Gbarnga, Bong County – It was a defeat the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) did not anticipate or envisage. But there were many underlying issues that made it imperative that Melvin Salvage, the CDC candidate in the just ended by-election in Bong’s District Two, would fall short of the high expectations he and the party infused into their supporters.
In the build-up to the by-election, riding on a mammoth war chest of financial resources from the party, Salvage created a giant image after the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill and Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, a native of Bong County who has won two successive elections as senator of Bong County before her rise as vice president, campaigned with him in the nooks and crannies of the district.
McGill pledged to continue his tuition aid to residents of the county, promising to provide tuition aid to students of the district in the tone of $10 million Liberian dollars whatever the outcome of the results would be, while Howard-Taylor launched a loan scheme in the tone of $10 million Liberian dollars to women of the four clans in the district as a way of influencing their decisions.
The presence of McGill and Howard-Taylor seemingly instilled fear in the minds of other candidates, even as they buoyed confidence in their supporters in the district. With such political actors by his side, Salvage was perceived as a represenative-in-waiting.
On election day, December 16, the perceived ‘heavy weights’ failed to galvanize their constituencies. And McGill, Howard-Taylor and other party stalwarts apparently could not believe their eyes as results began to trickle in from various polling places across the district, pointing to one inevitable outcome: Salvage was losing.
And he fell from the public perception that was enhanced by the belief in the old politics of ‘big names’ intervention.
The ultimate crash of Salvage and the CDC in this month’s by-election was a reality that many observers and party stalwarts are still finding hard to contemplate.
One elite member of the CDC who requested not to be named told FrontPageAfrica: “The CDC has to rethink for the better. There is too any split in the party in Bong County. Egos are taking center stage and affecting the party. If we don’t unite ahead of 2023 the results will be worse,” he said.
Although most of the contending candidates in the by-election made the CDC candidate the butt of their attacks, chronicling the ruling party’s perceived failure to deliver to Liberians during President George Weah’s four years in power, James Kolleh of the People’s Unification Party (PUP), the eventual winner of the election and his sponsor Bong County District Five lawmaker Edward Karfiah, campaigned as if all depended on the strength of their party.
This is the third time the CDC has lost elections in Bong, the third populated county, according to a 2008 statistics released by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), since President Weah was elected in 2018.
The party lost the 2014 Senatorial election by-election to independent candidate Henrique Tokpa and the 2020 Special Senatorial election to Prince Moye of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP).
There were many reasons why CDC’s Salvage fell from the pinnacle of public perception of his candidacy to the second position in the hard-fought election.
The reasons include, reliance on overrated political points, internal wranglings within the Bong chapter of the party, and conspiracy of some party elites in the county.
Internal party wranglings
Perhaps, the greatest undoing of Salvage was the wide distance that some CDC stalwarts – who are members of President Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change, a constituent party of the CDC – in the county gave to his aspiration.
Some elite stalwarts of the party felt that a win for Salvage, whom they saw as a Howard-Taylor candidate though he’s a member of President Weah’s CDC – would have been a boost for the vice president after she failed to support the party’s candidate Henry Yallah in his failed re-election bid in 2020.
The dichotomy between supporters of Weah’s CDC and Howard-Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), another constituent party of the CDC, was so defined that the campaign flag-off was shifted many times without any commitment from them, FrontPageAfrica gathered.
Although Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change supporters did not quit the three-party collaboration, they remained to ‘see what magic would the vice president perform to win the election for Salvage without their support.’
In an interview with FrontPageAfrica, some supporters of President Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change disclosed that they foresaw the impending calamity and they reportedly reached out to the national leadership of the party but regretted that the desired reconciliation was not embarked upon.
But, at the county level, supporters of Salvage told our reporter that there was no way Salvage did not plead with aggrieved supporters of President Weah’s Congress for Democratic to join hands with him to unite the party for the eventual represenative by-election contest.
Reliance on ‘heavy weights’
The CDC candidate reportedly did not engage with the grassroots but depended on the support of Salvage and the vice president, FrontPageAfrica observed.
Then, there was revenge from some supporters of former Bong County senator Yallah who occupied strategic positions in the campaign organization of Salvage. They reportedly also preferred the PUP candidate over Salvage.
The mutual suspicion spiralled into the election as those who came into the party were accused of not spending money released to them for logistics and instead believed that there was magic to return the candidate as winner.
That Salvage could not overwhelmingly win his perceived strongholds like Gbenequelleh, Tamaita and Janjay became the highpoint of the disastrous outing.
Country Devil politics backfired
One major factor that played against Salvage and the CDC was their introduction of the Country Devil politics they planned against Kolleh. Kolleh, a non-member of the Poro tradition, was targeted through out the campaign, with Rep. Marvin Cole reportedly instructing chiefs to try to lure Kolleh to joining the tradition.
Kolleh believed that it would have been ‘traditionally wrong’ for a non-member of their tradition to lead a district whose residents have prioritize the culture.
Some traditional leaders, FrontPageAfrica has gathered, reportedly attempted kidnapping Kolleh at night in Blameyea Town under the pretense of endorsing his represenative bid, but their plans reportedly failed after Kolleh received a hint by residents of the area.
Kolleh, a native of Yeidiwon, a clan that agitated for power swift, began stating the essence of joining the tradition, but insisted the process shouldn’t be done by force. The theme of his campaign was closely related to claims being preached by his rivals that a non-Poro member shouldn’t lead a district where majority of its residents are members of the district.
Rep. Cole believed that Kolleh was lying about his plans of joining the tradition.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back is that Kolleh is not a member of our tradition,” Rep. Cole said, during a political rally in the district.
“We’re not going to elect anyone as represenative who’s not a member of the Poro Society. You can’t be a non-Poro member and want to lead people who are members of our tradition. That’s unacceptable.”
“This district is a traditional sensitive place and electing a non-member of our tradition would be the worst thing that will ever happen to every resident of this district who is a member.”
Rep. Cole ridiculed Kolleh for not joining the Poro prior to his represenative ambition, calling him a “new born baby”. “Every member of the Bong Legislative Caucus is a member of the Poro. Some of your leaders in the Caucus joined this tradition 10-15 years ago probably aware of that they would have become in the county,” Cole claimed.
But Kolleh’s campaign’s defensiveness over the issue was evident at a raucous campaign rally in Janjay Town.
One speaker, who identified himself as a strong supporter of Kolleh, tried to reassure the whistling, stomping, all-white crowd of over 2, 000 people that their candidate’s stance on not joining the tradition prior to the November 16 by-election was “genuine”.
“We have worked together, lived together. You have done well for us in this district. We respect the tradition but the act of forcing someone to join the Poro is wrong,” said James Foday, who is a member of the Poro tradition.
“If you’re going to vote for Kolleh, you’re doing the right thing,” he proclaimed, prompting cheers from the crowd who had gathered all night.
The crowd showed a campaign slide show featuring two shots of Kolleh Each time, the audience yelled its approval of Kolleh’s represenative bid.
Finally, Kolleh himself appeared onstage to warn that the district was in danger of losing its “reconciliatory agenda by preaching divisive politics and using the tradition to intimidate non-member”.
It’s no doubt that the Bong chapter of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change is enmeshed in a long-standing division between a faction of party chairman Sayblee Weyea and CDC lawmaker Cole.
Their rift was visible during the campaign launch of Salvage when both Cole and Weyea paraded with different sets of supporters of the Coalition. Supporters of Weyea believed that Cole’s proximity with Min. McGill is defacing the party, claiming that bulk of the resources for the party are being directed to District Three, where Cole represents as lawmaker.
Cole, however, rebuffed Weyea’s claims, alleging that Weyea has been reportedly undermining the unity of the party in the county.
With rumors of Weyea’s ambition to contest against Cole in 2023, political pundits believed that the party will remain divided, which might hurt the re-election ambition of President Weah in Bong, the third populated county in Liberia.