The Liberian Political Upheaval of 2023: Candidacies Vs. Choices – Punctuating the Presidential Candidates. Whom Will the People Choose?
Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution states, “All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit, and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require. To ensure a democratic government that responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner, as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments“. This means that the people, through democratic practices, have the power backed by constitutional provisions, as espoused supra, to effect changes in government, especially during elections. Many political pundits believe that the upcoming elections would be another opportunity for Liberians to make rational decisions in the state’s interest and its people.
Liberia has had three general and presidential elections since the rebirth of its democracy after fourteen years of civil unrest. The first post-war elections in 2005 saw the emergence of the first African female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, in 2017, was succeeded by soccer legend George M. Weah, the current Liberian president. The Sirleaf administration (2006-2011 and 2012-2017) undertook a range of reforms to build a foundation for growth and development in Liberia. Even though macroeconomic, judicial, institutional, and democratic reforms were undertaken to strengthen state capacity to ensure macroeconomic stability, Liberia’s economy is still weak. The economy is recovering from years of external shocks and poor policy choices, persistently leaving the vast majority of its population jobless and living on the United States dollar per day. The external shocks often referenced are the Ebola outbreak, the collapse of iron ore and rubber prices, and the withdrawal of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces.
Also, the COVID-19 pandemic, where the economy contracted by an average of 0.4 percent per year between 2014 and 2020, and per capita projected to have risen to 51 percent in 2021, wiping out nearly half of the gains made post-conflict, when the poverty rate declined from 64 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2014. The recent increase in poverty experienced by the country has occurred due to health crises. The COVID-19 pandemic alone is projected to have worsened poverty by 2.3 percent. Meanwhile, recovery in private consumption per capita, fueled by a buoying economy in 2021 and beyond, is likely to push the poverty rate below 50 percent (World Bank, 2022).
Meanwhile, the Liberian economy is expected to perform against the current outlook as the government’s fiscal position improved in 2021 due to strong revenue growth and radical economic measures instituted and enforced by the government and its development partners, the World Bank, IMF, and other international regimes. The fiscal deficit narrowed to 2.9 percent of GDP in 2021, down from 3.8 percent in 2020, while the primary deficit fell by 0.6 percentage points to 2.0 percent of GDP. These numbers project gradual improvement in the current economic growth. Still, such progress is being undermined by poor governance threat to realizing these projections is primarily the country’s inability to combat corruption and eradicate rent-seeking, systemic, and entrenched political corruption permeating the corridors of governance. A combination of external shocks and poor governance have contributed to a dramatic rise in poverty rates over the past few years. The private sector, which is supposed to serve as the engine of growth and development, continues to be outcompeted by alleged companies owned and operated by senior government officials and friends of the regime in the form of monopolies. This painstaking reality diverts revenues from the public sector. It contributes to minimum investment in human capacity development, creating the need for more sustainable job opportunities for the youth and poor healthcare delivery for the people. Can the Weah government reinvent the wheel?
The upcoming elections are critically significant as they seek to determine the country’s progress in the near future. The masses of the people have the decisive power, as quoted in article one of the Liberian Constitution, through their votes and based on critical analyses of experts, scholars, and political pundits, to make meaningful political decisions that would end periods of systemic and entrenched political corruption, economic inequality and social exclusion, despotism and kleptocracy and as well to improve state capacity in harnessing the impacts of development interventions.
The political figures, Amb. Joseph N. Boakai, Sr., (UP), Mr. Alexander Cummings (ANC), and the embattled Liberty Party are yearning to replace the current establishment, the (CDC). The country’s opposition community holds firm to the belief that they have the technical capability to address the mounting tensions from the public relative to the exacerbating effects of the economy. Essentially, the former soccer legend George M. Weah and his CDC are nostalgic and remain hopeful for another mandate from the people. Therefore, a conspicuous juxtaposition and punctuation of the presidential candidates ahead of the ensuing elections are cardinally exhilarating.
Full runners at a glance
As the 2023 general and presidential elections draw closer, the citizenry and several professionals are evaluating the political landscape, especially with the formation of so many political parties, to determine the best candidates with the best agendas for Liberia. This analysis will include a look at various candidates’ and parties’ strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities relative to governance in Liberia.
George Manneh Weah – Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) – “Change for Hope”
George M. Weah is the incumbent president who won the 2017 presidential election with 61.5% of the total votes in the run-off election, according to the National Elections Commission. Upon assuming office in a historic transfer of power, Mr. Weah and his Coalition for Democratic Change introduced the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PADP) as the country’s development framework for six years (2018 – 2023) for inclusive growth and development. The agenda considers four thematic areas: Power to the people, the Economy and Jobs, Sustaining peace, and Governance and Transparency. The Weah government seeks to achieve the above outcomes as steps towards achieving the National Vision 2030 aspirations of making Liberia a middle-income country.
The passage of the Local Government Act of 2018 was a significant milestone under pillar one – “power to the people” of the PADP, as claimed by the ruling establishment. Except for passing complimentary legal instruments, the Weah administration has yet to do much to implement the LGA in five years since its passage into law. More importantly, through progressive tax administration and revenue mobilization under the Domestic Revenue Mobilization strategy, the CDC has made significant strides in expanding the country’s fiscal space. After a near economic collapse in 2019, a mixture of domestic revenue mobilization and external borrowing has seen the CDC government grow the national budget from approximately US $570 million in the fiscal year 2018/ 2019 to US $777 million in the fiscal year 2022. The irony, however, is that the growth in the national budget is correlated with growth in poverty. The sporadic economic hardship affecting the people has posed a significant challenge to the government’s reform and the achievement of the PADP. Pundits have argued that economic growth must be correlated with improvements in the living standard of the people. That is, there must be a complete balance between growth and development regarding redistribution.
His critics fear that the incumbent president will utilize the state coffers to fund his political campaign. Over 34% of Liberians are classified as “classically poor.” This figure was down from 28.1% in 2018 (World Bank, 2022). The economic hardship in the country has consistently triggered a preponderance of civil disobedience, demonstrations, and protests dubbed “Weah step-down,” organized by the Council of Patriots, “Fix the country,” organized by Student Unification Party, and the latest “We tiyah suffering,” organized the opposition Alternative National Congress in December 2022. These demonstrations were aimed at pressuring the Weah government to take actions to address governance lapses that were negatively impacting the economy. Have these demonstrations affected Weah’s massive popularity?
The exponential decrease in Weah’s popularity can be attributed to alleged massive corruption in the form of private properties amassment, the sixteen (16) billion Liberian Dollars embezzlement from the Central Bank of Liberia, the Eton & Ebomaf saga, 25 million mop-up exercise and the imposition of sanctions on senior officials of his cabinet and few members of the Liberian senate, under the Global Magnitsky Act 2021 & 2022, amongst others. These malfeasances have not only desecrated Mr. President’s historical popularity as a footballing president, but the number of unexplained murders involving Liberian professionals from the Liberia Revenue Authority, the Central Bank of Liberia, and the Internal Audit Agency, have caused a considerable decline in his political value as we saw the dramatic defeats of the CDC in recent elections. Would Mr. Weah secure a historic second term by reigniting the people’s confidence?
Amb. Joseph N. Boakai, Sr. – Unity Party (UP) – “Think Liberia, Love Liberia, Build Liberia”
Amb. Joseph Nyuma Boakai, Sr. is the Standard Bearer of (UP). Amb. Boakai’s tenure as Liberia’s vice president is remembered as a period of uninterrupted peace – not a small feat for a country torn apart by years of civil war. Over more than 35 years, he served the country in several capacities in the public and private sectors. His vast experience in public bureaucracy has grounded him with the people across the geopolitical landscape of Liberia. After his tenure as Vice President to former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, he won as the UP-standard bearer in late 2015, succeeding Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf.
In the 2017 elections, he received 38.5 % of the total votes in the run-off against the incumbent, Mr. Weah. His acknowledgment that significant opportunities were squandered in the Sirleaf Administration has accorded him much admiration from the public, which unearths his stance on corruption, transparency, and accountability as qualities of good governance but crumbles his longstanding companionship with the former president Mrs. Sirleaf. Amb. Boakai, Sr. believes that his mantra “Think Liberia, Love Liberia, and Build Liberia” encapsulates the country’s historical menaces, will create sustainable livelihood, and enhances social cohesion among Liberians void of social and political alignment. This uniquely points to Liberia’s rising agenda. Political pundits think that Amb. Boakai’s most considerable credentials are his substantive public service career with little or no stem of corruption, leadership experience, and the integrity and credibility he has exhibited over three decades of his public and private service careers.
The recent loss of the UP in their stronghold, Lofa county, has reinvigorated the confidence of the regime to reclaim the vote-rich county in 2023. An accusation of entitlement and timid decision-making continue to becloud his ambition. His selection of Emmanuel Nuquoi as a running mate in 2017 was marked by systemic and colossal failure to evaluate a vice-presidential candidate. The public is waiting for how he would handle his VP pick this time. Hence, the UP’s ability to settle the brawl among some current and past officials and party members is still concerning.
Mr. Alexander B. Cummings – Alternative National Congress (ANC) – “You cannot continue doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
Alexander B. Cummings, the political leader of the Alternative National Congress (ANC), received (7.2%) of the total votes in 2017. He brings nearly four decades of expertise working for multinational corporations—including a 19-year stint at The Coca-Cola Company. He consistently argues that he would enhance effectiveness in delivering outcomes by creating a solid cabinet and holding them accountable, as well as his spotless record of honesty. Since 2016, Mr. Cummings has promised to eradicate corruption in Liberia, strengthen Liberia’s capabilities, and secure a prosperous future for the country.
Mr. Cummings’ primary strength is his presumed financial capability, connections with global entrepreneurs, and private sector track record of several years of realizing record sales and profit growth. His private sector experience applies to governance given the new wave of innovation in public administration as it is with the New Public Management. As a political leader, he has mentioned crucial public policy issues aimed at responding to Liberia’s economic challenges, creating sustainable macroeconomic stability through revenue generation and expansion of fiscal space, and creating job opportunities for the country’s youthful population. Strenuously, Cummings’ political ambition has consistently been conflicted with numbers- some placing his support based on the voting population nationwide at 7%, which is statistically infinitesimal. Politics in Liberia is tribal and local. Political pundits and stakeholders are concerned about Mr. Cumming’s lack of solid alignment with traditional and local leaders, which they see as a considerable challenge to his presidential bid.
The Dramatic Collapse of the Collaborating Political Parties- CPP
In politics, coalition building is a needful necessity that lays the foundation for a commanding win in more cases in favor of the opposition community, as we saw in 2011 with the coalition between the Unity Party and the Liberian Action Party and again in 2017 when Congress for Democratic Change built an alliance with the National Patriotic Party and the Liberia People Democratic Party. The objectives of these coalitions were singularly achieved and resulted in substantial political dividends. Coalition building would bring together critical voices, like minds, and influential figures in an opposition community to demand a win. The political elites have the greater responsibility to unite, address issues regarding social, economic, and political challenges, and conduct mobilizations across the geopolitical spectrum against a particular regime. Many have expressed fear that circumstances leading to President Weah’s defeat would seem untimely without a strong coalition.
The then Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), which comprised the (UP), the Liberty Party (LP), the All-Liberian Party (ALP), and the (ANC), was established in 2018 as the vehicle to unseat the current CDC government led by George M. Weah, Sr. In the corridors of geopolitics, many Liberians had hoped that the coalition was the way forward for the opposition community. Despite its triumph in the 2020 senatorial bi-elections, in 2021, the UP and ALP withdrew from the CPP on the allegation of fraud and lack of unity and are now seen working together with a fragment of the LP with Ambassador Joseph Nyuma Baokai, Sr. as their political leader, while a component of the LP and ANC is holding together with Mr. Cummings of the ANC, as their political leader.
Since the CPP’s demise, there has been severe infighting among opposition political parties over restructuring as they prepare for the general and presidential elections in 2023. Each of the above-mentioned political parties has been working separately for the country’s highest governance seat, thus influencing the Liberian people’s decision regarding their support. The collapse has created some relief for the Weah-led administration, as they have been pushing from all corners to correct some of the lapses and governance issues presently. The collapse of the CPP and the disintegration of the opposition blocs are cultivating some feelings among ruling party supporters of a Weah second term. Therefore, the onus is on the opposition community to prove to the Liberian people that they are a better alternative, well-organized, and ready to respond to the country’s governance gap.
The Ellen Factor
It is no secret that Mrs. Sirleaf has networks of changemakers on the global stage as the continent’s first woman president. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s influence in Liberian politics is notably regarded as an act of protectionism- fearing radical and progressive leadership that will deem it necessary to unearth the missteps during her regime as President of Liberia. Before the 2017 elections, and even now, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s major factor has been her strong regional and international networks that have influenced many policy decisions in her favor at the international level as the first woman President in Africa. Again, how do these global connections correlate to domestic choices in 2023 is still wanting?
In 2017, Madam Sirleaf openly supported an already popular candidate who is the current Liberian President, George M. Weah, based on political compromises that sought to protect her against any state’s interrogation on alleged embezzlement and bankruptcy of key institutions such as the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), among others. Has this marriage crumbled? As the country gears up for the 2023 general and presidential elections, it has been rumored the iron lady is heavily canvassing for Mr. Alexander B. Cummings’ bid for the nation’s prestigious position- presidency. What does it mean to Mrs. Sirleaf’s legacy? Why not her longstanding partner, the former vice president of Liberia and now the Standard bearer of the main opposition party, Unity Party?
As the 2023 presidential and legislative elections draw closer, the citizenry, political pundits, and researchers are evaluating the political landscape, especially with the formation of so many political parties, to determine the best candidates with the best agendas for Liberia. This year, 2023, Liberians will have the opportunity to effect change at the policy level during the general elections, which include the presidency. The masses of the people have the decisive power, as espoused in article one of the Liberian Constitution, through their votes and based on critical analyses of experts, scholars, and political pundits, to make meaningful political decisions that will end years of systemic and entrenched political corruption, economic inequality and social exclusion, despotism and kleptocracy and as well to improve state capacity in harnessing the impacts of development interventions. The article has juxtaposed the potential and critical challenges of the country’s leading political figures relative to their stubborn quests for the presidency. Again, Liberians of voting ages will have the opportunity this year to elect a President for the next six years in line with the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Therefore, the National Elections Commission of Liberia should launch nationwide voter registration awareness and involve civil society organizations in every aspect of the electoral process to ensure political accountability, participation, and inclusiveness. Who Will the People Choose?
About the authors:
Amara Quardu Mohammad Kamara is a Governance, Development Policy, and Program technical consultant at the Global Organizational Development and Investment Consulting -Global ODIC. He can be reached at [email protected]
Bill McGill Jones is a Governance, Project Management, and International Development professional with more than 14 years of experience in the public and private sectors. He can be reached at [email protected]