The Liberian National Elections Commission (NEC) finally ended the by-election in Liberia for the Montserrado County senatorial and representative seats in late August. On October 5th, the commission conducted another by-election in Cape Mount County. In early August, NEC declared Abraham Dillon of the Collaborating Opposition Political Parties (CPP) winner of the senatorial race but delayed the results of the representative election in District 15. Dillon is of the Liberty Party.
The commission quarantined nine precincts, containing twenty polling places of District 15. NEC took the action because opposition candidate Telia Urey, who was leading in the preliminary results, filed a complaint to the commission accusing that the election in the quarantined area was marked with frauds and irregularities and therefore requested the rerun of the election in the entire district. Like Dillon, Urey was backed and supported by CPP, which is composed of the Unity Party, the Liberty Party, the Alternative National Party, and the All Liberian Party.
In its verdict, the NEC committee disagreed with the complaint but ruled that only the election in the quarantined area be rerun. The Urey camp and many Liberians applauded the decision. But the campaign of candidate Abu Kamara of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) disagreed with the decision. It argued that the committee's findings contradicted the ruling, pointing out and asking that if there were no frauds and irregularities, why should there be a rerun? Kamara appealed to the Supreme Court upon confirmation by the NEC board of the committee's decision. But within a couple of days, he withdrew the appeal and accepted the ruling.
The rerun was held on August 29. Kamara defeated Urey resoundingly in the contested area and generally in the entire district votes by a double-digit, receiving 49% while Urey got 38%. The other candidates received less than 15% overall.
This October, NEC implemented the by-election for a vacant senatorial seat for Grand Cape Mount County. CDC did not participate in that election; apparently, the party felt its chance of winning was slim. The position was held by Unity Party Late Senator Edward Dagoseh, a popular lawmaker who died this year. Also, the county is not a stronghold of CDC. The Collaborating Opposition Party (CPP) supported Unity Party candidate Dabbah Varpilah so that the party would retain the seat. But CPP surprisingly lost. The defeat stunned pundits. Victor Watson of The People Unification Party (PUP) won, defeating Varpilah to a distant fourth. He got 27.73% of the votes; Simeon Taylor received 19.76%, Sando Wayne, 15.85%, and Varpilah 13.19%.
Certainly, Abraham Dillon's senatorial victory broke the CDC domination of Montserrado County electoral politics. In Liberia, a county is like a state as in other countries except that it is governed by a superintendent appointed by the president. It comprises of districts each is represented by an elected official or representative in congress. Each county has two senators elected for nine years. Representatives serve for six years. More populated counties have more representatives. Montserrado County is the largest county in Liberia and has 17 districts. As stated in an earlier article on the election, it has been the stronghold CDC since 2005. The party won all the previous senatorial races until now, and it captured most of the county representative seats. Dillon ran on a shoestring budget. His camp did not put up large advertisement billboards and it neither had adequate campaign tee-shirts. Moreover, President Weah campaigned against him, calling him unqualified to be a senator and publically requesting him to return to school. Dillon is said to have dropped out of college after receiving many scholarships and opportunities for education. Some Liberians viewed that he did not complete high school. The president also mentioned of Dillon's defeat in a prior senatorial election to simply indicate that he would lose again.
Despite the president's criticism and seemingly projection, Dillon won the election comfortably, betting Weah party candidate Paulitta Wie. He won most of the county districts; even populated districts considered strongholds of CDC. Dillon captured significant votes in addition to dominating districts such as 17 and 10. CDC had lost the tossups in the 2017 elections; however, the party campaigned aggressively in these districts this election. Dillon won 55.74% of the total votes. Wie received 34.77%. Independent candidates, in general, got the remaining votes. Before the NEC official announcement of the results, CDC conceded. So one may ask, with an inadequate campaign funding and a not too well politically organized organ, why did he win? The answer can be found in a look at the Liberian economic history and condition.
George Weah came into the Liberian presidency in 2018 with a high public expectation to bring change, particularly in bettering the conditions of the Liberian people. Liberia is among the top ten poorest nations in the world but is the oldest republic in Africa. The selling prices of the country's export economy of rubbers and iron ores have fallen sharply at the world market, while at the same time, Liberia depends on imported goods, chiefly rice and peppers. Further, the value of the American dollar has more than double over the Liberian currency, LD.
Historically and interestingly, the land now called Liberia was pepper and rice-producing and exporting country and it was known as the Grain Coast for producing grains in the Middle Ages. The Malagetta peppers and the grains were exported to Europe. "Trade in grains grew so much that the coastline of Liberia became known as the Grain Coast". The products "were used to spice food in Europe and for spiced beers in Belgium", documentations by early European traders and adventurers indicate.
The settlement in 1822 in Liberia of US Black ex-slaves and their formation and domination of the state of Liberia brought in a change of production. Agriculture took a back seat to rubbers and iron ores in the 1920s and 1940s respectively. By planting rubbers by native cheap labor, the settler elite became absentee rubber farmers selling rubbers to the Firestone Rubber Plantation owned by Harry Firestone, an American financier. The opportunity gave the elite added income to their government salary. But little attention was given to social and infrastructural development and no interest in developing alternative agriculture production either. Instead, the settlers focused on maintaining their political domination over the native majority.
The settlers constituted less than 10% of the population and the majority were illiterate upon arrival in Liberia, cited by Tom Shick in his scholarly research on "Emigrants to Liberia". Yet, they felt superior over the natives and named themselves Americo-Liberians to separate from the African population. Subsequent emigration of settlers from the Niger-Congo Delta, the West Indies, and individuals from Nigeria, Togo, and Sierra Leone constituted the Congos, which replaced the declining population of Americo-Liberians from 1825-1925. In Liberia, the settler class is generally called Congo.
The change of production benefitted largely then-President William Tubman, the settler elites, Firestone, and the US steel industry, but it also made Liberia become a country of "growth without development", a description expressed by Robert W. Clower and et, a team of economists from America in 1966. Their observation is still true. The dependency on rubbers and iron ores as major exports has created a negative balance of trade and payment, increasing also the US exchange rate and the high costs of imported goods in Liberia. The country imports over 85% of her goods.
According to an international index, more than 80% of Liberians live on less than $1.25 a day. Previous administrations had mismanaged and squandered the country resources, resulting in a broken economy, which the Weah regime inherited from the Sirleaf administration. Consequently, under his government, the costs of basic consumer goods and the US exchange rate have increased tremendously. Currently, the exchange rate is $212 LD to a US$, almost double from that in Sirleaf time. The cost of a 25 KGS bag of rice has increased from $1700 LD to $2900 LD, and a pack of peppers is from $10 LD to $20 LD, also a double increase. This has brought more economic hardship on the average Liberians, specifically those residing in urban areas like Montserrado County.
As a Washington Post 2017 research reveals, Liberian current poor economic condition would have still continued regardless of who is president. But while the Weah government should not be blamed for these old problems, the president failed to initially take certain measures. For instance, the administration, upon taking power, did not audit the Sirleaf government while telling the Liberian people that the country was broke. Many observers asked; under what basis was this declaration made? Weah is accused of constructing 47 luxurious apartments amid extreme poverty. His failure to give clarity to the allegation has created a perception of corruption and the view that he does not care.
Moreover, the president retained many of Sirleaf's former officials in his government. It is said that 40% or more of the administration workforce are individuals who do not share the government development agenda. Meanwhile, many diehard CDCians, or some of those who had struggled to bring the party into power, are unemployed and are having difficulties finding work. This caused a silent and vocal discontent within the party. Before the election, the administration was back in paying civil servants salary while urging them to attend the country July 26 independent day celebration in Monrovia. Some Liberians viewed that the government was concerned about impressing foreign leaders invited to the celebration than caring for the citizens.
The above economic condition led to the formation of the June 7 Protest in Monrovia, Montserrado County this year. The demonstration was organized by the Council of Patriots (COP), a group formed to "save the state", according to COP pronouncement. Though COP publically said it was to save Liberia, in reality, its goal was to gain political power. COP's backer and the deep pocket was CPP, the Collaborating Opposition Political Parties mentioned previously. CPP members unsuccessfully ran in the 2017 presidential election, which brought Weah CDC into power. The opposition appears not really gotten over that defeat and is trying by all means to revenge.
COP took advantage of the economic hardship and discontent, and with CPP endorsement, its spokesman Abraham Dillon became a candidate for the open senate seat. Dillon and company saw the vulnerability of Montserrado County, despite it being a CDC stronghold. They knew that the more the hardship and the publicity of it, the more the public dissatisfaction of the condition and hence the protest votes were not only from the opposition but also from CDCians and non-partisans who voted for the party in past elections. This is evident in the election results. Post-election interviews and comments showed that a significant number of the voters for Dillon were CDCians and sympathizers who felt left out by the party and dissatisfied with the general economic condition. The article "By-Election in Liberia" was therefore correct when it indicated that the opposition would win if CDCians crossover for the opposition.
Thus the victory was not about Dillon. In fact, he was not the best qualified and best-organized campaigner. Let in most political elections, specifically in the US, people vote by their pocketbooks despites their social preferences and values. Economic condition drives election. The Liberian senatorial electorates in Montserrado voted not for personality. They sent the message that things are not well and there is a serious need for the Weah government to change course. As coined by the Bill Clinton campaign team in 1992, "it is the economy, stupid".
Paradoxically, before the election, COP scheduled a second protest on July 10, but after Dillon's victory, it abandoned the demonstration. Members instead gathered at the Liberty Party Headquarters celebrating, singing, dancing, and eating rice and beans. Seemingly, with the political win, they saw no need to protest to save the state. Indeed, since the election, COP has ceased as an organization advocating for better conditions. This behavior confirms an initial view that members were not patriots but were political opportunists. Their intended goal was not to save the state but to seek self and party aggrandizement. Presently, COP leadership is falling apart. Key members; Senators Oscar Cooper and Sando Johnson, Attorney Gongoloe, the Alternative National Congress, and the Student Unification Party have left the group. Its membership is mostly supporters and admirers of its founder, a college student in the US from where he broadcasts to Liberia.
Nevertheless, COP’s June 7 protest and mobilization effort got the urgent attention of Weah and the international partners, particularly ECOWAS in seeking unsuccessfully a dialog between COP and the administration for a peaceful protest in the interest of national and regional security. Moreover, COP's public sensitization of the economic reality helped Dillon. The independent candidates, though many were more qualified than Dillon, did not have this help in their quest. Many did not have name recognition and did not campaign aggressively.
The statement that all politics is local was manifested in the District 15 election. Local electoral politics is different from state or regional politics. The former addresses a smaller area while the latter focuses on a bigger constituent base with greater needs. While the national economy was a general concern, in District 15, the focus was personality. Kamara has lived in the district longer than Urey. He has participated in the local politics in past elections and has created a local base through his many development efforts, including environmental projects. That earned him a favorite son status. The quarantined area is in his neighborhood. Some observers said that it is his stronghold, though Urey disagreed in a radio interview before the rerun. Some residents saw Urey as a newcomer who came to the district for the political opportunity and that she was selected as the opposition candidate because of her father, Benoni Urey, who is considered a millionaire in Liberia and is the political leader of the All Liberian Party. She is, however, a business owner who has employed many residents, according to information.
Kamara did the right thing to withdraw his Supreme Court appeal. Had the court reversed NEC ruling and Kamara had won the election, Urey would have cried fault, accusing the court of favoring Kamara and robbing her of the victory. She would have also blamed the president of implementing his pre-election statement that a Urey cannot win an election during his presidency. Kamara's withdrawal may have been motivated by the thinking that Urey did not really have the votes. On a radio talk show, he posed the following question: How can she be claiming victory and asking for a rerun? His argument had analysts thinking. Usually, it is the losing candidate who would call for a recount or rerun and not the presumed winner.
Kamara did something wise: during the rerun campaign, he offered empowerment money to marketers in the district to help with their local businesses. An eye witness observed that Kamara's campaign headquarters was packed with residents wanting assistance. But Urey did not match the offer tangibly. Instead, she vowed to give scholarships to residents. She also repeated her campaign pledge to give her congressional salary and benefits to help develop the district if elected.
Other factors may have contributed to Urey's defeat. She refused President Weah's invitation for both candidates to meet with him to dialog to stop their respective supporters from engaging in continual violence. With the advice of Senator Dillon and Senator Sando Johnson, she turned down the invitation and wrote on her Facebook page accusing the president of involving in an assassination attempt on her life to stop her from winning. Many Liberians, including a radio talk show host, felt that she made a wrong move and that her action was disrespecting and insulting to the president. They said that she should have accepted the invitation and after express her concern to the president.
Urey led in the preliminary results because she benefitted from COP mobilization, CPP support and the elements for change during the general election. But the organizations, after the senate race, reduced their efforts for Urey in the rerun unlike what they did for Dillon. Even had they increased support, it would not have overcome the local dynamics discussed. Again, local personality, the favorite son phenomenon, was the key here.
Another factor was the behavior of Senator Nyonblee Karnkar Lawrence, the widow of Adolph Lawrence, the former District 15 representative whose fatal accident created the congressional vacancy. The senator, who represents Grand Bassa County, supported Urey only in the rerun. She wasted hot water on Saah Joseph, a CDC senator from Montserrado County. She was said to have committed the act immediately after a legislative session which Joseph chaired and ordered adjoined while she was on the floor. At first, she boasted of her action but later apologized after a public outcry. Joseph filed an assault complaint to the senate pro-temp. Some district residents viewed the behavior uncivil, un-ladylike, and seeing her campaigning for Urey may have influenced their votes.
Comparing the senatorial victory to the presentative win, the latter is better. Kamara is guaranteed to hold the seat for four years whereas, for the former, Dillon's position will be up for election next year. Dillon has a greater challenge. He has to satisfy countywide constituents to win re-election, while Kamara just has to accommodate a smaller unit. CDC can regroup to take the position. The seat was not a net loss to the ruling party. The position was previously held by an opposition lawmaker. A Kamara defeat would have been a CDC loss in the lower house. The seat was theirs to keep. The prior holder was a CDCian.
The media in Liberia appear not to help improve electoral behavior. Generally, the media institution is a watchdog of the society, serving as a referrer and reporting fairly on matters. In this election, some media houses were partisans, some were for and others were against the administration. Pro-government media dance to the tune of the administration and report favorably on government activities, including candidates of the ruling party. Anti-government media bad mouth the administration, the president, and focus on what is wrong in Liberia. They are generally biased in their reportage. It is not difficult to identify the media position by reading and listening to their reports or coverages.
Before the election, the media that were against the administration promoted the June 7 Protest and during the election, they supported the opposition candidates. For example, FrontPage Africa, a leading newspaper in Liberia, published positive articles on Dillon. In one report, it named him the frontrunner without any bases such as scientific or un-scientific polling. During the week before the rerun, it covered a violent incident involving a fight between supporters of Urey and Kamara in front of the headquarters of NEC. In its report, the paper said that Kamara's backers started the violence. But Joy FM, a radio station, took a different approach by interviewing eyewitnesses from each camp. It also talked to the spokesman of the Liberian National Police. The police representative reported from the police charge sheet of the arrest of those involved in the violence. He said that among the detained individuals was a man wearing a Urey campaign Tee-shirt and was arrested driving a truck that had rocks and cutlasses.
Here FrontPage gave a negative image of the camp that the paper opposed. A voter reading the story may form a wrong and one-sided opinion that could influence his/her vote. Biased or faked news reporting does not help society. It misinforms and miseducates the society which it should protect. Likewise, Roots FM dwells on anti-Weah propagandas; everything about him is wrong. "Weah is unqualified to be president, Liberia under him will go down the drain, and the Liberian people will perish". It supports COP, CPP and their candidates. SKY FM mostly accommodates guests that are against the administration, giving them the platform to express their views. One frequent guest is Representative Yekeh Kelubah, who regularly insults the president. He is a member of COP.
The Daily Observer, a family newspaper to FrontPage Africa, is pro-opposition and anti-Weah, but not as pronounced as FrontPage regarding its stance. The Hot Pepper newspaper engages in yellow journalism, specifically in its breaking news report of the missing 16 Billion Dollars and corruption allegation. Faced with a court order and a congressional investigation, the paper owner could not prove the published accusation.
Meanwhile, the CDCian, a newspaper, and Freedom FM, a radio station, and King FM, promote activities of the administration and its candidates. To them, Weah government is trying, the president will succeed and should be given time. They feature CDC candidates and guests on their programs. By giving only one-side, they too miseducate and give the impression that things under the administration are fine or will get better.
There are neutral media such as the New Dawn newspaper, Prime FM, OK FM, Joy FM, and Fabric Radio. But FrontPage Africa, the Daily Observer, and Roots FM are the leading media in Liberia. Roots FM boasts of having the largest audience and platform. It cuts callers off who disagree with the station's opinion. While Roots FM is criticized for its non-stopped Weah bashing and anti-government reporting, its social advocacy platform provides a voice for the disadvantaged.
Each station in Liberia has its own regular listeners who call in frequently and favorably commending the program and the host. Apparently, being brave and speaking negatively of the government and the president is attractive and respectable. As stated in a previous publication, "in Liberia, you can become popular or famous if you are brave, insult the president openly on the air and have access to the broadcast media, the social media," and a bodyguard walking with you. Broadcast media reach a larger audience and are accessible. Because of the high illiteracy in the country, broadcasting is the best tool to get a message across. This is why stations like Fabric, OK FM, Prime FM, and Roots FM are leading.
Philip Wesseh, a media expert in Liberia, saw the power of broadcast media when he witnessed on October 3th the gathering of hundreds of protesters at a Monrovia hospital demanding the immediate release of a patient so she would attend her visa interview with the American Embassy in Monrovia. Roots FM ordered the protesters to go to the hospital alleging that the Liberian government was about to arrest the patient to stop her from attending the interview. "Block the roads; go to the hospital to rescue her and accompany her to the embassy", the radio station instructed its supporters. The gathering turned violent, the Inquirer, a newspaper, reported, adding that the protesters threw stones at the police, and the police, in turn, used teargas and wasted water at the demonstrators. The violence led to "the closing many businesses and homes at the hospital", the paper ended.
Further reports indicated that the patient was unconscious when the authority brought her to the hospital. Upon gaining consciousness, she alleged that she was drugged and raped. She named CDC officials of being involved. Police spokesman Moses Carter informed that because of her allegation and her safety, the police provided her protection at the hospital and planned to investigate her accusation. The patient was hospitalized for about a month. However, Roots FM saw the police present differently and called for action.
The incident shows the strength of the media, how the media can be used to mobilize people to achieve an objective. It brings to mind Radio Kigakali of Rwandan, the station that promoted hit and negative messages and propagandas, Wesseh indicated, saying "my only disappointment is the muteness of the Liberian government on this issue and the realization that "this government has poor communication system". His observation confirms an assertion by another journalist that the opposition is winning the media war in Liberia.
Moreover, media biases and prejudices have led to the misinformation of events in Liberia and the failure to recognize the progress of the country. For example, UN human development indices for 2018 note Liberia's progress and rank the country "better than Niger, Central African Republic, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, and Sierra Leone". Though the improvement was little as Liberia was placed low in that category, the country's progress was played down by the Liberian press. Further and recently, Liberia is considered one of the peaceful countries in the world. She is "rated third in Africa and 51 in the world passed the US". But the news was not announced in Liberia. Only one radio station carried the news. Liberia is not a debt distressed country. Some media think that publicizing the information would give credit to the Weah administration and encourage foreign investment.
The Liberian Press Union has been viewed to be toothless and powerless in managing and guiding the media institution to remain honorable and professional in serving as a society watchdog. It faces a leadership crisis and is reportedly ineffective. Eugene Nagbe, Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, called the union a "useless organization". That classification caused the suspension of his union membership. The suspension was lifted later. However, recently, the press union has frowned on a clash between Roots FM and Freedom FM over state issues and urged them to be professional journalists.
The union was founded in 1964 during the presidency of William Tubman when there were less than three major papers and one political party in Liberia. The Liberian Age or the Listener, owned by a Liberian politician, was pro-government and the Liberian Star, a foreign-owned, was second and edited by a respected Liberian journalist Rufus Darpoh. The papers were the leading dailies. It was an age of prosperity due to rubbers and iron ores production, but a period of absolute dictatorship and absence of freedom of speech and press.
Pastor Jerry Weagba, a reverend in Montserrado County, commented that the media situation in Liberia under Weah is a factor of the economy. He indicated that during the Sirleaf presidency, many of the journalists received financial tokens from the president. She had journalists accompanied her to foreign trips with per-diems. Also, the administration was the major advertiser, improving the media cash flow. This helped better government-media relations. But perhaps with the current economic hardship, the Weah government is not following suit. Its media advertisement dollars have reduced. Media houses survive on advertisements.
Weagba is correct or most of his views are true. Journalists in Liberia are not well paid. The average newspaper is sold for 40 Liberian dollars, an equivalent of fewer than US25 cents. Most Liberians are illiterates and therefore do not read the news. They do, however, listen to the radio as mentioned before. With declining advertisement dollars and late payment of journalist salary, fair and honest journalism is not attractive. This makes the profession becoming vulnerable. Thus with deep-pocket opposition, the table has turned against the ruling authority. "The opposition media are hence winning the media war", said Morris Brown of King FM, a pro-Weah station. Many share his statement, including Philip Wesseh stated before.
President Sirleaf's practice of giving monetary gifts to the media or individual journalists was criticized as a bribe during her administration. Weah has done the same with a twist, according to information. It is alleged that he gave US$5000.00 in July 2018 to a radio talk show host who had been his chief critic during the 2017 presidential election. The host, in a VOA interview this September, talked about the offer but maintained that it was not a bribe. He claimed that he is a political commentator and not a journalist. This is to suggest that had he being a journalist, it would have been a bribe. But the question is for what purpose would Weah give money to his critic who is by no way his friend? $5000 could do a lot for charity in Liberia.
The host stopped criticizing the president and increased his support for him upon receipt of the money. But by the end of 2018, he resumed his criticism and later started the moment for the June 7 Protest against the Weah administration. In the same VOA interview, the critic also revealed that the government offered him more than US$150,000 to stop the protest, but he refused. ‘That was a bribe', he strongly declared. Here, a big offer is a bribe, but a smaller one accepted is not. He and his organization, COP, plan to stage another protest in December for Weah's resignation. VOA requested the interview for clarity on the behavioral contradictions of the host reported by another newspaper in Liberia.
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
Democratic election ensures that power is inherent in the people. Only they by rights can change the order of things. The discussed senatorial and representative elections and past recent elections represented the will of the Liberian people. The electorates in Montserrado County decided to go to the polls to express their dissatisfaction with the economic condition through an election and not by violence or ballots of the gun. The same is true with the Cape Mount election. Concerned political opposition should follow and encourage this approach.
While there were winners and losers in the elections, the contest should bring positive changes to Liberia. Senator Dillon's advocacy credentials, if correctly applied, could help bring changes in the Senate in the interest of the common citizens. He must be a centrist lawmaker. He should not play opposition politics and try to please only his party and opposition supporters. He should understand the county's political dynamics and that his re-election will depend on his performance as a senator for all residents. The advice goes also to Senator-elect Watson of Cape Mount and representative Kamara.
Dillon was unemployed for a long time before his election. On his completed asset declaration form after the election, he left blank the space requiring him to state his income. Upon submitting the form to the appropriate authority, he published it though he was not legally compelled to. CDC lawmaker Moses Acarous Gray commented that Dillon lied on the form by concealing his income but published the form in the newspaper to appear transparent and uncorrupt. The Liberian government demands that incoming government officials declare their assets, report of which can be viewed or obtained by concerned individuals or entities by court order.
Dillon got his first lesson in legislative politics during his induction ceremony at the senate when Senate Pro-temp Albert Chea warned him that politics in the senate is different from outside advocacy and that the new senator could be expelled if he acts differently. The advice was prompted when Dillon at the occasion pledged to reduce his monthly senatorial salary about 75% and asked his colleagues to follow suit. This was grandstanding, an exercise of self-righteousness of caring for the poor. In the legislature, lawmakers conference and negotiate with colleagues for the passage of your bills or interest and not to affront or fight for public notice or publicity. Dillon also admitted in a radio interview, that the country problem is with the legislature and not really with the president. ‘Coming to the senate has been an eye-opener', he alluded in the interview.
In District 15, personality played a key role in the election. The residents had a choice; to elect a person whom they know, who has lived with them for long and has helped than in the past, or to choose a candidate new in their district. Kamara was their choice. His election balances the equation. The opposition won the senate race and the ruling party retained the representative seat.
Personality also appeared to be the key factor in the Cape Mount election. The electorates did not buy CPP's argument regarding the economy for the election and therefore Unity Party lost the senate seat. The county has been a stronghold of UP, and the party has produced the late senator and sitting Senator Varney Sherman. A report says that UP candidate Dabah Varpilah is unknown in the county. Additionally, there was a prior infighting within the CPP regarding which member party should put up a candidate. At first, ANC selected its partisan Simeon Taylor and registered him with NEC. But ANC withdrew the nomination after a complaint by other members. Varpilah, a UP member, became the CPP candidate.
However, Taylor refused and remained on the ballot as an ANC candidate because it was late to remove him. Taylor, more popular than Varpilah, took second place receiving more votes over CPP choice. Victor Watson, a lecturer at Cuttington College, became the favorite son winning 27.73% of the votes. As the election results tell, Watson won over 50% of Varpilah’s 13.19%, a damaging defeat of a candidate who received support from four combined opposition parties. Taylor got 19.76% followed by UPP candidate Sando Wayne 15.85%. Taylor is said to have filed a complaint to NEC.
The Analyst newspaper’s view summarizes the situation: UP fielding an unknown candidate and the CPP in-fighting “became a cannon fodder for other candidates to rally support from unexpected quarters; and the damage were completely irreparable”.
Varpilah’s defeat is a net loss to UP in the senate. Considering the outcome, CPP would have done better had it selected Taylor as its candidate. PUP is one of the parties that formed the CDC coalition in the 2017 presidential election. CDC, as a party, can claim victory for Watson’s win and can disregard the economy. But that would be a costly mistake. Cape Mount is not Montserrado County which has more population and greater political weight.
Dillon election should be a wakeup call for President Weah to listen to the voice of the people. Mere presidential popularity is not a guarantee for reelection. As the Montserrado senatorial election results showed, if the economic condition remains unchanged, he could be a one-term president. His failure to change and his re-election defeat could be an embarrassment, a disappointment, and a loss of hope for many young people who admire him and want to follow his footsteps. Also, it could be the last time a Liberian of a poor and rural background to be elected president of Liberia.
Since the independence of Liberia in 1847, the presidency has been dominated by the former slaves and their descendants. Weah is the second president of a full native background. Samuel Doe, killed in the civil war, was the first. Some powerful and wealthy descendants financed the war and his removal from office. Weah main opposition to his administration is CPP, of which leadership is mostly of the settler class. Historically, the class generally believes that the presidency of Liberia is their birthright and therefore it must always rule Liberia. This notion is a pertinent element in Liberian presidential politics and native-settler relations. Knowledge of the cleavages is essential to understanding the roots of the opposition to Weah rule.
If Weah fails to listen and change, his decision could be motivated by his personal thinking that being a popular president means that he can do what he pleases and the Liberian people will always love and vote for him in 2023. This thought, faulty and delusional as it is, could also be the result of advice from sycophants and insincere individuals around him, saying "Chief, ‘Prezzo', do not worry, do not listen to the noise, the people love you and will vote for you". Unfortunately, in Liberian history, such advice never worked. It had caused social and political discontent and eventually unrest. The sycophants were never around to stand for and support the leaders during the unrest.
The Weah administration economic problem is not unusual. Other nations and leaders had a similar problem. For instance, Bill Clinton was the hope of America in the 1992 Presidential Election. Like Weah, he came from a poor and humble background and was elected with high expectations. His Democratic Party won both houses of congress. But the economy went down causing national economic hardship. Unemployment increased. The American people became dissatisfied with his administration. Some said that he was unqualified to be president. Consequently, in the mid-term election, his party lost the lower house by the advocacy of the opposition Republican Party. Like COP, the Republican group vowed to take America back under a banner of a "Contract with America". The opposition expressed to save the nation. But Clinton was not distracted. He listened to the American people and did what was needed. He gathered some of the best minds of America on the economy and other issues. He restructured his administration and brought in others. His party also did soul searching and regrouped. The economy rebounded. He got re-elected and his party retook the house. He became known as the "comeback kid", the man from a place called Hope.
The same happened to Baraka Obama. Under his first term, the economy was not improving and the Democrats lost the House in the mid-term like Clinton. And like Clinton, he restructured, regained the House and was reelected.
Weah could do the same tailored to the Liberian reality. But before we discuss that, some implemented actions need recognition. Weah has put in place some steps deserving commendation. The recently held economic dialog conference spearheaded by Dr. Toga McIntosh was in the right direction. The conference gathered suggestions and recommendations from experts to help Liberia's economic and other issues. This is similar to the Clinton approach.
One particular recommendation of conference is the call for the establishment of a war and economic crime court in Liberia. This is important to bring to justice and closure crimes committed by individuals during the civil war. There cannot be peace and economic development without justice. Establishing the court and enforcing its decisions would stop a future act of civil unrest and human destruction. Civil organizations, religious groups, traditional chiefs, international bodies, and some Liberian international partners have called for the establishment. President Weah has requested the Liberian legislature to advise him on this matter. But action on the court does not need congressional advice. The legislature has the constitutional power, and not the president, to establish the court. Asking for advice could delay the process. Weah just needs to sign the legislation when passed.
The Weah government has initiated a salary harmonization effort to address the income disparity of public service workers. Since the Sirleaf administration, some government officials make over $29,000.00 monthly while some civil servants earn $150.00 a month. For example, each senator is said to make $15,000 per month in addition to receiving a car costs $45,000. Each also gets 420-500 gallons of gasoline monthly. The Chief Justice makes $16,000, and the Speaker of the House receives $29,000 a month, according to reliable sources. These are higher salaries compared to salaries of US representatives and officials. It is estimated that the Liberian government would save about $3.5M annually, if the legislature reduces its salaries.
The government is the largest employer in the country. Consequently, the government spends the majority of its national budget on recurrent expenditures. This has significantly made the administration to inadequately meet national development. The 2019-2020 fiscal budget is at US$526M, a decrease from US$536M of 2017-2018 budget under former President Sirleaf. In 2018, shortly after his inauguration, Weah reduced his salary by 25% and urged other officials to reduce theirs. That was a request, not mandatory. Harmonizing salary would help with the economic condition.
Philipbert Brown of the Hot Pepper newspaper commented on the harmonization as one of the best policies of the Weah administration. However, some citizens have criticized the initiative, pointing out redundancy and unfair reduction of salary. Another negative impact of salary restructuring is corruption. Some officials whose high salary is reduced would engage in corruptive behavior to compensate for their reduced income and to maintain their expensive pattern of consumption.
Because of corruption, a school of thought in the international economic development profession has called for payment of high salaries for government actors in the developing countries. The school argued that by giving a high salary, officials would not be tempted for corruption. But that never stopped or reduced corruption. Liberia is a case in point. John Morlu, former auditor general under Madam Sirleaf administration, rated her government as the most corrupt administration in Liberian history, even though her officials were handsomely paid. The factor is greed. A corrupt person will continue the behavior whether poor or rich.
The Weah led government has instituted a financial restitution program for ex-government officials found guilty of corruption. Officials of interest can volunteer to restitute the state without prosecution. Many past officials are said to come forward privately agreeing to repay. That should be millions of dollars of stolen money coming back to the government. While the exercise is applauded, the opposition called it witch-hunting former officials. Earlier, the opposition had complained of government inaction against corruption.
Having discussed some efforts put in place, the following suggests what should be done to help address the economic situation. The Weah government should use agriculture and road construction as the foundation for economic recovery. Data have confirmed the need for this suggestion. Education and health improvement should be added to the base. This can be done in stages giving the next two years for agriculture and road, and the last two years for education and health. Or, the process can be mixed. But it would be unwise, difficult, and frustrating to focus on all simultaneously.
Agriculture plantation should focus on cassava, peppers, and other cash crops such as fruits and vegetables. Cassava, for instance, is viewed as the coming "goldmine", based on new research. Poultry farming is another opportunity. Liberia imports most of her chicken consumption. The market price of a whole chicken has almost double. Liberia has rich and adequate land for agriculture.
Cash products can be strategically planted by counties or regions. Rural based counties can engage in heavy production while urban and seacoast areas can concentrate on heavy industrial and commercial, utilizing port facilities for trade. Road connectivity would provide easy access to and from production sites. Through value-added activities from rubbers, iron ores, and other commodities, Liberia could become a manufactory giant in Africa, particularly in West Africa. Here a once enclave economy is to create an economy of scale, which is to enhance employment and help make the private sector the main employer and taxpayer in the country. But this arrangement is not new and is not as easy as it sounds and written. Development takes time, resources, commitment, trained manpower, formulation and implementation of good fiscal policies, and the partnership and support of others.
For economic change to take place, the agents of change must get their house together. The president needs to listen for a change. He also needs to change his reported practice of quickly forgiven his enemies but unforgiven old and loyal friends whom he considered wrong him. If you forgive one, forgive all. It shows a character of weakness and self-doubt if a leader thinks and believes that he/she must be loved by all. You do not love your enemies more than those who have helped and supported you in the past. Politics does not work that way. The president must be focused, fair, and firmed. He should not waver in decision making. He must be a president of justice.
One suggestion repeatedly made is for him to have a kitchen-like cabinet of old, trusted, and honest friends from boyhood to advise him especially on personal matters. They may not be well educated and neither popular but they will not be afraid to look him in the eyes to tell him the truth. Such friends will not seek government jobs, be political, and take advantage of the friendship. They are only to help a friend succeed. A leader needs good friends or honest individuals to be around when things get tough. The presidency is an opportunity to serve but it also comes with temptations. When Clinton had personal and national issues during his first term, he reached out to frank, good old friends and trusted individuals for advice.
As a result of the senatorial election in August, CDC needs an in-house evaluation or an independent assessment to address members' concerns. The party must endeavor to find opportunities for qualified members. Politics is about interest. Members join a political party not only because they believe in its philosophy, but primarily they want the party, upon achieving power, to help them. The party could lose members and eventually power if it disregards members' concerns and operates under a notion that members will always support it at the polls. The administration must entertain suggestions from others with the view that not all qualified Liberians are interested in or seeking government jobs but are wishing the administration to succeed. So there should be no fear and insecurity to hear outside suggestions.
Since its creation over 15 years ago, CDC has lost about 90% of its original members. The exodus was largely due to frustration. Its first secretary-general and first female chair left respectively in the first and second term of Sirleaf presidency for greener pastures. The party should try to reach out to those old committed and loyal members who left voluntarily or by force.
The concern for members does not mean that only they should occupy government jobs. The government must be inclusive but not at the same time accommodates individuals who do not share its development agenda and could become moles undermining programs. The administration needs house cleaning. The government needs to improve its communication capabilities to effectively get its message across and make clarity on issues and concerns.
The existence of an opposition party is healthy and essential in a democracy. Without it, the ruling structure will operate at will and have the electorates at its mercy. An opposition presents an alternative. Dillon's victory proves that only through an election that political power can constitutionally change hand. Calling or joining with others for the removal of an elected president could lead to chaos. That would return Liberia to years of anarchy.
CPP must be constructive in its advocacy and criticism. It must, as a political option, entertain opportunities to dialog with the administration to find a solution to present problems. Doing so would show to the people that the opposition truly cares. A government comes and goes, but the state of Liberia will live on. CPP must broaden its membership structure. The organization and other civil groups must base their advocacy on facts and not on accusations. Moreover, an opposition is a government in waiting. Wishing and hoping for the administration to fail will not serve the opposition well in the future. Presently, the opposition does not have the votes for national leadership as past elections have demonstrated. Further, the opposition will not and cannot solve the historical nature of the Liberian economic problem, if it were in power for less than two years. The problem will not be fixed overnight. This paper's analysis has indicated why.
The Liberian media must practice its professional role as a society watchdog. The Press Union must be strengthened and must get its house together. The media must be fair and balanced. Concerned Liberians must hold journalist feet to the fire. They must comment on biased reporting. When FrontPage Africa wrote favoring only Dillon, a public response forced the paper to publish a subsequent balanced article. A media outlet can endorse a candidate in an election, but it must balance its coverage of the election.
Using the media to incite would destroy Liberia's fragile peace and create violence. While wrong practices of Liberia should be reported, improvements and progress of the country should also be applauded and published. Liberia's success will benefit all Liberians.
Liberia has a bright future considering her small population and rich soil and numeral natural resources. Elections are not 100% perfect. Since 2014, elections in the country have been fair and transparent. That is an improvement and it should continue and be encouraged.
Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II is a political commentator focusing on elections. He has covered elections in the US and Liberia. He is a Georgetown University graduate.