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Who will succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
October 6, 2017

Liberia is heading to the polls on October 10 with twenty candidates on the ballot paper. The list includes a fashion model, a football icon, a warlord and a host of businessmen and career politicians.

Libera, presidential candidate George Weah
Image: Getty Images

Liberia has been through tumultuous times in recent years: from two brutal back-to-back civil wars to an outbreak of the devastating ebola virus disease. Both incidents left the country in ruins and its population severely depleted. The upcoming general election is set to be another major test for the troubled nation, as it seeks to manage its own security for the first time since the United Nations peacekeeping mission pulled out completely two years ago.     

The long list of candidates vying for the country's top job are not your average politicians; including a former warlord infamous for torturing and killing a sitting president, a world class football star, a former fashion model - who shares a child with said football star - as well as a host of career politicians and businessmen. 

President Sirleaf's desire for a younger successor

An internal rift between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joseph Nyumah Boakai - her two-term vice president, who is seeking to replace her - came to light when she did not attend his campaign rally. Sirleaf claims she did not attend the event due to preparations for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in late September.

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President Sirleaf is not seeking a third term, adhering to the constitutionImage: Reuters/A. Sotunde

"The president has on numerous occasions admitted supporting the vice president," said ruling United Party (UP) stalwart and campaign team member Nowah Gibson, who does not believe speculations that Sirleaf does not wants Boakai as her successor. "We trust what she says until she reverses her decision, which she hasn't done." 

Veteran politician Boakai served as agriculture minister under warlord Charles Taylor before becoming vice president on the UP's ticket when the party's candidate Sirleaf beat football star and political newbie George Oppong Weah in a run-off.

Many young Liberians hoping for political change claimed the election was stolen from Weah, who had won the first round but failed to garner the constitutionally required 50 percent plus one minimum to win the presidency.

New faces, new political maneuvers

Stalwarts of the ruling UP accused Sirleaf of not only backing Liberty Party (LP's) candidate, lawyer Charles Brumskine, but also of pumping significant amounts of money into his political campaigns. The allegations were supported by the political realignments of some senior UP politicians with close ties to Sirleaf.

The defection of businessman Musa Bility and the UP's Harrison Karnwea to LP dealt a serious blow to the ruling party. But President Sirleaf did not publically criticize any of the defectors. "When you have an organization of such nature, you will have people with diverse views," said Gibson in response to the defections. 

The 66-year-old leader of LP, Brumskine is considered the most popular opposition politician in the country. He challenged Sirleaf in her 2011 second-term bid but failed to make it into the top three. "I think our chances are better," said Kla-Edward Toomey, a spokesman for Brumskine's Liberty Party. "This election is divided between two ideological grounds: that is change versus continuity. From all indications the larger population is yearning for change and are looking towards the opposition."

Despite allegations of corruption and nepotism involving her three sons, Sirleaf went on to win the elections in a single round, followed by former diplomat Winston Tubman and former warlord Prince Johnson, who took the second and third places respectively.     

UN Mission UNMIL
The UN Mission handed over security to the country two years agoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

In that same poll, Weah positioned himself  as a running mate under Tubman. "2011 elections were marred by fraud," said Kwame Weeks, a spokeman for Weah's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party. "When you talk about politics in Africa it is totally different. There is manipulation, there is vote rigging and the playing field is never leveled." The political atmosphere at the time did not look good for Sirleaf, who had placed fighting corruption at the epicenter of her 2005 election campaign.

When a report detailing how President Sirleaf helped three of her sons enter into senior positions in the country came to light, her chances of re-election hung by a thread.

Return of a repented warlord

Former warlord Prince Johnson surprised many in the 2011 presidential polls. Johnson is notorious for capturing and torturing President Samuel K. Doe, while recording it on camera. In the chilling video viewed around the world, he is seen sipping a beer while rebels chop off Doe's ears and force feed him the bloody pieces. After he eventually killed Doe, Johnson briefly seized power, but gave it up due to pressure by the regional body ECOWAS.      

He fled to Nigeria when warlord Taylor took power after a general election in 1997, which ended Liberia's first civil war. He spent the next seven years in that country, where he claimed he had repented and reconciled with the Doe family, which was mediated by popular Nigerian preacher T.B. Joshua.

Johnson is not considered by most Liberians as a likely winner, but he may hold some influence if the election were to end in a run-off. His core support-base in Nimba County could sway the election in favor of whoever he chooses to back in a re-run. But owing to his infamous wartime activities, neither Boakai, Brumskine or Weah want to align themselves closely with Johnson.   

CDC supporters gather to urge George Weah to take part in the polls
George Weah's supporters gather in front of the CDC party to urge him to participate in the elections after rumors that he did not want the positionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Jallanzo

A presidential love affair

Weah is well-known in the football world for his sporting abilities and was named the first African FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995. But on the political spectrum, he has so far only won the Montserado County senate seat. "People have been crying for change," Weeks said. "The chances of us winning this election as a coalition are more than high because they reflect in the people's face a hope for change. There is abject poverty and people are struggling in this country."

But Weah's inability to use the lapses in President Sirleaf's government in his favor meant that candidates like Brumskine were able to take over the political spotlight. When Brumskine criticized the government's poor response to the ebola outbreak, Weah remained silent.        

Candidate Prince Johnson
Warlord Prince Johnson is notorious for killing President DoeImage: DW

Meanwhile, when President Sirleaf said Liberia needs a younger person as its next president, 40-year-old political newcomer and former fashion model, MacDella Cooper, decided to use that statement to form her own campaign message.

"Coming out of the presidency in her 70s, she knows what it takes to keep the stamina of running that office," said Cooper, the only female presidential candidate. Weah, again remained silent.

Weah has had a long and widely-known relationship with Cooper. The model has claimed Weah is the father of her third child. "A lot of Liberians are aware of the relationship but that won't harm their chances of winning the elections," said Liberian journalist Evelyn Kpadeh. "Liberia's definition of morality defies that of the rest of the world. Many see Weah's relationship with Cooper as a matter of private affairs."

The former model is infamous for having affairs with married men. She dated Dick Persons, CEO of Citigroup, who was married at the time. She also claimed that Persons is the father of her second child.  

Another lesser known candidate is former Coca-Coca executive Alexander Cummings, founder and flag-bearer of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) party. Cummings had no known political party affiliation before announcing his candidature.

Benoni Urey, a businessman who is estimated to be Liberia's richest man,  plus 13 other candidates are also vying for the country's highest office, bringing the list of presidential hopefuls to twenty. 

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