On Sunday 16 June, President Uhuru Kenyatta told a religious gathering at a stadium in Nairobi: “When they see me remain silent, they should not think they are threatening me. I will flush them out from where they are.”
Spotlight: Jewel Howard Taylor
Under a long, white-lit corridor in Monrovia’s Capitol Building, dozens of people wait quietly for hours. The queue has grown these past few weeks, and the calibre of the person sitting in the office behind the wooden door explains it. Jewel Howard Taylor is not only one of the most powerful female politicians in Liberia, but she is also the new vice-president. While her new office is under construction a few metres from the Capitol Building, she continues to work from the small bureau she has been using since she was elected senator in 2005.
“I always speak the truth,” she says with a confident, straight gaze. A devout Christian, she has a big poster of Jesus hanging on the wall. A Bible is also within reach. Howard Taylor maintains that she never knew about her ex-husband Charles Taylor’s war crimes or the ruthless repression carried out during his presidency.
During her time as First Lady (from 1997-2003), Howard Taylor held a number of positions, including deputy governor of the National Bank of Liberia. This led to her inclusion on a list of close relatives of Taylor targeted by United Nations sanctions. Having divorced Taylor in 2006, she says “it’s in the past”. She is confident her ex-husband will have no influence on Liberian politics in the next six years. Nevertheless, she will not comment on whether she is in regular contact with him. Several members of her entourage claim Taylor and Howard Taylor often speak.
She is no novice in the political arena. “My name has not made me. I’ve been in politics for 15 years and what I’ve achieved is because of who I am and what I’ve done,” she says. And though the name Taylor might be loathed by some, it is well loved by others. According to an adviser to President George Weah: “It’s not for nothing that she kept her married name.” For several months last year, the United States tried to dissuade Weah from nominating her as the vice-presidential candidate, “but we were gaining more from her than what she was costing us,” the adviser says.
She has established a strong political reputation, one characterised by seriousness and hard work. And despite proposing controversial bills to criminalise homosexuality and make Liberia a Christian state – neither of which were adopted – she was an important figure in the Senate, having lost the election to become its president pro tempore by a single vote in 2012. That experience made her a cunning tactician.
She has encouraged reconciliation and spoken against trying individuals for war crimes. Instead, her attention is fixed on urgent needs such as roads, jobs, access to water and electricity, among others priorities. She also gives her allies room to manoeuvre, especially Weah. “I don’t want to be at the forefront,” she says while singing Weah’s praises. “He’s an extremely intelligent man who is more than just a footballer.” In that respect, she says, “He is much bigger than Messi or Ronaldo!” Though opponents criticise the football star-turned-president’s lack of political experience, vice-president Howard Taylor has no intention of becoming the brains behind the presidency. But those close to Weah already have their suspicions. “She’s an ambitious woman who has been dreaming of taking up the top job for several years,” says one of them. “She might have given it up this time, but who can tell if she will not be the main candidate next time?”
From the March 2018 print edition