Liberia’s leading candidates boycott presidential debate

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On Tuesday, Oct. 10, Liberians will go to the polls to vote in the country’s fourth post-war presidential and legislative elections.

One of the election-related activities many Liberians look forward to before voting day is the presidential debates.

In the US and other developed democracies, presidential debates are a common feature and a key part of the electoral process, which citizens use to assess the policies and preparedness of a candidate to govern.

In Liberia, the situation is no different. Presidential debates ahead of national elections have always been a traditional practice in Liberia’s young, maturing democracy, which started in 2005 after more than a decade of civil war.

In the maiden edition, former President Ellen Johnson challenged then-candidate George Weah to a debate, but the latter failed to show up. The debate went on nonetheless between four contending candidates.

Since then, George Weah and his contender in the 2017 and 2023 elections, Joseph Boakai, have become strangers to the presidential debate despite being avowed democrats.

These primary objectives and importance of these debates were lost on these democrats who eagerly wanted to lead.

With the 2023 elections beckoning, organisers of the presidential debates were full of hope that the candidates, at least the three leading contenders, George Weah, Joseph Boakai and Alexander Cummings, would take part in the presidential debates.

The organisers, a group of civil society organisations and a consortium of media outlets in Liberia, sought to organise two debates amongst the candidates.

According to a press release issued by the organisers, the debate, which was scheduled for Oct. 3, 2023, was in partnership with Internews Liberia and funded by the United States Agency International Development (USAID) Liberia 

“The USAID Media Activity facilitates the presidential debate to support the electoral process and ensure informed decision-making by the Liberian people,” said Lien Bach, Chief of Party for Internews, speaking on behalf of the debate-organising Consortium.

According to the organisers, the 20 presidential candidates were divided into two groups, ten per group. The leading contenders, George Weah and Joseph Boakai, and Alexander Cummings were expected to face off in one of the groups at Montserrado County.

However, the debate occurred as scheduled at the Ellen Johnson Ministerial Complex in Congo Town, outside Monrovia, but without the major contenders.  The leading candidates, notorious for evading previous debates, were again nowhere to be found in last Tuesday’s debate.

Were the candidates officially invited?

DUBAWA contacted the organisers of the debates to inquire whether the candidates were officially invited. One of the organisers and president of the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL), Madam Siatta Scott Johnson, confirmed the candidates were duly invited.

Ms Johnson stated that the standard bearer of the main opposition Unity Party (UP), Ambassador Joseph Boakai, officially replied and accepted to attend. In contrast, the standard bearer of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) and, by extension, the  Collaborating Political parties (CPP), Alexander Benedict Cummings, partially confirmed verbally via his campaign team. President George Weah, on the other hand, neither confirmed nor turned down the invitation.

“To my knowledge, all the other parties acknowledged receipt and said they were getting back to us. Most did verbally, and they confirmed their participation. Only the Unity Party wrote officially to confirm. You can verify by asking other organising team members,” Ms Johnson said.

Ms Johnson shared an official confirmation letter with DUBAWA, which was sent to the organising committee from the main opposition Unity Party, as seen below

Liberia’s leading candidates boycott presidential debate

Why did they fail to attend?

Despite being officially invited with indicating their preparedness to attend the debate, the leading contenders in Liberia’s Oct. 10 presidential and legislative elections failed to show up.

Even though the organising committee could not tell DUBAWA whether or not these candidates provided reasons for their absence, President George Weah and Ambassador Joseph Boakai were on campaign tours outside of Montserrado County, where the debate was held. President Weah was in the country’s southeastern part, while Ambassador Boakai was in the northern part of Liberia, Lofa County.

According to a Front Page Africa news report, prior to the debate, the campaign manager of the ruling CDC, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, said that President Weah would not be a part of any debate but did not say why, while the secretary general of the Unity Party Amos Tweh told the newspaper that the party’s standard bearer could not participate in the debate due to his campaign tours in Lofa County. He was also reported to have blamed the country’s challenging road network for his inability to join the debate.

Which of the candidates were in attendance, and what did they say?

Even with the absence of the leading contenders, some of the other candidates found the debate worthy of their time.

The standard bearer of the Movement for Progressive Change (MPC), Simeon Freeman, the standard bearer of the Liberia First Movement, Sheikh Kouyateh, and one of the two women in the race, Madam Bendu Kroma, who is contesting independently were present.

Bendu Kroma argued it was time for female leadership, so the Liberians should vote for her.

Simeon Freeman promised to restructure several ministries to include the Ministries of Gender and Information. He claimed that doing business in Liberia is difficult and vowed to improve the business environment if elected.

In all, seven out of the 20 candidates took part in the presidential debate on Tuesday.

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