Liberia: Three Sirleaf-era Ministers Eye Senatorial Seats in Upcoming Mid-term Election
Monrovia – Vote-rich Lofa, President George Manneh Weah’s hometown of Grand Kru and Gparpolu County will be the center of attention in this year’s Mid Term Senatorial elections in Liberia. With the elections still months away, the names of a few familiar faces are being mired in speculations, and in some cases, creating early vibes about their intent to contest.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, Former Education Minister George Werner and former Finance Minister Amara Konneh appear poised to be major players in the upcoming elections.
All three, FrontPageAfrica has learned have been doing groundwork in their respective counties, making multiple trips and identifying with constituencies with an eye on a shot of getting an entry into the senate.
At least 12 Senators, have expressed interest in seeking re-election. They include Senators Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence (Grand Bassa), Dan Morais (Maryland), Peter Coleman (Grand Kru), Matthew Jaye (River Gee), Henry Yallah (Bong), Thomas Grupee (Nimba), George Tengbeh (Lofa), Sando Johnson (Bomi), Armah Jallah (Gbarpolu), Oscar Cooper (Margibi), Dallas Gweh (River Cess), Augustus Chea (Sinoe) and Alphonso Gaye (Grand Gedeh).
Vote-rich Lofa, President George Manneh Weah’s hometown of Grand Kru and Gparpolu County will be the center of attention in this year’s Mid-Term Senatorial elections in Liberia. With the elections still months away, the names of a few familiar faces – Former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, Former Education Minister George Werner and former Finance Minister Amara Konneh – are being mired in speculations, and in some case, creating early vibes about their intent to contest.
BROWNIE SAMUKAI – AN EYE ON LOFA
The former defense minister has turned businessman since leaving government, running his liquor store and laundry franchises. But much of his time over the past two years have been spent in Lofa.
Since reports began emerging about his potential candidacy, the former defense minister appears to have struck fear in the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change government.
Late last year, an indictment was served by the government, accusing Mr. Samukai and his team of among other things, Economic Sabotage, Theft of Property, Criminal Conspiracy, Misuse of Public Money and Money Laundering.
The indictment accuses Minister Samukai and his deputy, Joseph Johnson and Comptroller, J. Nyumah Dorkor opened an account in the name of the “AFL Pension Account” at Ecobank Liberia with account number 1092-522-22-19.
In his own defense, Mr. Samukai has dismissed the allegations against him, telling the Liberian News Agency that he never stole a dime during his term as Minister of National Defense.
An aide to the former Defense Minister says the decision to go after him is political motivated, going back to a series of secret meetings held prior to the departure of President Weah for Israel recently.
The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing fears of repercussions, said that Mr. Samukai rejected and refused to join the CDC to become the ruling party’s candidate for the 2020 senatorial elections in Lofa. The aide said, President Weah was disappointed that Samukai had refused to join the “movement” ((CDC).
The source says, Mr. Samukai believes that the administration has been working to keep the former defense minister busy in court so that he will be able to participate in the ensuing elections.
The source said that between January 14th-January 17th 2018, a series of meetings were held between former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and President-elect Weah along with then AFL Chief-of-Staff General Ziankhan and then Col. Geraldine George at the time regarding expenditures made on the AFL from the AFL Welfare and pension account. “During those meetings after detailed examinations, it was determined and concluded that the government of Liberia should have provided the funds for these expenditures on the AFL instead of using the AFL welfare funds being used.
It may be recalled that during the past decade, Samukai sponsored and paid for Five College Graduates to return to Foya District to teach and enable High School students to graduate from the district for the first time. He sponsored and established a Computer lab in Foya for youths, and brought instructors to lay the basis for empowerment of young people. Across Lofa, and for the first time in the town of Toborgizzu, Voinjama District, Samukai sponsored and provided handpump for clean and safe drinking water in the center of the town for the first time, to the satisfaction of citizens of the town. He is today sponsoring the completion of major community projects in Kpassagezia and Fissebu in Zorzor District, also in Yandahun, Wahassa District, in Vezela, Voinjama District, Salayea, Salayea District, as well as in Foya Statutory District, among others.
From the shadow of his legacy as the longest-serving Minister of National Defense in Liberia, B.J. Samukai made a stunning come back into electoral politics in April of 2018 when he accepted an invitation by youths and traditional elders of Foya District who impressed upon him to serve as their candidate in the 2020 Senatorial elections.
During the last 21 months, Samukai has traversed Lofa county from the Districts of Salayea, Zorzor, Voinjama, Kolahun, Wahassa, Vahuun, Quadugboni, Lukambeh, and Foya, to excite the citizens of Lofa that indeed a leadership change was necessary and required for Lofa to come back from the abyss of uncertainty, to a period of renewal.
During his tours, citizens organized themselves into groups such as Friends of Samukai, Students of Samukai, Daughters of Samukai, and today the name Samukai is a household name among prominent candidates vying for the Senatorial Seat being held by incumbent George Tengbeh. Samukai says he brings to the table a credible leadership to harness the potential of Lofa citizens capable of tapping into the natural endowment for renewal and transformation. He brings an experience that surpasses his opponents both at the national and international level, and has the ability to make Lofa
County very relevant to the national discourse of growth and development.
It is still unclear whether the former Defense Minister will run as an independent on or the UP ticket. “I am consulting to be the candidate of choice understanding fully well that I have been a staunch supporter of Unity Party,” he told FrontPageAfrica recently.
Today, Mr. Samukai spends most of his time in towns, villages and districts of Lofa, spreading his message that a better leadership was needed to bring the challenges of our youths to national focus, as well as pave the way for providing equal access to opportunities on national and international levels. He has promised to ensure that never again will Lofa be taken for granted on the national level in all decisions that affect and impact the lives of its people. He brings to the table an unsurpassed level of national and international experiences. He has demonstrated his ability to lead, and face daunting challenges with success.
Samukai international exposures were exemplified during his Seven years working with the United Nations (UNHCR, UNDP UNDSS), and especially his twelve years tenure as Minister of National Defense, with his unique ability in forging enduring relations within the Mano River Union, as well as ECOWAS, especially with Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Rwanda among others. Thru the directions of President Sirleaf, Samukai sought and received enormous support from UNMIL, as well as U.N. Security Members including the United States, China, and Great Britain, to name a few, during the reform process of our Security Sector. He has received international acclaim for his leadership in rebuilding a well-trained and disciplined Armed Forces of Liberia. Samukai has been no stranger in invitational visits to the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department, U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Congress, as well as on the lecture circuits in Washington D.C., at the Atlantic Council, The African Center for Strategic Studies, the U.S. Institute of Peace as well as well as representations on behalf of the Liberian Government at the U.N. Security Council. According to Official Records, of all the candidates running in the senatorial elections in Lofa, Samukai is the only candidate who have twice met a sitting U.S. President (President George Bush), once at the White House and here in Monrovia in the Cabinet Room of former President Sirleaf.
HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Samukai is likely to go up against the incumbent George Tengbeh. His main challenge and obstacle now, is to exonerate himself of an indictment by the Liberian Government of charges that include Economic Sabotage, Money laundering, theft of property, criminal conspiracy, and misuse of public money during his tenure as Minister of National Defense. Samukai has maintained his innocence that his actions were in direct support of the mission and welfare of the Armed Forces of Liberia and every dime spent was on the AFL. Both President Weah, and former President Sirleaf reportedly confirmed Samukai assertion, in a January 18, 2018 press statement from the Liberian Government in which President Weah reportedly agreed that his administration will refund said money spent (the government has paid about 460,000 of said amount, with a balance of USD800,000 remaining). The Justice Ministry is yet to present any evidence to prove its case, as we head into the February term of Criminal Court “C”.
AMARA KONNEH – KEEN ON GBARPOLU RUN?
Konneh was one of the first of the former president’s confidante to bolt, shortly before her term came to an end.
He took up a new post managing the World Bank’s Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV) Hub in Nairobi where he provided leadership for the World Bank’s Global Hub for Fragility, Conflict, Violence and Forced Displacement (FCV) in Nairobi serving more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Middle East. In that position, Mr. Konneh led the Nairobi-based team to provide operational and analytical support to affected countries and built a community of practice for knowledge management and exchange; managed relationships with the donor community in Nairobi on behalf of the Bank. He is currently an advisor on partnerships and regional integration for the Africa Region at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
In recent weeks, Mr. Konneh has been a domineering force on the social media circuit, taking the George Weah-led government to task and particularly offering pointed criticisms of the way the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning is being run.
Quite recently, he raised alarm over the economic governance of Liberia and urged the current government to build “the resilience to withstand any future crisis.”
The former minister argued that the inflation numbers in the Central Bank of Liberia’s (CBL) Report were alarming, detailing budget shortfall of US$225 million or 7 percent of GDP, doubling inflation from 2017 and triples from 2016 to nearly 24% and the free-falling Liberian dollar.
The former minister insight on the party’s 2017 campaign, describing the rift between standard-bearer, Joseph Boakai, and former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as very unfortunate. In his post, Konneh highlighted a state of poorly maintained relationships, bad blood and the inability to reconcile as the main cause for UP’s defeat during 2017 elections.
In a Facebook post, Konneh, a staunch stalwart of the erstwhile UP Government, disclosed that the former VP had a list of grievances against his former boss – Madam Sirleaf – which caused tension between the pair. Konneh cautioned the need for reconciliation and atonement as essentials for leadership and governance. He used the Boakai/Sirleaf relationship as an example of how national development can be stunted if leaders, present and future, do not resolve their differences and work in the interest of the nation.
HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE? Konneh is going up against the incumbent Armah Jallah, a former Pro Temp with a lot of weight in the county. Gbarpolu is also a county that is deeply rooted in traditional societies of which Konneh is not a member. It could come down to public’s fatigue with incumbents against how aggressive a campaign Mr. Konneh decides to put up – if he finally decides to throw his hat in the race.
Those close to Konneh say there aren’t any plans for a political campaign but they also can’t deny that he’s not running.
“He’s never denied that he has an interest in running for public office, and that leads me to believe that one day he will,” said a source very close to Konneh. “And he’d probably be successful because he has been tested and he is prepared, perhaps more than anyone who has been elected to the senate in our post-conflict democracy. He will bring a lot to the Senate and the governance process. With vast experience in both domestic and international development and politics, he will certainly not be a lightweight.”
Even some of his critics, too, believe that Konneh will be a formidable force in the Senate. In a heated discussion at an Hatai Shop on Carey Street yesterday, some of his critics confessed that they are only discovering now the enormous challenges that he had to deal with in managing an economy that was ravaged by commodity prices declines and Ebola, while others indicated how “he kept a cool head while under pressure and kept the economy stable during that crisis against all odds – with all the criticisms of Amara, things were not this bad and he didn’t complain or talk much.”
Friends and supporters, as well as critics of Konneh, are still reeling from the 2017 elections that elected George Weah as President. With feelings still so raw in the UP and the the CDC uncertain what his election to the Senate might mean for them given what some have term as “ingratitude of the CDC”, the timing might just be right for him to make the jump.
WERNER – STUMPING IN WEAH’S BACKYARD
Since a “Vote George Kronnisanyon Werner” electronic poster began making the rounds on social media this week, a firestorm over his potential candidacy has triggered a wave of responses, causing a division amongst supporters and detractors alike.
UP stalwart, Boakai Jalieba, who made a Facebook post trumpeting Werner’s candidacy appears to be urging the party to embrace the former education minister.
Jaleiba wrote: “Waking up to my post this morning, it explains the depth of our disagreement along several lines. During elections and other emotive times, partisan views should not be seen as a basis for holding grudges. We all, at some point in our lives, have said some derogatory things to people that we regret today…. That said, I’m reaffirming my support for the George Kronnisanyon Werner candidacy for Grand Kru.”
Werner himself has not hidden his desire to contest, declaring on Facebook recently: “I’ll be a relevant factor in the 2020 Senatorial elections in Liberia!”.
Werner, who was one of the first Sirleaf official to support the George Weah candidacy during the height of the 2017 presidential elections, came under fire during the last days of the Sirleaf presidency, when expressing his support for Mr. Weah, took aim at the ruling party’s candidate, former Vice President Joseph Boakai.
Mr. Werner posted on Facebook, while weighing in on the VP’s analogy of a parked car by saying: “What a race car? No sensible person parks a race car that long. It was probably not road worthy, or it was too old to maintain. Get the director of transport to send it to GSA for retirement. Bad analogy!”
Werner also jabbed in some of his posts, “Education is ‘tabata’ (a Kru word meaning nonsense)” and that “book people will eat?”
The post prompted former President Sirleaf to issue a word of caution, indicating that the Minister’s Social Media statement was a contradiction aimed at undermining her caution on vulgarity, abuse and spread of hate messages by some Liberians during the Electoral process on social media.
On upcoming Mid Term elections and his potential participation, Werner, in a Facebook post this week, said he has been impressed with the response received since he expressed his intentions of testing the waters.
He says he is exploring a 2020 run because he strongly believes that the time for a new generation of Grand Kru County leadership is now. “It’s time to reclaim Grand Kru County’s legitimate voice to drive sustainable national policy decisions at the Liberian Legislature. We are living through a moment of heightened concerns about the future. This moment demands that our national policies reflect a deep understanding of what everyday people of this great County are going through. Grand Kru County deserves a senator that embodies its highest values — values like Courage, Community, Family, Hard work, and Independent Thinking.”
Since leaving public service in March of 2018, at the end of the Sirleaf administration and the beginning of the Weah government, Werner says he never imagine he would run for anything ever in my life. “When I worked for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I took on difficult reforms to make sure that civil servants were respected, to make sure that health care workers and teachers were placed on payroll and paid on time and right where they worked, to make sure that those who spent a lifetime serving government received their earned retirement benefits.”
Now, he says he is entering the political terrain to give Grand Kru County’s priorities and values a better representation and voice in Monrovia. “Our vision for Grand Kru County is deeply rooted in the “One County, One Nation” vision: Aa Mon Nyon Dwe, we are One People in our diversity. What happens to one, happens to all of us, regardless of where we all come from. Let’s persist together to lift Grand Kru County once again as the land of great thinkers, courageous warriors and outstanding public servants.”
Werner says he is excited about the future of Grand Kru County and appreciate the level of support received so far.
Werner’s differences with the former ruling party could see him run as an independent, signaling a pathway to victory based on his vision. “I’m leaning towards being independent. That’s me. I have political friends across all of the political parties in Liberia.”
For the foreseeable future, he says: “I’ll keep the details of my plan for now, but I’m interested in human development. That’s our greatest advantage. We’re a people who should know everything about the sea, but we have not been able to take full advantage of the blessings Nyeswa has given us through the sea. We should vigorously explore the potential marine transportation and fisheries offer?
For supporters like Norn Seny Dolo, Werner comes with a breadth of fresh air. “For me I would love to see a candidate who has strong background in social policy, meaning he understands the basic fundamental rights of the people he wishes to serve. We need to grow from insulting an individual simple because he has made his intention known.”
HIS BIGGEST OBSTACLES? Werner is going up against the incumbent Peter Coleman, a former minister of health who has been an influential member of the Senate. Werner doesn’t shy away from controversy and loose talk, a factor which could decide how much of a challenge he could pose to the incumbent. But Coleman may not be Werner’s only problem. The current Pro Temp, Albert Chie, hails from the same town as Werner, a fact, the former minister believes could prove to be pivotal. “I know he’ll do everything to stop me from running. He’s due in 2023, but in a County divided on several lines, including language, many will say it’s unfair to have the two of us from the same town. I will ask our people to elect leaders based on what they have to offer and not where they come from. I have begun doing just that. The other obstacle is that I never planned to run for office when I was a minister. I was, as you know, at the national level. This will be a County-based competition, and I’ll need to talk about how my national service reached people in Grand Kru County. So, there are real odds but we’ll work hard to earn the trust of our people. We’re one people.”
Even amid the factors surrounding the incumbency, Werner appears undeterred. “I don’t want to make this race about the incumbent or any of the would-be candidates. I want to run a race against time. We’re far behind others as a County and as a Country. Let’s push fresh leadership and ideas that can spark growth, integral human development. Unless we invest sensibly in our people, beginning with the foundational years of our children, we risk losing the gains we’ve made so far.”
In a year, voters appear to be fatigued and disenchanted about the leadership in the national legislature, chants of change are likely to dominate the dispensation of the upcoming Mid Term elections. Ironically, these three familiar faces are just a few of the many expected to emerge in the coming weeks and months, leading into the elections.