Liberia: What Went Wrong and Right in Lofa 2020 Senatorial Race?
Whenever elections are held, results are announced, and a winner is declared, one may hear the phrase, ‘the voters have spoken.’
But the big question that follows as well is what’s next for the winner and losers?
In the Lofa 2020 senatorial election only one (Mr. Tamba D. Aghailas) out of 11 candidates have publicly conceded defeat, although the National Elections Commission (NEC) has declared Mr. Brownie J Samukai as the winner; an indication that perhaps the political dust for the just-ended senatorial election is still too far from settling.
Already, a legal challenge from some aggrieved citizens of the county alleging irregularities in the election is pending before the NEC. It appears the matter is destined for the Supreme Court for final determination as the complainants are bent on using all legally available means to reach the final conclusion of the case.
The complainants alleged that about 24 tabulation sheets/record of the count, accounting for over 3,394 actual votes were unstamped by election officials. The actual number of registered voters in the 24 polling places in question will be about 12,000 although only about 4,000 people voted.
With approximately 276,863 population, according to the 2008 national census, Lofa county comprises six tribes, including Lorma, Mandingo, Gbandi, Kissi, Kpelle, and Mende. It’s no secret that ethnic and religious affiliations have always played a key role in shifting the minds of voters from one candidate to another. This is why big rural counties like Lofa, Bong, Nimba, etc have developed the theory upper and lower belts.
There have been concerns from various group in the county about the insistence of one tribal group to replace one nine year senator with yet another senator from the same group, something many believe deeply has the propensity to break down the communal culture and replace same with greed and selfishness, individualism, among others.
How did we get here?
In the just-ended mid-term senatorial election in the county, 11 candidates were cleared by the National Elections Commission to contest the lone senatorial seat. Some of the heavyweight candidates were incumbent Senator George Tengbeh, District #4 Representative Mariamu Fofana, Cllr. Joseph Kpator Jallah and Mr. Brownie J. Samukai. Backed by the ruling CDC, incumbent senator Tengeh was frantically fighting to hold onto power for another nine-year term.
How did it turn out for the candidates?
Taking a closer look at the top four candidates and the circumstances that led to the winner and losers, there were series of political maneuverings that had both negative and positive effects on their political chances:
Brownie J. Samukai
Regarded as the the longest-serving Minister of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party government, it took Samukai an uphill battle to stand his chance as a senatorial candidate amid a series of legal challenges from his opponents and the government of Liberia. Mr. Samukai and his former deputy for administration, Joseph Johnson as well as former comptroller Nyumah Dorkor, who is also believed to be his first cousin, were found guilty by the lower court on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 for theft of property, misused of public money, and criminal conspiracy. All three defendants were asked to restitute the amount of US$687,656.38 to the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) pension savings account and US$460,000 to the Government account.
Lofa Elected Senator Brownie Samukai
Although Samukai has since rejected the lower court’s verdict and filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, he and co-defendants are facing trial for misappropriation of funds designated for the Armed Forces of Liberia Compulsory Contributing Fund. While the Supreme Court was able to fast-track the criminal case filed at the request of Samukai, observers believe that there ought to have been an advance opinion from the highest Court in the land to confirm or reject the lower court’s ruling before the elections to create an equal level plain field the enormity of the evidence brought at trial in criminal court “c”.
With George Tengeh the incumbent senator, also a native of Foya, and a ruling party candidate, Samukai had a major task to persuade his kinsmen to part ways with Tengeh and let him take the driver seat. Moreover, he had to work extremely hard to fend off popular and long-time stewards of the Unity Party (UP), including J. Cole Bangalu and Mariamu Fofana who were showing no interest in backing off in becoming the party’s candidate. When things appeared to be falling apart against her ambitions, Madam Fofana finally defected and tried to resuscitated a dying political party – ALCOP of ailing Prof Alhaji G.V Kromah.
Cole Bangalu later back off as well – paving the way for Samukai to become the ultimate CPP candidate in Lofa. It was rumored that Atty. Bangalu allegedly received a pay off in the amount of $20,000.00.
Months ahead of the senatorial elections, rumors were rife that former vice president Joseph Boakai was secretly throwing his weight behind the ex-defense minister. These speculations were coming amid concerns among Lofaians and even Unity Party loyalists that Samukai has never been fully involved largely, with the developmental and political affairs of Lofa County throughout his 12 years as minister of defense while serving in the Sirleaf gov’t compared to other UP members who were harboring similar political ambition.
Samukai’s ability to fight a strong fight at NEC and the courts regarding his corruption-related charges amid a heated campaign period and the unflinching support from his uncle, former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai may have helped him to work out the magic that landed him the 9-year senate seat.
Although he won the election according to NEC, Samukai’s victory is marred by several allegations from various quarters.
It is alleged that Samukai spent huge amount of monies during his campaign to influence more voters toward his camp. Unconfirmed reports say on the eve of election, some CPP supporters were allegedly dispatched to major towns between Voinjama and Zorzor Districts to dish out cash to town chiefs and youth leaders.
On Election Day, his campaign propaganda head, Abass Mark Biaty was reportedly arrested in the City of Vahun, Vahun District for allegedly buying votes through voting cards.
It is widely believed in some quarters that Boikai hugely influenced Samukai’s ascendancy to the Senate. Some say after Boakia lost the presidential election in 2017, he is said to have made a passionate plead (Lofa County was the only county he won out of 15 counties) to the people of Lofa through emissaries and even himself appearing on the campaign trail with Samukai to enforce his quest for Samukai’s election to the senate; thereby facilitating the replacement of one Kissi nephew who left the Unity Party with another Kissi nephew who was never a partisan on the CPP ticket through UP.
According to the NEC, Samukai received 20,431 votes, representing 31.8 percent – making him the winner of the race.
The Joseph Boakai dilemma
Lofa is historically regarded as a traditionally respected county. It was also a place in those days where little or no room was left to criticize elders and officials.
Celebrated heavily as the “grand-uncle” of Lofa, former vice president Boakai has had a cool ride over the years from public backlashes even when burning issues in the county are visible.
In 2019, when Samukai first made his senatorial ambition publicly known in Voinjama City, Lofa County, he told journalists in the gathering at the time that the former vice president (Boakai) asked him to run for the 2020 senate race in Lofa County, placing other party stalwarts at the disadvantage as possible alternatives in the UP, which to many observers was a long-time plan even before the birth of the CPP.
Unity Party insiders say Boakai allegedly arm-twisted the CPP to ensure that Samukai becomes the party’s candidate despite being notified by potential long time and visible UP members about their own political ambitions for the senate.
With months to the 2020 race, multiple sources say many of the UP partisans were unhappy and even urged Boakai to withdraw his solid support from Samukai due to the multiple distractions the Samukai corruption-related proceeding was generating but Boakai allegedly opposed such suggestions.
Some analysts say Boakai’s strong support for Samukai who is facing criminal proceedings make it difficult for Boakai and the CPP to argue against any corrupt regime.
Other observers in the county believe Boakai as the “grand uncle” of Lofa, despite being the political leader of the Unity Party, should have remained neutral in the senatorial process by refraining from publically campaigning for any candidate.
With Lofa traditionally entrenched, Boakai himself has been accused by many people in the Unity Party and other quarters of continuously promoting an “incurable tribalism.” that is contributing to a massive division in the county.
Former Lofa County superintendent Galakpai Kortimai is reported to have allegedly noted on local radio in Lofa that Boakai vehemently objected to his role as a superintendent and that he (Boakai) in most cases, undermined every significant effort he attempted to make.
Some political observers say Boakai is only concerned about promoting his own interest along with his Kissi kinsmen and that he has not truly supported inclusive politics in Lofa.
In some quarters, people are more concerned about how much impact the “grand-uncle” strategic post in government has had on the growth and development of the county in the last 12 years of the Boakai-Sirleaf regime or before he became vice president.
In his 12 years of life as a vice president of Liberia, others believe that Boakai allegedly amassed a considerable amount of quiet wealth that has not necessarily had any trigger down effect on Lofa County.
On social media, one analyst known as Samuel K. Boy pointed out that Boakai has taken even more than he has given back to Lofa County.
“For 12 years we had you as vice president, what benefit it has really brought to Lofa besides just the fact that Lofa produced a vice president to Ellen?” he asks.
Cllr. Joseph K. Jallah
Popularly known as JKJ, Jallah has managed to market himself as a major contender in the political affairs of the county. Jallah and Rep Mariamu Fofana are faced with a similar political dilemma. While they enjoy a massive homebase support from their tribal kinsmen, there has been problem with voters’ turn out in their numbers to pull the desired trigger.
Throughout his three unsuccessful senatorial bids, Jallah has managed to mend fences with stakeholders in almost all political and electoral districts in the county. His key hurdle has been cash violence against him to a larger extent especially in the Voinjama and the Konia belts in District #4 and holding firmly onto the Gbandi Muslims who can sway away on religious sympathy sometimes especially with three Mandingo Muslim in the race including Rep. Fofana.
One example cited by analysts in the just-ended senatorial race suggests that while Rep Fofana obtained close to one thousand a substantial number of votes in Gbandi land (the stronghold of Cllr Jallah) Cllr Jallah obtained far fewer less than that number of votes in Quardu Gbondi (the strong base of Rep. Fofana). This proportionately inverse relationship is partly due to the fact that Hon. Sekou Kolleh has more influence in the Quardu side of Quardu Gboni and as Campaign manager of the CDC, he slashed many votes that Cllr. Jallah could probably have gotten in the area.
According to NEC final result, Jallah received 13,968 votes (21.74%) which made him finish in second place. This has made Cllr. Jallah consistently the second place winner to the Lofa County Senatorial election in his third pursuit.
When a criticism on his number of defeat was raised recently, a leading supporter of Cllr. Jallah indicated that the current President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari won in his fourth attempts to become president of Nigeria while a former Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade wah also won election in his fourth attempt.
Rep. Mariamu B. Fofana
Since 2011 when she first won a seat as representative of electoral district #4, Madam Fofana has managed to maintain a hold on her Quardu Gboni base to some extent. Her re-election in 2017 showed that she is still a force to contend with in future elections.
While she fought harder in a male dominant political race to win more votes, her efforts were just too little to land her the senate job.
Rep. Marimu Fofana
Two major challenges played a key role in her defeat – her failure to run on the ticket of the CPP, her existing job as a newly re-elected lawmaker, and perhaps a few tribal interplays. Many Lofaians saw her attempt to contest the senate seat as personal greed, considering that she had just been given another six years mandate by the voters about two years ago. Others also alleged that she campaigned openly on religious line. According to the NEC, Fofana received 9,629 votes (14.99%) – placing her in third place among her rivals. She sees this number as impressive for a first-timer and is reportedly aspiring to make a second try in 2023.
Sen. George Tengbeh
In his capacity as administrative and assistant superintendent, before becoming a senator of Lofa, Hon. Tengbeh was highly regarded as a down-to-earth public servant. He had a huge following of young people, especially in Voinjama and Foya districts. There were instances when door-to-door cash contributions were made to support his senatorial bid. However, barely two to four years into his tenure, many Lofaians, particularly the youth and even his Kissi kinsmen began expressing serious displeasure about Tengbeh’s poor performance at the Senate. As other years in his tenure passed, more and more people thought that Tengbeh had not lived up to the expectation of his people. Further, his key role in the removal of former associate justice Kabineh Janneh against the wishes of his then political party (UP/CPP), coupled with his failed attempt to have Sen Abe Darius Dillion investigated or expelled from the Liberian Senate, and perhaps his defection to the ruling CDC, running on its ticket in Lofa County, all led to his defeat.
For now, his political future remains unknown although he could still resurface in government sometimes in the near future as one of Weah’s appointed officials. According to NEC’s final result, he received 7,679 votes (11.95%) putting him in fourth place.
2023 in the play
As we hit closer to 2023, we are likely to see a lot of political interplays. Will former Senator Jallah launch a political comeback following his snubbing by Lofa, or will Rep. Fofana seek re-election for the third term as Representative or make or join the senatorial race in 2023? Will Jallah strategize to make a bigger push in 2023 amid a huge CPP fight? It all remains to be seen very shortly.