MONROVIA – With two years to go until the 2023 presidential elections, former Vice President Joseph Boakai is already facing intense pressure to clean up his image in order to have a shot at winning the standard-bearer mantle of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) ticket.
Sources close to Boakai and the Unity Party say that several top advisors have been quietly urging their boss to create some distance between himself and the controversial Charles Taylor holdover, Mr. Benoni Urey, arguing that Urey is increasingly seen as “toxic” and unacceptable by the U.S. Embassy and could drag down the CPP ticket.
The internal pressures on Boakai to ditch Urey began to intensify in recent weeks. An article in Newsweek included Urey as one of the former officials likely to face future prosecution as part of a war crimes tribunal. Around the same time, the US Congress held a hearing titled “Establishing a War Crimes and Economic Crimes Court for Liberia,” which featured testimony from Alan White, the former head of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
In White’s written testimony, he emphasized the recovery of stolen assets and prosecuting economic corruption. He writes, “the Economic Crimes Court will be able to ensure accountability for those who stole funds and property to self-enrich themselves at the expense of the Liberian people and return those funds and assets back to the Liberian people.”
Sources indicate that aides close to Boakai are concerned regarding the direction of this hearing, especially given that over the course of the war Benoni Urey transformed himself from a bureaucrat into a “wealthy businessman,” owning the majority of Lonestar Cell MTN. The first thing the Americans will start asking, the source said, is where did Urey suddenly get the money to start a company?
There is also the problematic issue of Urey allegedly confessing to war crimes and arms trafficking. When he was being investigated by the US Department of Homeland Security, he has acknowledged in interviews that he diverted public funds to buy ex-military helicopters, which was part of the reason he was designated for sanctions by the Department of Treasury.
Aides close to Boakai have argued, “Do you really want to be stuck with a running mate who can’t even get through customs at Dulles airport?”
Lastly, the former VP’s advisors are concerned about Urey’s flailing attempts to muddy the waters in Washington DC. Following the Congressional Hearing, Amb. George Patten submitted a letter (previously reported by FrontPageAfrica) to the House Foreign Affairs Committee raising questions regarding the undisclosed conflicts of interest of witnesses in the hearing. Amb. Patten pointed out that Alan White is a business partner of the lobbyist Jeffery Birrell, who is a registered foreign agent for Urey. Birrell has a controversial reputation in Washington – he had previously been exposed for helping the former President of Gabon Omar Bongo illegally launder money to buy armored vehicles and military aircraft, according to a New York Times report.
For these reasons, the source says some of Boakai’s advisors are deeply concerned by the growing risks associated with having someone like Benoni Urey seen as the opposition contender’s closest ally. Worse still, they worry the blind eye Boakai appears to turn towards Urey will open the opportunity for the Cummings camp to attack his character and judgment.
In the coming weeks, the Boakai team is expected to increase their outreach efforts with the Embassy and will try to get their story straight that they can be a trusted partner. But with the Urey question lingering, they have their work cut out for them.