By Robtel Neajai Pailey
If Joseph Boakai wins Liberia’s high-stakes presidential run-off on 14 November, he will be taking a page out of US President Joe Biden’s playbook.
This outcome is very probable given the two elder statesmen’s uncanny similarities.
Their first names (Joseph) and initials (JB) are identical. With November birthdays separated by two years and ten days, both men have been married since the 1970s and raised four children.
Boasting decades-long careers in government, Boakai, 78, and Biden, 80, served for two overlapping terms as vice presidents to political titans before launching presidential bids of their own. While Boakai governed for twelve years in the shadow of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s (and Africa’s) first elected woman head of state, Biden assumed a similar role for eight years as second-in-command to Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
Having both adopted political platforms that center middle- and working-class needs and desires, leading opposition candidate Boakai and so-called ‘leader of the free world’ Biden are products of nations whose fates remain entangled by histories of slavery, abolition, migration and colonization. As Africa’s first independent republic, Liberia was founded in the mid-19th century by free blacks fleeing racial discrimination and economic servitude in the United States. A ‘special relationship’ is said to exist between the two countries, yet Liberia’s socio-economic transformation has always been subordinated to America’s strategic interests.
Although Boakai and Biden come from very different contexts, they represent mirror protagonists in a factual tale about the dangers of clueless megastars, such as current footballer-turned-Liberian-president George Weah and former TV mogul-turned-commander-in-chief of the United States Donald Trump, who have no business in elected office. The two elder statesmen epitomize the steady hand of experience amidst a populist tidal wave sweeping across much of the so-called Global South and North.
Yet, they are far from perfect. Neither Boakai nor Biden has indicated any ideological devotion to radical reform.
When asked in a 2017 presidential debate about why he failed to curb Sirleaf’s excesses, Boakai elicited rebuke for admitting that he was a ‘parked race car’ lacking authority for 12 years. Although the former vice president appears to have no conspicuous skeletons in his closet, he does keep controversial bedfellows. Earlier this year, Boakai countered anxiety about his health by selecting Jeremiah Koung, a younger running mate and recently elected senator from Nimba County, Liberia’s second most populous sub-political division. However, Koung’s alliance with infamous warlord-turned-legislator Prince Yormie Johnson has raised concerns about the ticket’s genuine commitment to war-era criminal accountability.
Biden’s choice of vice president—Kamala Harris, former senator of electoral-college-rich California—and his 2019 vow to end America’s ‘forever wars’ have equally come under scrutiny. Despite his many foreign policy mishaps, such as withdrawing US troops prematurely from Afghanistan and bolstering Israel’s disproportionate, genocidal violence against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, Biden has returned a modicum of respectability to the US presidency by defending multilateralism. Following Weah’s six-year irrelevance in international deliberations, it is expected that Boakai will similarly restore Liberia’s prominence in regional bodies such as the African Union, Economic Community of West African States and Mano River Union.
Having lost to Weah in Liberia’s third post-war presidential run-off in 2017, Boakai embodied the first casualty of his country’s populist turn. Yet, unlike opposition candidates in West Africa who have suffered defeat due to the influence of incumbency, the former vice president garnered enough votes to upset Weah’s attempts at re-election this October. In spite of the Liberian president’s glaring violation of campaign finance regulations, reported by both domestic and international observers, he failed to successfully marshal the power and purse of the presidency to secure a first round landslide.
This is as much a testament to the ruling party’s polarising rhetoric—in which anyone critical of Weah is branded an ‘enemy of the state’—as it is indicative of the electorate’s legitimate desire for (regime) change.
Running neck-and-neck, neither Boakai nor Weah secured the 51% required for outright victory thereby justifying a run-off in mid-November, according to official results announced by Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC). However, concerns have been raised about apparent anomalies in vote tallying, forcing the NEC to shield itself from allegations that it manipulated results in Weah’s favor.
These claims are far from baseless. The electoral referee has, time and time again, demonstrated a lack of neutrality and credibility, prompting some opposition parties to request a forensic audit of the first-round presidential ballot papers.
Politically immature, Weah’s ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) inspires very little confidence in its ability to govern. The party is notorious for throwing tantrums when it does not get its way. For example, CDC loyalists disrupted and delayed the tallying process in opposition strongholds after the first round of voting last month by attacking precincts in these areas.
Weah’s tolerance for criminality and corruption as well as his flagrant disregard for the rule of law are reminiscent of Trump’s slash and burn approach to national leadership. As obvious foils to Boakai’s and Biden’s political orthodoxy, Weah and Trump exemplify anti-establishment politicians who manipulate the cult of celebrity to wreak electoral havoc.
Yet, while America’s checks and balances stopped Trump from running completely amok—landing him in court for ostensibly conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential results, amongst other infractions—similar institutional arrangements do not exist in practice in Liberia where the supremacy of the presidency is all-consuming.
If Weah and Trump succeed in their re-election efforts, it will be more of the same shenanigans. It is no surprise, then, that Boakai has vowed to ‘rescue’ Liberia from Weah’s abysmal performance by focussing on the socio-economic issues that are of utmost importance to voters—poverty, unemployment, inflation, infrastructure, rule of law, peace and security, basic social services, etc.
Ahead of what is expected to be a contentious run-off, he has actively sought support from opposition candidates with overtures to join a Unity Party Alliance against the ruling CDC. It is clear that any opposition candidate who feigns neutrality will be indirectly backing Weah’s re-election.
As my previous research has indicated, the Liberian electorate consistently votes for candidates they presume will deliver public goods rather than politicians who merely serve their own interests. With 11 out of 15 incumbent senators ousted and a slew of representatives loyal to the ruling party ejected in October’s legislative races, what seems to be the only constant in Liberia’s post-war politics is a visceral rejection of the status quo.
If Boakai reduces Weah to a one-term president this month, he will be replicating what Biden did to Trump exactly three years ago.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a London-based Liberian scholar and author of the award-winning monograph Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2021).