Disarray in the Liberian political landscape brought on by lack of clarity in the alignment of forces during the 2017 elections is undermining democracy and sowing seeds of instability in the country.
Clearly, Sirleaf and her allies in the Unity Party evidently mounted efforts early in the election process to hedge their bets by alignment to disparate political forces with the objective of continuing in power or at least being active players in the next administration in 2018.
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure protection of the security and economic interests of Sirleaf’s inner circle and business associates beyond 2017.
Within the context of an African setting, Sirleaf’s fears are seemingly justified, learning from the experience of former leaders, Abodulaye Wade and his son Karin in Senegal and Zambian presidents Frederick Chiluba and Kenneth Kaunda but the extent and manipulation behind the scene including the purposeful dismantling of the Unity Party is disconcerting to many political observers.
Dismemberment of the Unity Party that brought her family and business associates fame and fortune seems a bit too dramatic even within the context of African politics. African leaders typically strengthen their political parties and institutions to provide stability and security over the long term, but Sirleaf in dismantling the Unity Party is using a strategy that is untested, confusing her followers and undermining the basic tenets of democracy.
Evidence gathered over the last several weeks including conversations with leading political figures, young surrogates, especially within the Unity Party and ordinary Liberians point to a confusion in the body polity that is being fueled by the chasms between President Sirleaf, Joe Boakai and officials of her party.
Ellen Sirleaf’s courage and gusto in pursuing her political objectives are character traits that initially endeared her to millions of Liberians.
But the hesitance and mixed signals coming from the president during these elections on her support to Joe Boakai as Standard Bearer of the Unity Party belie her strength as a courageous politician and to many including this writer appear to prove the president is not interested in building institutions but only interested in saving the hide of her friends and family from future legal jeopardy.
The chasms between the President, Joe Boakai and officials of the Unity Party stem from several factors, some from Sirleaf’s past, including her tension filled relations with Varney Sherman, once Chairman of the ruling party and a legal associate to a deceased paramour of the president.
Sirleaf told this writer a few years ago that she knew that Sherman never liked her but needed to position himself in order to benefit from the perks of the presidency, which he did with many retainers from the largest foreign companies in the country, adding to his wealth and prestige.
That relationship soured when Sherman was indicted in the Global Witness Scandal by the Office of the Special Prosecutor, led by the President’s personal lawyer, Jonathan Fonati Koffa. Sherman has not forgiven Ellen for the magnitude of shame and disgrace his arrest and indictment caused to his international image.
Another factor that is driving the president’s perplexing actions is the desire to ensure the safety and protection of her favorite child, Robert Sirleaf.
Like Karin Wade in Senegal, Robert is the controversial son, who dabbled in every major commercial enterprise and opportunity in the country. Robert’s tenure as Chairman of the National Oil Company led to its bankruptcy with allegations of corruption rife.
There is no major deal in the country that did not get the nod of the President’s son. From Elenilto to China Union and including the ill-fated Jindal Wologisi-Coal Energy deals, Robert was the prime mover.
Sirleaf’s tactics to ensure legal protection especially for her son and members of her family are a confusing mix of direct support to the Liberty Party, lukewarm support to Joe Boakai and lately serious flirtations between Robert Sirleaf and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).
Sirleaf’s controversial political ally and business associate Musa Bility is a leading financier of Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party (LP). Bility would never pledge his support to LP without the acquiescence of the president.
Bility’s business ties are too deep and strong with Ellen through his group of companies, SHRIMEX, one of the companies getting no bid petroleum importing licenses from the LPRC.
SHRIMEX and a few companies control more than 60 percent of the petroleum import market in Liberia, while the company recently completed investments in storage tanks for its products.
Clearly, Bility cannot risk the wrath of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to support a presidential candidate against her political interests.
The choice of Harrison Karnwea, former managing director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) as the vice presidential candidate to Charles Brumskine validated that alignment between Sirleaf and the Liberty Party.
Karnwea a political surrogate to Ellen Sirleaf could not risk his business interests by aligning with Brumskine and company without the acquiescence of the President.
Karnwea’s Cocopa Rubber Company was also granted a 1.5 million dollar loan from the National Social Security and Welfare Corporation (NASSCORP) in an unusual arrangement that is seen by many as implicit support to the campaign of the Liberty Party from the government.
The president’s lukewarm or non-support to Joe Boakai stems from several factors.
Boakai has no political spine and is easily manipulated by the strong personalities around him. Varney Sherman, Wilmot Paye and lately the progressives, including Kofi Woods and others strike fears in the hearts of Sirleaf and her inner circle.
Sirleaf did not mince words when she told Boakai unambiguously that her reluctance to support him was based on the fact that “you got too many of my enemies around you.” This quote was relayed to this writer by a close confidante of Joe Boakai.
The other factor undermining the relationship between Boakai, Ellen and her inner circle is the composition of Boakai’s campaign team.
Ellen’s moral and financial support to Joe Boakai cannot be granted without control by a key ally, someone like Amara Konneh. Boakai has flat out refused to accept any meaningful role to be played in his campaign by Konneh or allies close to him.
Allies of Konneh believe Boakai’s shunning of the former Finance Minister and his failure to provide solid assurance to the president about the future of her family and friends is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Moreover, the fears and political ambition of Robert Sirleaf also played a decisive role in the CDC-Sirleaf alliance.
Robert Sirleaf wants political power as a means of insuring himself against future legal jeopardy. If Weah wins the presidency, that would open a senate seat in Montserrado County.
Robert Sirleaf was trounced by Weah in the December 2014 senatorial election. With Weah’s support, Robert believes he would be a shoo in for the senate seat and ultimately use his money, power and influence to be president pro tempore in the upper chamber.
The resignation of Eugene Nagbe, once a stalwart of the CDC, from his position as Secretary General of the Unity Party is a clear indication of the signal from Sirleaf that Boakai is on his own and the Robert Sirleaf decision to support Weah by key members of the Unity Party is a done deal.
Nagbe and Weah are extremely close despite his alliance with Sirleaf since 2011 and it is rumored that the Minister of Information would be trading his propaganda hat to the position of Minister of State in a CDC government.
Young stalwarts of the ruling party are confused and have signaled their intentions to go rogue against Sirleaf but Joe Boakai’s refusal to sanction their actions add to the confusion.
Sirleaf is also reportedly still hedging her bets. She might still support Boakai fully in the second round if he makes it there, but allies to Konneh are boxing her in by taking certain actions to prevent the President’s future support to her vice president.
Ellen’s manipulation of the political process is being enabled by the spineless actions of Boakai, who still believes that despite the dismemberment of the UP, he is hoping against hope that the president will reverse her manipulation of the political process.
Boakai’s actions and lame excuses in the face of such evident manipulation by the president accordingly is eroding support from him, even among some of his ardent supporters, who believe that even if some miracle happens and he wins, he will still be under the wings and spell of Ellen Sirleaf.
That a faction of the UP is supporting Weah is a clear indication of the flirtatious alignment between the CDC and allies of Robert Sirleaf. That was cemented in the Facebook statement from Acarous M. Gray, promising to “protect” the president and her family in the event of a George Weah presidency.
The election of 2017 is just a few weeks away. The perplexing actions of President Sirleaf, alignment between a moneyed faction of the Unity Party led by her favorite child and the CDC could undermine democracy by sending wrong signals to a disjointed political process and a confused electorate. God help Liberia.
And so it goes.
Samuel P. Jackson, Contributing Writer