War drum or campaign message?

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The Oct. 10, 2023, Presidential and Legislative election is the fourth post-war election in Liberia. It comes on the heels of celebrating two decades of peace in the country following the signing of the ‘Accra Peace Accord’ in 2003.

Presidential and Legislative candidates contesting the Oct. 10th elections have committed to upholding the peace and serenity of these elections by promoting issued-based campaigns whilst frowning on hate speeches. Their commitments were contained in the ‘Farmington River Declaration.’

Article 15a of the 1986 constitution of Liberia provides that “every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof.”

Inherent in this provision is a call to duty for all persons to express their rights to free expression by being responsible. The question is, throughout the campaign season, which ends on Oct. 8, 2023, have the political leaders and supporters expressed their rights to free speech responsibly?

When the National Elections Commission, on Aug. 5, 2023, declared Liberia’s political campaign opened, politicians in Liberia were encouraged to preach peace and avoid hate messages.

Davidetta Browne-Lassannah, the chairperson of the Commission, gave the policy prescription to all politicians regarding the 2023 Presidential and Legislative elections in Liberia with a mandate to keep the peace and democracy of the country.

“Let us go into these elections peacefully,” said NEC boss Ms Browne-Lassanah at the start of the campaign activities ahead of the Presidential and Legislative elections.

But what has been the situation after the statement from the NEC boss? DUBAWA critically analyses some of the candidates’ campaign messages to discover if they were for peace or war in a country that is no stranger to violent conflicts.  

Aug. 5, 2023, marked the first day of campaigns in Liberia. The supporters of the Coalition for Democratic Change of incumbent president George Weah kick-started their campaign by carrying a casket with photographs of the former vice president and major opposition politician, Joseph Nyumabh Boakai.

The action from Weah’s CDC triggered multiple criticisms from well-meaning citizens, including development partners interested in peaceful elections in Liberia. Chief among the partners was the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

ECOWAS, in a stern rebuke, frowned on the act and called on the stalwarts of the CDC and other politicians to rise above campaign activities that could undermine the country’s fragile peace.

“In this regard, we call on all political parties, as key stakeholders in any credible and peaceful elections, to exercise restraint and foster an issues-based campaign that speaks to the aspirations of Liberians,” the ECOWAS statement added.

The CDC, headed by incumbent Weah, acknowledged its shortcomings by condemning some overzealous party supporters. The President, however, failed to take punitive actions against the perpetrators to deter future troublemakers.

War drum or campaign message?
Photographs of the incumbent President. George Weah: Source: BBC News

For some analysts, the conduct by the CDC supporters is a cause for more trouble in the lead-up to the presidential elections.

Though ECOWAS was vehement in its call against negative campaigns, Liberian politicians seem motivated. Many continue to beat war drums in the lead-up to the Presidential and Legislative elections on Oct. 10, 2023.

War drum or campaign message?
Sen. Prince Y. Johnson

The former warlord turned evangelist and Senator of Nimba County, Prince Johnson, who is supporting the Presidential bid of opposition leader Mr Boakai, most recently issued a statement critics and authorities suggest is likely to threaten the country’s peace and democracy.

“Before the Oct. elections, Liberians are coming out under the banner ‘Don’t Try It’ – any attempt, the people’s power would be exercised like the Arab Spring. You’ll shoot your gun; you’ll kill us, or you’ll die. No more fear, Liberians don’t be afraid anymore,” Johnson said.

For his role in the over a decade-long civil war in Liberia from 1989 to 2003, which led to the torture and killing of then President Samuel K. Doe and dozens of citizens, many have strong reservations about the comment made by Senator Johnson. 

Interestingly, Senator Johson is becoming the ‘King maker’ in Liberia politics for would-be presidents in Liberia. His support as political godfather for vote-rich Nimba County produced two presidents, including Mr Weah and former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

But in 2021, the US government sanctioned him under the Global Magnitsky Act, accusing him of corruption. Johnson has not been called in for questioning for the volatile comments he made. There is no record of public rebuke from Mr Boakai against Johnson’s statement as well.

Earlier, Senator Johnson was a fierce critic of the former vice president in 2017. His influence in Nimba and so-called political godfather title, coupled with his decision to support the CDC, earned incumbent president Weah a landslide victory in Liberia’s 2017 presidential run-off elections.

Johnson’s support to Weah hinged on a major agreement to bring development to his county, Nimba while providing jobs for his kinsmen. He  said his support for Weah in 2017 “was for jobs and development projects.”

President Weah’s apparent failure to uphold that agreement promoted a shift in Johnson’s decision, pushing him back to Ambassador Boakai, who agreed to give his running mate slot to another Nimba Senator, Jeremiah Koung. The ex-warlord is like a father figure to Senator Koung, who is now the running mate to Ambassador Boakai. 

Like Johnson, Mr Boakai, while on a campaign trail, recently made these remarks:

“If they think they will steal this election, you will not allow it because if you do, that is the end of this country.”

Accordingly, Mr Boakai’s Unity Party, in defence of their standard bearer, amidst rampant critique from the media and others, said elements who may be planning to steal elections are those who want to plunge Liberia into chaos.

“Those who warn against the stealing of elections and urge their supporters to protect their votes are those who want peace and tranquility to prevail in Liberia,” Mr Boakai said.

However, some critics disagree with the UP defence.

As if this is not enough, the Mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee, the Secretary of the ruling party, issued a warning to officials of government whom he said were involved in double dipping, which could affect the CDC re-election.

“This time is about life and death,” said Mayor Koijee, an influential figure in the youth community of his party. 

“We have responsibility for a cross-section of young people in this country who have laboured their heart and soul to the populous people’s revolution; we owe them a protection of their struggles,” said Mayor Koijee.

In conclusion, as many incendiary comments and propaganda continue to settle in the ears, hearts and minds of party apologists, experts say overzealous supporters may cleave to it to justify actions that could undermine the peace.

“The extremists on all sides are empowered when stoking fears and engaging in outlandish and incendiary rhetoric,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, a political commentator in Liberia.

Among other things, he said,

“We can’t allow this to continue. No one gains from this reality. It returns the wheels of history to our dark past where the culture of violence and impunity was commonplace.”

Kiatamba, who is one of the respected radio analysts, mentioned in a text:

“We can’t sustain our peace, which was achieved with our people’s blood, tears, and treasures.”

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