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Liberian Election: VP Boakai in surprise popular surge -Lindsay Barrett

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As the twelve-year long two-term tenure of Africa’s first popularly elected woman President, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, draws to a close with elections scheduled for later this week the peaceful transition through the ballot from one leader to another in Africa’s oldest republic for the first time since 1943 is the historic objective that most observers are hoping for. However, while Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has been vocal in support of her Vice President Joseph Boakai, an old hand in the Liberian political arena, several commentators in the Liberian media have questioned her commitment to his candidacy and suggested that she is only paying lip-service to his aspirations while secretly supporting the ambitions of either the ex-footballer George Opong Weah, or the lawyer Charles Brumskine a perennial aspirant who has contested twice before.  In recent weeks these allegations have gained increasing currency in commentaries in both traditional media, and new-style social media focused on the forthcoming polls. However, the public response to this twist in Liberia’s complex political arena has apparently unleashed reactions in favour of the modest and unassuming Vice President from a substantial proportion of the electorate. Thousands of excited supporters turned out for a special rally to pledge support for his candidacy in mid-September and since then several influential institutions and individuals in Liberia have publicly endorsed him.

A report on the extent of this support for the Vice President carried in the Liberian Observer, the nation’s oldest and most influential daily, revealed that while Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf was conspicuously absent from the mega-rally the sentiment expressed by several speakers and members of the audience favoured public support for the Vice President by members of the Unity Party whether she supports him or not. Since then several commentaries have appeared in the Liberian media and on the internet elaborating on this view. A profoundly analytical piece by John H. Stewart, a highly respected human rights activist based in Monrovia even suggested that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf might be actively conspiring to undermine her number two man’s ambitions, but several key leaders of opinion in Liberia have discounted this presumption. While they agree with Stewart’s assertion in the piece that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s absence at the rally raised suspicions they also assert that Vice President Boakai’s aspirations stand to gain sympathy from the perception that he is not being supported by the President.

It is now being widely suggested by Liberian commentators that VP Boakai’s decision to stand for the presidency was based on a carefully crafted decision to promote new policies and developmental objectives containing elements that differ from those of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. The argument put forward to give credence to this viewpoint is that Joseph Boakai remained a loyal and steady lieutenant to the lady President for twelve years even when he had reason to be disenchanted. Those who tout this point of view say that he deserves and should expect complete gratitude and loyalty from her in his effort to succeed her. It is, however, a characteristic of the Liberian polity that such observations are often advanced in public media as fact even when they can hardly be confirmed as more than speculation. In this case Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has not publicly endorsed anyone other than her Vice President and the assumption that she is not truly backing him is based on rumour and speculation rather than on hard facts. In spite of this the allegations have gained wide currency among ordinary citizens and generated an aura of surprising excitement around a campaign that had been characterised by his detractors as lacklustre and hesitant in its early days.

Joseph Nyuma Boakai is a quiet but reputedly highly competent technocrat who has served in many key posts in various governments in Liberia for more than three decades. His supporters and key strategists of his campaign are, therefore touting his experience and moral character as being an impressive contrast to the seeming erratic nature and record of inexperience of the undoubtedly popular Opong Weah. They also compare his aspirations favourably to those of the other major contender, Charles Brumskine. In this wise they promote Boakai as having been a deeply stable and patient assistant to Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf. They say that his record of independent but loyal participation in government over the last twelve years is confirmation of his commitment to the stability that the West African peace advocacy brought to Liberia.  For these reasons they say he will be what they describe as “a safe pair of hands” for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf to hand over to. The Liberian electoral system is such that many observers assume that the ballot will go to a second round in which the Vice President might be confronted by either Weah or Brumskine. However, the surprising surge in his popularity evidenced by the large turnout at the mid-September rally has left Boakai’s strongest supporters talking about the possibility of victory on the first ballot. Most independent observers doubt this but many are now suggesting that if the trend of recent weeks holds he will not lose on a second ballot.

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