Does Weah Have What it takes for a 2nd Term? -Hoping for a Maada Bio Replay but Hanging by the Thread

MONROVIA : It seems West Africa is not in a hurry to change its leaders. Nigeria continued with the incumbent party. Sierra Leone too continued with its incumbent president. “Why would it be different for Liberia? Are Liberians better off now than they were five years ago?” These are some of the vexing questions that many voters are asking themselves these days as they prepare to head to the polls on October 10 when Liberia decides. However, as these questions haunt the voters, the Weah Government seems to believe that recent election results in Nigeria and Sierra Leone make good prospects for reelection, evidenced by the grand euphoria that has accompanied Weah’s re-election endorsements across the political spectrum.  Guest writer James Tokpakollie provides an analysis.

When Sierra Leone incumbent President Julius Maada Bio won his country’s presidential election late June with 56% of the votes to avoid a run-off against main rival Samura Kamara, the results not only became significant for Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) because this was the perfect opportunity to continue the myriad development deliverables of their government, but it also presented hope for Bio’s counterpart in Liberia whose many supporters within the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party have been exceedingly jubilant over the Sierra Leone elections outcome, in the hope that their man George Weah will follow his neighbor’s footstep by clinching a one-round victory in the upcoming October 10, 2023 polls.

Like Bio, like Weah?

But unlike Sierra Leone where incumbent Bio was handsomely rewarded because he did not only maintain his base of supporters but also reached out and grew his base over the period of his first term, Weah on the other hand, did the opposite. He did not maintain the Coalition that helped him cross the line in 2017. During the first round in the 2017 elections, Weah and the CDC were supported by at least 30% of the electorate, which has shrunk significantly to about 15 -20%. In addition, the coalition of political parties that made it possible for Weah to obtain over a 60% win during the second round in 2017 has disappeared in thin air.

Another contrasting example is that President Bio hit the ground running. In his first 100 days, he demonstrated leadership. Past government officials suspected of graft were prosecuted by a well-resourced anti-graft agency. Monies were recovered, and culprits were punished. Bio had a clear 1st 100-day plan that included work in the education and infrastructure sector.

“What did Weah and his cronies do during their first hundred days besides making morale, siphoning state funds, making false promises, and building big, big houses? CDC people expect the Liberian people to reward Weah for cutting civil servants’ salaries to the extent that their take-home pay cannot take them home? Or for “making morale” by flying all around the world on those useless trips in a private jet accompanied by tens of his friends? Do they expect us to reward them for their lies? Funding they said they secured for the pavement of a coastal highway that never materialized? For hundreds of teachers that were supposed to come to Liberia but never came? A developed Bali Island that never was? Do they expect us to reward them for all those unexplained murders of professional Liberians?” fumed Samuel Nagbe, a member of opposition Unity Party Joseph Nyuma Boakai’s strategic think tank.

“Do they expect us to reward him for all the stealing they did? $25 million no head, no tail; $16 million, no head, no tail; $30 million Covid relief money, no head, no tail; millions of dollars for rice subsidy, no head, no tail; road fund money, no head, no tail; and it goes on and on,” Mr. Nagbe lamented.

As things stand, while statistics from the country’s financial lending partners continue to paint a rosy picture of economic progress in terms of a projected rise in gross domestic product, yet the stark reality of hardship continues to stare Liberians in their faces as parents can barely afford to send their children to school; put food on the table, or meet their monthly financial obligations with banks and informal sector lenders. A hungry, angry citizen will definitely vote with their feet against the Weah government in October, pundits believe.

On the other hand, corruption which has taken a center stage in the Weah administration could play a big hand in turning voters against Weah in October, as they did in Montserrado in the 2019 and 2020 by-elections that saw Abraham Darius Dillon ascending to and retaining the Montserrado County senatorial seat. Moreover, the citizens are yet to understand how the government of Liberia could lose a US$100 million cocaine case and let the culprit off the hook when all indicators had pointed to a win for government prosecutors in the said case. The spinoff of such malfeasance is the proliferation of hardcore narcotics on the market, leaving the youths vulnerable to substance addiction.

But even as if these governance anomalies are not enough, the citizens in rural Liberia who constitute a good chunk of the two million plus registered voters could turn their back against a Weah reelection bid because of what they might consider abandonment during his five years incumbency.

According to one Southeasterner who recently lamented over the lack of development in his county, the people are not going to vote this time around because of tribal affiliation but based on record.

“I started building this structure which should have been the family house when I was actively working as a civil servant in Monrovia. When I retired, I ran home with the hope that the little I got as saving will be used to finish this building but it has been a disappointment.

“All the building materials I bought in Monrovia are still there because the roads are bad and there is no way I can bring them in. The ones that are sold in the region are like three times the prices in Monrovia due to the cost of transportation because the roads are bad.

“Everything is tied to the roads. Getting drugs to the hospitals, getting instructional materials to the schools, buying goods, taking products from the farm to the market, are all depending on the roads. So, this is a quagmire that needs to be addressed seriously before meaningful development and improvement in the standard of living of the people can happen,” the retired public servant lamented.

“President Weah and CDC should just forget about campaigning and believe that they will win the first round. Do they really believe that the Liberian people are stupid? Have they forgotten what happened in 2019 and 2020 when Darius Dillon whipped them in their Barca yard?” wondered Cecelia Duo of Duport Road.

Just as the highly disenchanted old man from the Southeast and Madam Duo of Duport believe, President Weah and his CDC could have a tough sell in convincing voters to give them a one-round victory as was the case in Sierra Leone, much less a victory after the runoff.

CDC Upbeat in the face of stark realities

But the ruling CDC party and their incumbent president, despite the harsh words from their critics about the biting realities that make Weah’s second term unsellable, are optimistic that Liberians will deliver similarly as was the case in Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone.

At one of his just ended reelection endorsements in Grand Bassa County, President Weah oozed emboldened confidence as he pledged to defeat the opposition camp in a one-round battle because he had done more for Liberia than any other president since 1847.

“I said to you in 2017 that I want you to elect me so I can build your roads, connect your country to our neighboring countries. We did that. And what you see today with the road network, the development in the country that was my promise to you. This is the only government and the president of all the presidents in this country that have built more hospitals than anyone; have built more roads than anyone.

“This is the president who decided that most of the huts in the villages will be demolished and built homes. What more can I say? Don’t mind them. When we were building the Military Hospital, they said this man doesn’t know anything. When we were building the Invincible Park, you were sleeping. So, I am saying to you the young people, you have your young leader. This is our time. We have to prove to these people that failed us.”

Again, at the ruling party’s Thank You Rally held Monday, July 17, 2023 at the CDC headquarters in Congo Town, President Weah was confident about a resounding victory as he outlined reasons why Liberians will give him another chance to govern them.

“When my team and I assumed office in 2018, we were well aware of the enormous challenges that lay before us. Our economy was in dire need of revitalization, our road infrastructure was in disrepair, and our schools, hospitals, and market buildings were neglected. It was our duty to address these pressing issues and ensure a better future for all Liberians,” the President asserted.

He said that in pursuit of progress during these six years, his government has achieved significant milestones, constructed hundreds of kilometers of roads, and transformed connectivity across the country.

“Our efforts have extended to the education sector, built and rehabilitated numerous school buildings, in order to provide access to quality education for the youth,” he said, noting, “We have also focused on improving healthcare services by establishing new hospitals and investing in the well-being of our people.”

The Upside for a Weah (one-round) reelection victory

The power of incumbency: Presidential elections are mostly cost intensive and often weigh heavily in favor of the incumbent. Pundits generally agree that this is where President George Weah and his CDC have an added advantage over their competitors in the upcoming national elections because state resources will be made readily available to their disposal to oil their extensive political campaigns across the length and breadth of the country.

As chief formulator and executor of the National Budget, President Weah is well positioned to enjoy the benefits of incumbency in terms of state-sanctioned financial support, evidenced by the increased budgetary allotments to his office on the eve of the presidential elections. Noticeable also is the current budgetary increment to key leaderships in the National Legislature, especially the offices of the Vice President of Liberia, the Senate Pro Tempore, as well as the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, all of whom are avowed members of the ruling CDC party.

The incumbent also has an added advantage over public service personnel who might be convinced to cast their lot with the Weah bandwagon to retain their jobs because they might have been made to believe that they would fare less better when there is a change of government.

The power of incumbency will also play heavily in favor of President Weah when it comes to private sector contributions to his campaign machinery. Taking cue from the Jefferson Koijee scenario where thousands of United States dollars were raised from the private sector to pay for President Weah’s portrait, more of such ventures will be replicated during the ensuing political campaign.

Positive undertakings: Although there are no readily available statistics on the numerical strength of first-time voters across the country, this could yet be another advantage that could play in President Weah’s favor, especially university students attending state-run tertiary institutions and benefiting from the tuition-free largesse of the Weah administration.

In Margibi County, for example, a conglomeration of first-time voters recently petitioned former Minister of State Nathaniel Falo McGill to run as their senatorial representative, and overwhelmingly pledged support to President Weah’s reelection bid.

In addition, the recent aggressive incursion of CDC stalwarts in key opposition strongholds, especially Lofa County, which led to the opposition losing a major senate race to a stalwart of the ruling party, shows a new shift in the political dynamics that could play in favor of President Weah, given also the government’s breakneck stride to push for the completion of key infrastructure projects in rural communities of vote-rich Nimba County.

Cash violence: In the ensuing presidential election, one should not overlook cash violence being a major factor that would play in favor of the ruling party and its incumbent President. Already, alarm bells have been sounded by major opposition players within the legislature that President Weah will utilize access to the newly printed banknotes to sway votes in his favor, evidenced by recent photographs of huge quantities of new banknotes flooding political meetings in Lofa County and parts of the Southeast.

A seemingly fractured opposition: Perhaps this could be the incumbent’s greatest asset that could lead to a replication of the Sierra Leone election scenario, given the highly fragmented nature of Liberia’s opposition parties that have vowed to deny victory to President Weah at the October polls.

Political pundits are generally of the view that the ongoing acrimony amongst the country’s top opposition parties (CPP, Unity Party and the Liberty Party), similarly as was the case with Sierra Leone’s top opposition APC party, could lead to their disenchanted supporters throwing their lot with the ruling party in the first round if something dramatic doesn’t happen in the few months leading to the October 10. Worst case scenario, many pundits are conjecturing that any one of the major opposition parties that fails to make the runoff will support the ruling party just to spite their opposition contender.

Despite the euphoria from the ruling party camp that the October 10, 2023 elections will be cakewalk given the massive crowd pull at several endorsements for Weah’s reelection, pundits have a contrary view.

The crowd pull argument

According to opposition strategic think tanker Samuel Nagbe, CDC has lost its relevance, especially taking into account the dwindling crowd that it is pulling nowadays.

“So here is the bottom line. Currently, there are an estimated 215,289 to 287,042 (15 – 20% of registered voters for the 2023 elections) Liberians across Liberia that will tell you the grass is blue (a drop from 600,000 (30% of total votes cast in the first round (this included the NPP) in 2017) when we’re talking about Weah.

“About 50% of them are in Monrovia. There are occasional struggles these days to even mobilize this 20% to events. In 2021, CDC had major rallies initially at the SKD or the ATS but soon realized they were struggling to break their own partisan mobilization records set in 2017 or in 2011. This reality set in again in February 2023 at the ATS during Weah’s endorsement rally. Since then, the craze for the “crowd effect” has now constrained them to the confines of their Party headquarter, a land space of about two acres.

There, a successful mobilized crowd of about 10,000 people, combined with deliberate actions to completely obstruct the movement of citizens and the free flow of traffic, will always create a seeming maximum crowd size. The reality however is that the CDC base has significantly shrunk and that there are 1,148147 votes or 80% of total registered votes out there for grabs on October 10, 2023,” Nagbe said.

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