed copies of the Framework Document. At no point did all of us sit in one room during the Zoom ceremony and sign one Framework Document signature page. We all signed our individual copies at our respective locations on Zoom on May 19 and kept it with us. There was no one signature page from that signing ceremony with all of our signatures. That is why, upon approval of the lawyers’ amendment, Mo Ali, who was instructed to collect the signatures of all persons on one page, went around to have each PL and Chairman sign. He submitted the signature page to the ANC for filing. That my colleagues cannot be honest to the public and admit that the signature page they signed was taken to them long after May 19, and that they backdated their signatures, speaks to the level of deceit and the underlining intent.”

Mr. Cummings has challenged Sen. Karnga-Lawrence to act in good faith for once and submit the Committee Report and the ANC’s dissent to the lawyers as agreed in the NAC meeting on last Wednesday. “If the lawyers confirm that the provisions of the Framework document submitted by the ANC to NEC is materially and substantially different from the amendments made by the lawyers and approved by the parties, then I will apologize to the Liberian people and take full responsibility. However, if the lawyers find that what is filed at NEC is materially and substantially the same as the provisions in their Amendments, Benoni Urey, Nyonblee Karnga- Lawrence and Joseph Boakai must apologize, not to me but to the Liberian people for intentionally misleading them and threatening to destroy the CPP.”

A close advisor to both former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and former Vice President Joseph Boakai, who was privy to behind the scenes discussions during the run-up to the 2017 Presidential elections, says

the ongoing saga mirrors much of what took place in 2017, suggesting that Mr. Boakai must take cure from the trappings of his last presidential quest and make the necessary adjustments. “Shunning former President Sirleaf could once again deal Boakai a massive blow. “Sirleaf is not just a shadow hanging over UP; she still commands a solid following and this is a reality Mr. Boakai must face,” the source explained. For many political watchers, as he did in 2017, Mr. Boakai’s decision to remain quiet as his surrogates reign havoc on opponents could spell trouble and resurrect old issues. A case in point, one insider said Monday stemmed from a recent visit to neighboring Conakry by Mr. Boakai where he had gone to seek funding from former President Alpha Conde. Conde, according to the source, was surprised that Sirleaf did not know about the trip and saw Boakai at the airport on his way out of town. “Weah did not need defeating the UP campaign in 2017; the work was done by Boakai’s surrogates,” the source concluded.

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