Sitting in an elegant room in Paris’s Prince de Galles hotel – in a respite between meetings in Geneva and London – the debonair, septuagenarian vice-president of Liberia talks up his chances for the upcoming presidential election. Joseph Boakai’s light grey suit is pierced with the Liberian flag and Unity Party (UP) lapel pins. The UP has been in power for almost 12 years, and the political brand is, to be polite, a little tired.
While the initial years of the administration saw some major successes, expectations have outstripped delivery for some time. Indeed, supporters are only half joking when they tell Boakai not to lean on the link to the UP. “They say put your face on the T-shirt, not the UP logo,” says Boakai. To have a chance of winning, he needs to weld together disparate support bases, and that is not easy when high-profile UP members are quitting the party.
Even President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who asked Boakai to run, appears unclear about her choice. Reports from UP members claim Johnson Sirleaf is surreptitiously supporting another candidate, the flag-bearer of the Liberty Party, Charles Brumskine.
“I do have the backing of the President,” says Boakai, dismissing the idea. “She said [I should run] publicly.” The political authority Boakai has derives from his role as vice-president. “A vice-president is not a simple thing to be,” he says. “You assist the president, which is a very complicated thing. You intervene where you are needed.” He goes on to mention a number of land disputes in the capital which required his mediation.
But for many, through no fault of his own, he has not had the high-profile diplomatic and economic roles that would help build a case for him taking over the executive. Where he can claim credit is for building a political consensus, even at difficult junctures.
He points to when Johnson Sirleaf wanted to get confirmation through the Senate for the appointment of a non-Liberian to run the army, in the face of push-back from politicians of all stripes. “She said: ‘Look, this will be difficult.’ But I said: ‘No, the Armed Forces Day is coming up. We will get him confirmed by then,’ and we did.”
And he had much more of that consensus building to do in the administration’s second term. The first term of the Johnson Sirleaf government brought a robust approach to mending political divides and peace building. She then received an array of international accolades, which Boakai says may have taken her attention off the problems the country was facing.
“Sometimes we forget that the country comes first. It’s the people that elected you and those are the people who you are likely to touch,” he says. “Sometimes, along the way, we didn’t follow through – disgruntling the people. And I’m aware of that. But as time went on, different players came on board, and [maybe] the President became more international.”
Boakai is delicately pointing to issues of corruption and nepotism – with much criticism from Liberians of Johnson Sirleaf for appointing her sons to high offices. Robert Sirleaf chaired the board of the national oil company, and it subsequently hit severe financial troubles. Boakai hopes his own more modest beginnings will be seen more favourably.
He speaks of his difficult childhood growing up with relatives. “A lot of people who become presidents have some strong family orientation. Mine is not a story that you can associate with upbringing from the home,” says Boakai, recalling his self-motivated past, working as a janitor.
CORRUPTION IS A PROCESS
And he says he wants to tackle corruption at the root. “I don’t think corruption is some light pole out there you can just take down. No. You need a strategy. I do believe corruption is a process,” offers Boakai. “I have had many opportunities to become a wealthy person, but I have never been a person to believe in ill-gotten wealth. I have to be that example that I want people to see and follow.”
He will have to fight through the electoral maths first. In the 2005 and 2011 presidential elections, Congress for Democratic Change flag-bearer George Weah offered the strongest opposition.
But with affluent and Western-educated politicians like Benoni Urey, Alexander Cummings and erstwhile Central Bank of Liberia governor Joseph Mills Jones mounting a challenge, a coalition could well defeat Boakai and the UP. The fact that he hails from Lofa, one of the most populated county, may help in giving Boakai the votes he needs.
One of his policy passions is agriculture, having served as minister for agriculture between 1983 and 1985. He points to work done in Ethiopia, where the government has trained thousands of extension workers to help get new seeds, inputs and skills to farmers. “Agriculture is not a stand-alone thing,” he says. He stresses that “good policy, technology transfer and extension” are needed to reach the millions of Liberians struggling with low agricultural productivity.
He does not see the entry of large agribusiness ventures into the palm oil sector as a problem for farmers. “There is no land grabbing in Liberia. That, I disagree with,” says Boakai. Land ownership is a major issue in Liberia, with many criminals involved in selling land that is not theirs. To address this concern, the government created the
Land Commission in 2009 to help mediate in land disputes. Local activists have accused Indonesian investors of pushing farmers off their land with the help of government officials. Boakai says: “You know the problem here is a lot of people who are outside try to dictate everything to us. They make people feel that there is land grabbing, when that is not the case.”
The mining sector seemed to hold so much promise in Johnson Sirleaf’s first term. But companies like ArcelorMittal downsized their operations after the steel price collapse. These deals have benefited the country in a number of ways, but grievances against these foreign companies have increased, says Boakai. “ArcelorMittal is there. But when you sign these concessions in good faith, they look after themselves [instead]. There are a lot of things that they were supposed to do that they are not doing.”
From the May 2017 print edition
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