By Rafiq Raji, PhD
George Weah, the famous ex-footballer, must wonder how many more “almost there” moments he would have to endure before clinching the Liberian presidency. Having won the most votes in the first round of the presidential election in October, it should ordinarily have been just a simple next step to proceed to the runoff. Not so quick; his opponents likely wondered with a mischievous smirk on their faces. First, the third place candidate, Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party, went to the Supreme Court alleging the 10 October vote was besmirched by irregularities and should be declared null and void; and a rerun ordered. Thankfully, the court ruled otherwise. And though the judges likely came to a decision based on law, they most definitely were mindful of American and European urgings about the dangers of delaying the election process in what is still a very fragile country. The Americans were more forceful. And in Liberia, the Americans have a special place. They asserted the October vote was as credible as can be. Whatever motivated the court to uphold the first round vote is not really important. It was the right and sensible thing to do.
Curiously, second place candidate in the October poll, vice president Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity party, joined in Mr Brumskine petition. You would think as he was already qualified for the runoff vote, he would not bother with such distractions. Never mind that he took issues with his principal, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, accusing of her of bias and interference. One incident he harped on was a certain meeting Ms Sirleaf had with election magistrates prior to the vote. He was not being entirely troublesome. Ms Sirleaf never hid her aversion to him succeeding her. (In my column ahead of the first vote in October, I highlighted this; see link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/liberia-finally-george-weahs-time/). Most of Mr Boakai’s actions thus far suggest he does not see himself winning the runoff vote today (26 Dec). Because even after the Supreme Court ruled on 7 December that the runoff could go ahead subject to a “clean up” of the voter register, he went back to court asserting the clean-up condition had not been met. Thankfully, an ECOWAS team did the task; arriving on the same day the National Elections Commission (NEC) announced the runoff vote date for Boxing Day. In a nutshell, his suit was rightly dismissed. Known with the uncomplimentary epithet of “Sleepy Joe”, Mr Boakai has proved to be anything but sleepy.
Many of the actors in the 15-year Liberian civil wars that ended in 2003 have managed to permeate decent society; some rich, in politics or have found religion. So it was not entirely surprising that Mr Weah would choose someone influential in those circles. Jewel Howard Taylor, ex-wife of former warlord Charles Taylor, was a smart choice. That is even as memories still run deep about the atrocities her ex-husband and his associates committed. Even so, the levers of power and influence in Liberia are still controlled by them. The choice is already bearing fruit. Former warlord Prince Johnson declared his support for Mr Weah ahead of the earlier scheduled but court-stayed 7 November runoff vote; one of the reasons it is believed Mr Boakai began to get really nervous.
Considering the first vote had as much as twenty presidential candidates, the probability that any one candidate would be able to secure the needed half was predictably low. With only two candidates on the ballot for the runoff, the choice before voters is binary. The more popular man, Mr Weah no doubt, could easily secure victory this time around. But there is a catch. The timing of the runoff is a little weird. It is taking place a day after Christmas; when celebrants would be resting off what tends to be very hectic nights before. So turnout might be low. Besides, during the festivities, people tend to go to the hinterland to celebrate with aged family members. If voters registered elsewhere, in the city, say, where most tend to live, it could be a little difficult for them to participate in the election. The NEC had little choice in the matter. In order to ensure that the victor would be sworn-in on schedule, on 22 January 2018, the runoff needed to be conducted and concluded before the end of the year. Liberians would likely show some understanding.