Monrovia – In a season of political discontent when leading candidates for the October elections have coined monikers in a bid to build momentum, the incumbent George Manneh Weah is waiting in the wings and gearing up for what is inarguably the biggest game of his political life as he prepares to defend his presidential turf and fend off rivals looking to stake their claim.
By: Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
POLITICAL PARTY: Coalition for Democratic Change
RUNNING MATE: Jewel Howard Taylor
DECIDING BASE: Vote-rich Montserado, Bong and southeastern counties of Grand Kru, Sinoe, Maryland, Rivercess, Margibi and the Western Belt of Gbarpolu, Bomi and Cape Mount. During the 2017 presidential elections, Weah and his CDC won all but one county, Lofa, the base of former Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai. The nation’s capital, Montserrado has historically been an opposition territory since the post-war democratic turn, making it a major challenge for the incumbent in October. While the CDC is expected to do well in Montserrado, the county is expected to split between the top candidates running for the presidency. The selection of former first lady, Jewel Howard Taylor proved to be a smart move in 2017 for Weah. This time around, however, the VP’s once powerful base is becoming a major battleground with other contenders pitching the county for votes. Support from the influential Senator Emmanuel Nuquay in Margibi could prove pivotal for the incumbent.
THE LOWDOWN: Six years after winning the presidency, the footballer-turned President has faced mounting criticisms over his handling of the government he inherited from his predecessor Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Despite the criticisms, however, the Weah-led government points to the ongoing road project and its grassroots base to propel it to a second term.
In 2022, annual message the incumbent defended his first six years by saying: “Let me assure you that the state of our nation is strong. The state of our nation is stable … The state of our nation is peaceful and secure. We intend to keep it this way.”
However, over the past few months, leading to the October elections, President Weah has come under criticisms from its major ally, the United States of America for allowing two key officials who were sanctioned amid allegations of corruption.
In August, the incumbent was forced to suspend three government officials who were sanctioned by the United States for what it said was their ongoing involvement in public corruption. The sanctions target Weah’s Chief of Staff Nathaniel McGill, Liberia’s Chief Prosecutor Sayma Cyrenius Cephus and Bill Twehway, the managing director of the National Port Authority.
Much has been made about the government’s failure to put a halt to the legislative candidacies of two of those sanctions, Nathaniel McGill, and Bill Twehway.
While describing the actions for which the officials were sanctioned as “grave”, US authorities have felt slighted by President Weah’s failure to put his foot down on an issue US authorities fear could dampen relationship between the two countries.
The incumbent has also struggled to lure investors as stated in a recent U.S. State Department Investment Climate Report on Liberia. The report noted that since the inception of the Pro-poor-led Agenda, the government has struggled to attract investors to Liberia, and the situation appears to be exacerbated by actions that deter rather than encourage foreign investments. Business leaders have reported difficulties in even securing meetings with government representatives to discuss new investment opportunities or policies without offering bribes, according to the 2023. According to the report, key factors contributing to the unfavorable investment climate, include a weak legal and regulatory framework, lack of transparency in contract awards, and widespread corruption. Instead of viewing foreign investors as potential partners in fostering long-term growth for Liberia, some government officials perceive them as opportunities for short-term graft.
Upon assuming the presidency in 2018, the incumbent promised to end endemic corruption his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was widely accused of failing to address.
Under President Weah, corruption remains endemic in the country, with the watchdog Transparency International ranking Liberia 136th of 180 countries in its 2022 corruption perceptions index. In 2018, a corruption scandal in which Liberia lost $100m in newly printed central bank notes sparked widespread allegations of misuse of public funds within Weah’s administration.
STRENGTHS: Love him or hate him, Weah’s street creds and appeal to a loyal base have eclipsed much of the criticisms regarding his re-electability at bay. Ironically, the incumbent’s most important asset lies not much in what his government has achieved over the past six years, but in the perceived gifts in the form of the opposition disunity that has presented him.
As a campaigner, the incumbent is a natural. While much of loose jabs at his opponents may lack substance to his critics and detractors, the appeal to the ordinary masses who still see him as one of them, is a major asset many of his opponents lack. For example, during a recent political stomping rally, the incumbent took former Vice President Joseph Boakai, one of his rivals in the upcoming race to task, labeling him as the “Joseph, who squandered opportunities during his time in national government.”
Speaking before hundreds of CDC’s partisans at the party’s headquarters in Congotown on Monday, July 17, President Weah drew a biblical analogy to distinguish between two types of Josephs. He referred to himself as “Joseph the Dreamer,” alluding to the biblical Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold into slavery at the age of 17.
In contrast, he labeled Boakai as “Joseph the Sleeper,” suggesting that the former VP had failed to make the most of his chances.
President Weah highlighted Boakai’s admission of the Unity Party squandering opportunities when it ruled for 12 unbroken years, asserting that the former VP had served as the agriculture minister in the past but failed to deliver meaningful benefits to the Liberian people.
The President’s jabs were in response to recent criticisms from the former Vice President that Weah’s time in the Senate was ineffective.
Separately, the incumbent also recently threw jabs at another one of his rivals, the former Coca-Cola executive, Alexander Cummings, who he criticized for “doing nothing” when Coca-Cola closed its production in Liberia, despite serving on the Board of Coca-Cola Global in Atlanta, Georgia. According to President Weah, the departure of Coca-Cola and other companies and NGOs that left at the inception of his regime intended to embarrass him and his government.
The incumbent, in reply to his critics, insists that the democratic tenets of Liberia have remained intact since he assumed the affairs of the state as citizens have been allowed to enjoy all the freedoms ascribed to them in the Constitution.
In the last five years since his election, President Weah’s economic achievements supported by the IMF and his significant efforts in rebuilding infrastructure have astonished his opposition. Initially, many doubted his ability to lead effectively due to their perception that he lacked the necessary background, competence, and education typical of previous Liberian presidents. However, their campaign against him proved futile.
When the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) assumed power in 2018, they believed they had inherited a stable macroeconomic foundation from the previous Unity Party (UP) Government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This belief was based on the substantial influx of funds and development assistance during UP’s 12-year governance. However, this perception was shattered in January 2018 when the country plunged into macroeconomic instability, indicating that the UP government had left behind a precarious economic situation.
The most significant sign of this economic collapse was the rapid and severe exchange rate volatility, which caused a sharp depreciation of the Liberian dollar. During Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s tenure, the exchange rate went from US$1.00: LR$56.501 to US$1.00: LR$1252, a depreciation of over 127 percent over more than a decade. In contrast, the new CDC administration experienced a faster depreciation, leading some to believe that the mismanagement of the economy was the cause of the rapid currency decline. This, in turn, led to price hikes and created significant macroeconomic uncertainties. Between March and July 2018, the exchange rate depreciated by over 22 percent, going from US$1.00: LR$131.483 to US$1.00: LR$159.564. By November 2019, it had further depreciated by an additional 20.1 percent to US$1.00: LR$191.695.
WEAKNESSES: Many political analysts point to the incumbent’s knack for holding grudges as a key lapse that could hurt his re-election chances, especially in the event of a second round in the October elections. Voters impacted by the government’s controversial policies could turn their support elsewhere. Many of the President’s strongest supporters from the 2017 elections have complained about the lack of jobs and unfulfilled promises for inclusion in the CDC-led government as a potential deal breaker in the event of a second round. The government’s massive downsizing and salary deduction on civil servants is also an issue that is likely to pop up as the ruling party looks toward garnering support in its second-term bid.
KEY CAMPAIGN THRUST: The incumbent continues to insist that “enormous progress has been made” in achieving peace in Liberia by “ensuring the strict adherence to the rule of law”. The general crime rate in the country has spiked with mob action becoming normalized making nightlife nonexistent in Liberia, which greatly affects the night economy. Adherence to the basic standards of decency is practically nonexistent in the enforcement of the country’s traffic laws. Nearly every government official and some civilians drive around with sirens and motorcades. If President Weah wishes to win reelection, there must be some recalibration. The president must consolidate his base by reaching out to disaffected CDCians, who feel the last 5 years have left them in the wilderness. He must also reach out to former allies, especially his alienated friends who supported him over the years but have fallen out. As most of the voters in the 2023 election will be under the age of 35, it means wooing first-time voters with a message that appeals to their basic needs, such as education, jobs, and income.
KEY TO WINNING: In the buildup to the 2023 Presidential elections, the incumbent has vowed to shut the mouth of his opponents because he will defeat them by higher margins than he did in the 2018 presidential run-off between himself and former vice president Joseph N. Boakai. “I refuse, I refuse (to be a one-term president), God in heaven knows. I Gbekugbeh, I will defeat them more than (I did in) 2018.” Weah said to a huge applause and shouts from his supporters, in a rally last October. The incumbent’s comments came as a sharp response to one of the constituent leaders of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) Alexander B. Cummings, who told partisans that the opposition will win the 2023 presidential election to make Weah a one-term president. Political observers say, for the incumbent Weah to pull a victory off and starve off threats of losing his Presidency, he will have to broaden his appeal and transcend beyond his base as he did in 2017.
CHANCES OF WINNING? The powers of the incumbency, access to resources amid opposition disunity and uncertainty gives the incumbent a 50-50 shot at retaining power.
COMING TUESDAY: JOSEPH NYUMAH BOAKAI, ‘THE RESCUER’
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