EDITORIAL: How Boakai’s Campaign Let the Presidency Go Away

At the start of the campaign, Vice President Joseph Boakai seemed to have a clear advantage over his competitors. He had the power of the incumbency, he seemed to have the support of most local officials, and he received an unfair advantage on the nationwide state radio. He was the presumptive frontrunner.

While many acknowledged that George Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change would give Boakai a good challenge, the vice president was presumed to be the next president, especially since the opposition largely failed to unify against Boakai’s bid for the presidency. So, what happened? How did someone so heavily favored to win the election lose it all?

An examination of how Unity Party ran its campaign reveals a series of blunders that allowed the presidency to slip away from Boakai. The earliest of these, undoubtedly, was the campaign’s decision to run away from the accomplishments of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Perhaps this decision was made with the understanding that voters were weary of Sirleaf’s presidency, one that had not delivered enough to the ordinary Liberian.

However, while the Nobel laureate has received fair criticisms, she has also accomplished a lot. Liberia now has a refurbished airport with a new terminal and runways. The Monrovia area can now boast of a brand-new hydroelectric dam, in addition to electricity in far flung areas such as Harper, Zwedru, and Nimba. There are two paved highways leading from Monrovia to Buchanan and Monrovia to Ganta, in addition to the paved road between Pleebo and Harper. These highways reach population centers that cover approximately 40 percent of the country’s population.

Moreover, the Sirleaf administration has established county service centers in at least 10 counties. For the first time ever, residents in those counties no longer need to go to Monrovia for government services and vital records such as marriage and driver licenses, birth and health certificates, and other key documents.

The Boakai campaign could have highlighted these accomplishments to show what the party had achieved under Sirleaf and then emphasized the key areas that would be different under a Boakai-led administration. After all, Liberia has benefitted from a vice president, William R. Tolbert, who was very much in the background but then went on to accomplish enough to be considered Liberia’s greatest modern president.

Boakai could have used the Tolbert story to suggest that he too would deliver much for the country if given the chance. To be fair, the campaign tried to use this angle, but by running away from Sirleaf’s accomplishments, it created the image that nothing good had happened under the Sirleaf administration, which made it harder to attract voters.

In essence, Boakai’s campaign lacked a clear message. During the debate he participated in and during much of the campaign, Boakai spoke in parables and did not give specifics about what he wanted to do. If he were George Weah, who has a lasting celebrity status with throngs of excited supporters, that approach would make sense. But Boakai isn’t Weah, and he needed to give Liberians concrete reasons to vote for him.

It always seemed like the people most excited about Unity Party winning the presidency were those who stood to personally benefit, whether through jobs or contracts, or a more favorable environment for their business and NGO operations. The vast majority of Boakai supporters were reluctant supporters, likely going for him because he appeared more dignified and more articulate than Weah. In fact, a sizable number of Boakai’s supporters simply did not want to be represented by a footballer perceived to be uneducated – one who would soil Liberia’s reputation by stumbling in public speeches.

Because of this difference in excitement level among supporters, Boakai needed to provide more specifics to pressing questions. But he did not. During the only debate he attended, he was asked why did he not accomplish anything significant during his 12 years as vice president. His fatal answer? He was a race car that was parked.

He gave no details about any specific ideas that he could not implement or any particular areas of disagreement with the president. He didn’t have to attack the president, but this is something he should have consulted Sirleaf on already. What issues of disagreements would she be content with him bringing to the public? An airing of differences would at least show concrete examples of how he disagreed with the president and how things would be different under his administration.

But that race car analogy opened him up to attacks that employed some creative metaphors. First, fellow presidential candidate Alexander Cummings took a jab at Boakai not long after the debate, saying, “From what I know about race cars, if you park a race car in the garage for 12 years and it doesn’t move, it becomes obsolete. Its parts get old, rusty, and no longer work. After 12 years, the car itself would have become outdated, unable to compete with newer models on the road.”

Education Minister George K. Werner added salt to the existing wound by responding to the analogy on Facebook, “What race car? No sensible person parks a race car that long. It was probably not roadworthy, or it was too old to maintain. Get the director of transport to send it to [the General Services Agency] for retirement. Bad analogy!”

Boakai’s campaign team never came up with a good response to these valid criticisms.

It was already clear that Weah’s supporters would turn out and vote for him; Boakai needed to have concrete reasons, but those never came out. The campaign overall just did a terrible job in building awareness about the vice president’s accomplishments.

On his campaign website, 57 achievements are listed, but at least 23 of these items are counting meetings he held, speeches he has made, or ideas he subscribes to as achievements. For example, “He believes in Rural Banking” is included as an accomplishment. This does not build excitement around a leader.

Lacking any clear message or tangible achievements they could point to, Unity Party spent too much time trying to portray Weah as the selection of Sirleaf, almost to the point of whining about it. Their infighting did not bode well for their image, especially given that their actions were antithetical to their party’s name. All their efforts did not work because Liberians continued to associate Boakai, who had served as vice president for 12 years, to a system that hadn’t delivered the basic services the people wanted.

Perhaps one of the worst decisions made by Boakai that doomed his campaign was the selection of a running mate in House Speaker Emmanuel Nuquay. Boakai was not strategic in this selection as there appeared to be little farsightedness into analyzing the speaker’s likely performance. Nuquay, who was unknown nationally until being elected as speaker months prior, proved to be ineffective as a running mate, losing his own county, Margibi, by a landslide in the second round.

This would not have been surprising to anyone who researched the dynamics on the ground in Margibi. Nuquay remains a polarizing figure in Margibi politics and his selection brought up mixed responses from residents of the county. His soured relationship with Representative Ben Fofana of Margibi’s fourth district often made it difficult for the county’s legislative caucus to work in concert, impeding development. After being elected as speaker, he had campaigned for Liberians to reelect all incumbent lawmakers, but then he campaigned against Fofana. It is worth noting that Fofana was the only representative re-elected in Margibi this year.

Boakai’s selection of a running mate from the branch of government that is generally perceived to be the most corrupt was surprising. At a time when Liberians craved change, it further solidified the idea in the minds of many that he would simply continue existing corrupt practices and excessive salaries that numerous surveys had shown Liberians were unhappy with.

The vice president himself made it clear that he approves of government waste as a means of ensuring that top government officials can retire with comfort. When asked during a debate if he would commit to reducing excessive salaries, he emphasized the need “to protect those who are working as well.”

He said, “If you have a government that plans for people – when they leave job, that they can have a future – it’s another way to be able to manage the economy.” He further added, “Let’s be sure that there’s a future for people when they leave government.”

But Boakai’s selection of Nuquay was not just a nod in the direction of the status quo; in his decision, he spurned the second most populous county, Nimba, which usually votes as a bloc and which expected Boakai to select a Nimbaian vice presidential candidate. That immediately prompted animosity toward Boakai’s candidacy from many prominent Nimbaians.

In fact, when Nimba’s most prominent statesman, Sen. Prince Johnson, announced his decision to support the Coalition for Democratic Change for the second round, he cited Boakai’s decision of having chosen a running mate from a different county.

While there were likely other factors that influenced Johnson’s decision – such as a rumored payoff – the presence of a prominent citizen of his county on Boakai’s ticket would likely have been enough pressure for Johnson to support the Unity Party ticket. Even if Johnson went ahead and endorsed others, it would have been more difficult for the Nimba people to fall in line and vote as he instructed, if there were a prominent Nimba citizen on the opposing ticket.

Regardless, Boakai did not have to select a running mate from Nimba to have a powerful coalition; he could have earlier selected Charles Brumskine, the perennial third placer. There were rumors that such a team had been suggested, but it’s not clear why the coalition broke down. Brumskine would have been a proven candidate, capable of delivering at least 10 percent of votes in the first round. However, even if he hadn’t chosen Brumskine, Boakai could have selected Gbehzongar Findley, a prominent member of the Unity Party and a notable citizen of the fifth most populous county.

With Findley, while Brumskine’s Liberty Party would have undoubtedly acquired more votes in the first round, at least Unity Party could have had the chance to place second. In the runoff election, the people of Grand Bassa would have undoubtedly rallied behind Findley to push the Unity Party ticket to first place in the county.

Although Unity Party had not merged with Liberty Party prior to the first round of elections, they joined Liberty Party’s effort to delay the runoff by challenging the first round’s results. This was an unforced error, as there was no benefit in joining the case. Perhaps Boakai’s campaign team figured that supporting Liberty Party during its quest would engender some goodwill toward Unity Party and encourage an endorsement for the second round. That ended up not happening; three top Liberty Party members ended up controversially endorsing the Coalition for Democratic Change and the party as a whole decided not to endorse a ticket in the second round. But it was clear that Unity Party’s participation in the elections fraud case did not help Boakai’s case. Ordinary Liberians suffering from the negative economic effects of the drawn-out elections came to look upon the party, along with Liberty Party, more unfavorably.

Unity Party supporters and the Boakai campaign also allowed the major discourse of the election to pit the educated versus the uneducated, in a country where 52 percent of the population is illiterate. Every slight verbal gaffe made by Weah was elaborated upon to show how bad of a public speaker Weah was and that equated to him being unfit for the presidency. It was a strange move, because some of these mistakes would likely only be identifiable to elites and those who had the good fortune to have been educated well enough to recognize them.

American pollsters have long asked questions of politicians that aim to gauge their likability and relatability. The reasoning for this is that, while people want their presidents to be smarter and more responsible than they are, they also want them to be more relatable, and therefore, more likely to care for someone like them, instead of catering to elites.

In the end, the election was Boakai’s to lose and a string of campaign blunders and unforced errors ensured that the presidency stayed out of his grasp.

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