Monrovia – If Benoni Urey had his way, there would be no County Development Funds in Liberia.
Regarded as the Donald Trump of Liberia’s upcoming presidential elections, the businessman offers no apologies for his brash and sometimes polarizing presentation of the issues. In fact, he says, he embraces the comparison to the US President – and has a rather unconventional plan to transform Liberia if given the chance.
“What is this joke about County Development Funds where you give a few greedy people in the legislative branch of government money to steal?
The money will go back to their counties,” he tells a journalist on a recent weekday at his Congo Town office.
Urey is a businessman, farmer and Chair of the board of LoneStar Communications Corporation, Liberia's largest mobile phone service provider which is partnered with the MTN Group, through his PLC Investments group, is one of more than a dozen candidates eyeing the Liberian presidency.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in the series of profile of major candidates in this year’s presidential race
Ahead of last week’s first presidential debate many anticipated Mr. Urey to fall in line with the normal debate diplomacy.
But even amid the temptation of having a couple of mild-mannered rivals, sharing the stage with him, Mr. Urey kept to the persona that has brought him here, among the leading contenders, looking to replace the departing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
“I’m not a believer in reverse discrimination, but men are also sexually harassed,” he jabbed with a one-liner that drew applause from those seated in the Paynesville Town Hall, before softening his tone by saying calmly:
“I want the females to know that I have five females – four girls and one wife; I love them all. They also believe in justice and justice delayed is justice denied. We must never tolerate sex crimes in this country.”
Unconventional Political Style
It was Mr. Urey’s response to a question about what he would do to protect women and girls from sexual violence, considering that many perpetrators of sex crimes never get to serve a day in jail and most victims rarely get justice.
The businessman used the time allotted during the debate to take on his opponents while keeping his brash style and approach intact. It was the kind of unconventional style that has defined Mr. Urey’s campaign so far.
It was the same when he named Mr. Alexander Duopou, an educator and son of late former Labor Minister Moses Duopou as his running mate while most of the other candidates were settling for high-profile names to seal their tickets.
“His father, Moses Duopou, his uncle Thomas Quiwonkpa, all of them, they all people who sacrificed, who made the ultimate sacrifice for Liberia. And he is an extremely smart young man, educated and willing to learn.”
But that wasn’t the only reason Urey tipped Duopou.
Mr. Urey, like the rest of the major candidates in these elections have their eyes set on one thing in common – a county with a lot of votes, 279,572(two hundred, seventy-nine thousand, five hundred and seventy-two) to be exact.
“I think his positives outweighs his negatives and I haven’t seen any negatives that concerns me and plus he is from Nimba County also. It is a highly populated county and we believe that the Nimbaians are people who believe in changes.
They always want the best for Liberia and the first time I met and spoke to this guy, he never one time talk about himself, it was always about helping Liberia and his people in Nimba. I interviewed a lot of people from Nimba but it was always about himself. But he was basically concerned about the people.”
Not one to hold his tongue, Urey’s overconfidence about winning the upcoming elections is unmeasurable, even as he talked-down the significance of two of his major rivals, football legend George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change and Joseph Boakai Boakai, the current vice president.
“Both of them are jokes, both of them should not be running for president of Liberia and I believe the Liberian people will wake up and not vote for them.”
Mr. Urey says he has no doubt about his vision for Liberia and plans to fix the economy, even as he acknowledges some turbulent times ahead with declining global interests in natural resources.
“Our economy is based on the extractive resources, we have to look at other sources of revenue and we have to make this economy agro-based. When we say agro-based, we need to invest in agriculture and we need to invest in creating finished product to be exported. Even the unfinished product, vegetables, fruits, Ghana is exporting a lot of it, Ivory is exporting it, Guinea is exporting it, so why can’t we export mangoes?
Why can’t we export oranges? You know, we can do it. So, it’s not whether we can do it, but we must do it. We must find a solution.”
Proposing Mano River Regional Trade
Mr. Urey is also proposing a renewed-interests in the Mano River Union which he says could be a major instrument in revitalizing the Liberian economy.
“If Mano River decides that Liberia will supply soap for the entire Mano River region, you will have a market for it – if you add the population of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, you will have a good market.
If you want to produce eggs and you say Guinea will produce all the eggs for all the Mano River, you will have the population of Guinea, Liberia and the Ivory Coast so the market is there, you don’t have to go outside of West Africa but most importantly here, what has happened to our country here, most of the businesses are closing down because our governments appear to be the most business unfriendly government I’ve seen in Liberia since I was born, you know we have the head of the Liberia Revenue Authority(LRA).”
Taking aim at the LRA head Elfreda Stewart Tamba, Mr. Urey says the LRA boss has made the business environment unfriendly for investors.
“She’s actually involved in creating the unfriendly business atmosphere that has hindered the progress of doing business or the economy in Liberia. You don’t generate revenue by increasing taxes, you generate revenue by creating an enabling environment where people will freely and willingly come and invest in the country.”
He adds: “The more people come the more taxes and revenue you generate but if you have four major businesses in Liberia and you continuously increase taxes, what will eventually happen? They will close down. And you provide no incentive for Liberian businesses.”
On corruption, Urey laments that even though Master Sargent Samuel Doe executed 13 former officials of the Tolbert government, nothing has changed.
“The talk of corruption has been going on for more than fifty years.
We must not only talk about Ellen’s government but let’s go back to Samuel Doe. He executed 13 persons and one of the crimes was corruption. Tolbert declared war on corruption and none of these leaders were able to successfully tackle corruption.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Urey says he plans to give it his best shot as he faulted past and the current administration for failing to put in place the right systems to beat graft.
“They did not put together the requisite structures to fight corruption. Maybe they did have a commitment to fight it but having a commitment to fight corruption will not necessarily win the battle, but putting the necessary structures in place.”
The ALP leader says he plans to set up a fast track court to fight corruption.
“There are other structures that one must put in place to ensure that corruption is really gone after. In addition to that, we must set example."
"We believe that if the president or head of state of Liberia would have arrested, prosecuted ten corrupt government officials, it would have put some fear in this country and people would have been afraid to get involved in corruption."
"If you had arrested a few of them, prosecute them, put them in the orange suits and parade them through the principal streets of Monrovia, people will know that when you steal from the government and the people of Liberia, this is where you will find out that people will fall in line.”
Not Basing Weah, But…
Pressed as to who he would prefer in the event of a second round, he confidently proclaims: “Any one of them. I’ll beat them flat – if there’s a second round.”
But even amid his overconfidence, Urey is aware of the popularity of Weah.
While expressing confidence in his position in Nimba, Bong, Margibi and Montserrado, the ALP leader acknowledges that Weah is a force.
“I think George Weah, you know, there’s a few fanatics about Ambassador Weah, you know, I know Weah very well, we’ve gotten along very well.
He’s my good friend, my younger brother I would hate to say anything negative about Weah because we all worked together in CDC but I would hope that he would realize his shortcomings and say, in the interest of Liberia, let somebody else do it because I know deep down in his heart, he knows he’s not prepared for the presidency.
But what is really disappointing is the amount of people around him that are not telling him the truth, who are educated and more prepared than he is. But because he’s a popular young man, he plays sport but you know playing football is different from running a country.”
He adds: “Senator Weah is an extremely nice person but being nice, playing football does not give you the experience and the know how to run a country. But some of these people, some of the most educated Liberians, they want to stay behind him, hoping that they can become minister one day to just steal, they are not looking at the good of the country."
"I tell you one thing, Weah looks more for the good of the country than the people around him. So, left alone, he probably would make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.”
Defense of Boakai, Nuquay Draws Ire
Confidence aside, Urey’s defense of the ruling party ticket in last week’s debate drew concerns from some within the opposition – and even amongst his own supporters, that he could lean toward supporting Boakai if he fails to make it to the runoff. Urey caught many off guard when he came to the defense of both Boakai and Nuquay by vouching to what he described as their non-tribal leanings.
“Nuquay and I attend the same church and I have known Mr. Boakai for years, they are not tribalistic at all.”
Talk Show host Henry Costa, a strong supporter of Mr. Urey whose morning show has been critical of the Boakai-Nuquay Ticket, labeling it “The Wicked Ticket” has broken ranks with Mr. Urey on the issue, vowing not to support the ticket – even if Mr. Urey does, in the event of a second round.
While Mr. Urey has not said who he will support if he does not make it to the second round, his defense of the ruling party ticket, according to some debate watchers blemished his otherwise fine performance last week.
But Mr. Urey, who was de-listed from the United Nations Sanction Lists in December 2013 and removed from the US Treasury Department in November 2015, did not hold back during last week’s debate when he slammed the entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, he says continues to haunt Liberia.
“The reason why is because we didn’t do it right because we were not genuine in the process.
Actors, who were members of the civil war, were members of the TRC. Actors who admitted to crimes and boasted about it and said they have no regrets, were allowed to go free.
Where does it lead us as a people? We have perpetrators who have been manipulating the process but none were recognized. They put all their people on the TRC to ensure that they were protected.”
Urey, a former Commissioner of the Liberia Maritime Authority, has denied any involvement in the violence of the Liberian and Sierra Leone civil conflicts, maintaining that as a civilian being appointed to head the Maritime Commission, he made no war-related decisions.
With 48 days to voting day, Mr. Urey’s date with destiny is nearing close. Filled with confidence, the leader of the All Liberian Party, does not appear ready to abandon the brash and unapologetic style that has brought him this far; even as he and his supporters herald the theme, “The Papay Can Fix It”, that has embodied his campaign.
“This election is about making Liberia work again”, he says.
“We will fix Liberia, we will get Liberia working again.”