The Power Of Narrative In Modern Liberian Presidential Elections

Carl Jung states that psyche is the totality of the human mind (conscious and unconscious). The position of this article is that the modern Liberian voter’s psyche is unique which is evident in our patterns of voting for the presidency especially over the past 24 years.

In the last 24 years, we have voted for a warlord (Charles Taylor) in 1997, the first democratically elected woman in Africa (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) in 2005 and 2011, and the first democratically elected footballer in Africa (George Weah) in 2017, as Presidents of the Republic of Liberia.

An outsider may view our pattern of voting as unconventional, dynamic or even progressive given its hallmarks of ‘firsts’ in Africa and perhaps the world. As insiders however, we know that these ‘firsts’ are usually a product of the narratives that we consciously and/or unconsciously construct about certain individuals (presidential candidates) which sway public opinion and impact on the voter’s psyche.

In politics, narrative (whether good or bad) is said to be a combination of the stories, rumours, gossips, constructs, songs, ideas, arts, opinions, perceptions, coverage, preaching, commentary, regalia and etc that are built around something or someone to make it seem like it is a reality. And we have done this extremely well in Liberia especially over the past 24 years which produced our unconventional Presidents.

In 1997, we built a narrative around Taylor as a ‘smart’, ‘charismatic’, ‘free-handed’, ‘articulate’, ‘handsome’ and ‘charming’ man who was prepared to end the war and lead us back to normalcy (“Normal Days”). We affectionally nicknamed him “Ghankay”, “Papay”, “Chief”, “Major Taylor” and “CIC”, and placed our fragile peace into his hands. As if this was not enough, we created and sung the infamous song, “You killed my Ma, you killed my Pa, I’ll Vote for you” to silence Taylor’s critics and gave him a blank cheque at the first round (73.5% of the votes). This infamous song has continued to depict the narrative in different forms even today!

In 2005, we turned to Sirleaf who we had rejected in 1997. Her main opponent Weah had shown strengths by winning the first round over conventional politicians including Sirleaf. However, we would build a narrative around Sirleaf nicknaming her “Ma Ellen”, “Old Ma”, “Iron Lady” and “Our Ma”. The international community would join the bandwagon to brandish Sirleaf as the “Iron Lady”, “Diplomat” and “Harvard-trained economist” who was prepared to lead the post-conflict efforts and rebrand our soiled image. We would go on to sing, “Who wants the mansion Key? Ellen wants the mansion Key!” and gave her our votes in the second round either by hook or by crook to stop Weah, a then “high school dropout”.

In 2011, the narrative was about a ‘continuity’ of the Sirleaf’s administration although she had campaigned in 2005 to be a “one term President”. Sirleaf would disregard the Liberia’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report, which had banned her and 50 others from holding public office for 30 years due to their roles in the Liberian civil war (1989-2003) which killed around 250,000 people. Sirleaf would instead be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly) and go on to win the polls despite allegations of skewed results from the opposition.

In 2017, the narrative was about ‘generational change’. Allegations of corruption had stained the Sirleaf’s legacy which helped to amplify the mantra of change. The narrative then became a need to change from the ‘old order’, ‘business as usual’ and/or the ‘status quo’ to a ‘fresh blood’, ‘youthful’, ‘grassroot’ and ‘young generation’. Weah became the ‘face’ of this movement for a paradigm shift and Liberians would go on to nickname him “Country Giant”, “Son of the Soil”, “Jorweah”, “Legend” and “Black Diamond” ignoring concerns about his unpreparedness to lead the nation. Most importantly, the voters would go on to sing, “You know Book, you na know Book, I’ll Vote for you” to express their distrust for “Book People” whom they claimed then had ‘failed them” and overwhelmingly gave their votes to Weah in the second round.

Taylor did not keep the peace that we had envisioned and he is currently serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in a British prison. Sirleaf’s legacy is soiled by rampant corruption; and the last four years of Weah have witnessed economic declines, incompetence and rampant corruption. It is evident that the narratives we constructed about these Presidents did not materialise.

There is no doubt that elements of ‘divisions’ such as the age-old ‘Congo vs Country’ ethnic card and the recent ‘Christian State’ fanatism are still present in electoral campaigns/politicking in Liberia however the outcome of elections are not largely affected by these. For example, none of the Presidents elected over the past 24 years has been from the largest ethnic groups in the country (Kpelle or Bassa). And candidates from other religions have lost largely based on their character and/or platforms rather than their religious affiliation. Except Taylor who won by 73.5% of the votes during the first round in 1997, both Sirleaf (2005 and 2011) and Weah (2017) have had to go to a second round and relied on a coalition to win the presidency. Coalitions (CDC and CPP) are now seen as the silver bullets to parliament and/or the presidency because no political party can outrightly win by itself!

In relation to 2023, Weah has been labelled as a ‘Generational Traitor’  who failed to improve the standard of living, respect the rule of law, tackle corruption and stabilise the economy. As a result, Liberian voters are looking to favour the leading contenders (former Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai and former Coca-Cola Executive Alexander Benedict Cummings) of the main opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP). And the narrative of the presidential election in 2023 is already being constructed around ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’ and ‘competence’ given Weah’s failures.

There is no doubt that the new narrative largely favours former VP Boakai who the voters believe has been “tried” and “tested” within the Liberian public and business sectors in senior positions for over 40 years without a trace of corruption. For his supporters, Boakai is the face of “honesty”, “integrity” and “experience”, who they have affectionally named, “JNB”, “The Papay”, “Mr Clean”, “VP Boakai” and “Father of the Nation” to show their support. Should Boakai claim the CPP’s nomination for 2023, Liberians may as well sing, “You Old, you na Old, I’ll Vote for you” to silence concerns about his aging and vote him over incumbent Weah.

But also, Alexander Cummings who his supporters believe is an experienced businessman and an outsider that is prepared to turn things around by introducing new technologies and innovative policies to create economic opportunities for all. In their eyes, Cummings’ 40-year career in international business and chiefly, his role as Chief Administrator of Coca-Cola is seen as a market-driven solution for Liberia. He too has earned the nicknames, “ABC”, “Mr Cummings”, “Cummings” and “Talk & Do” from his supporters as a show of affection. Should Cummings lead the CPP into 2023, the voters may as well chant, “You JJC, you na JJC, I’ll Vote for you” to silence his critics who claimed that he is an “outsider”.

This is why an understanding of the narrative that is being created about these candidates leading into 2023 is important!

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