Liberia: Can CPP, UP Outsmart Uncle Sam’s Caveat?

Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba County.


— Poised to consummate political collaboration with sanctioned PYJ’s surrogates ahead of October polls

The two main political opposition groups in the country, the Unity Party (UP) and the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), have begun courting sanctioned Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson (PYJ), for possible collaboration, despite a caveat from the government of the United States of America that it would be risky for anyone to do business with individuals who have been blacklisted by the US Treasury under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Ahead of the October 10, 2023, presidential and legislative elections, both the CPP and UP told the Daily Observer that they have begun informal discussions with the political 'god-father' of the vote rich Nimba County and his political institution, the Movement for Development and Reconstruction (MDR), though nothing has been crystallized yet, they told the Daily Observer on Tuesday.

CPP Chairman Musa Bility said that the CPP has reached out to PYJ's MDR and suggested that they could work together. “We started talking, but it's nothing substantial,” he said via a WhatsApp call. “We are waiting for them to respond.”

UP Secretary General, Amos Tweh, said discussions are ongoing with the Nimba Senator and other leaders of the MDR in an effort to work together as opposition political parties.

“We are not basically in to do a formal collaboration yet. We have not reached that level, but, of course, we are holding discussions with [Senator] Prince Johnson and other leaders of the MDR in making efforts to work together as opposition political parties,” Tweh told the Observer in a telephone conversation. “We are having talks to build confidence, work on issues of mutual interest, and of course, for the most part, hopefully, work together towards the October 2023 polls. Yes, we’ve been talking, we have been holding very informal discussions, but we have not reached the point where we have formalized those conversations.”

However, these moves by the leading opposition political parties seem to only be in disregard to the US government’s warning, but they are risky as they, too, stand the risk of being blacklisted as per what the US said it would do to violators of its warning.

Addressing a news conference at the US Embassy in Monrovia on November 14, 2022, Ambassador McCarthy pointed out that financial institutions and others would subject themselves to sanctions if they continued to do business with these sanctioned ex- and current government officials.

The US government on Thursday, December 9, 2021, slammed an “Economic Sanction” on Liberian Senator Johnson, famously known by his initials, PYJ, for corruption in what many think are ongoing efforts to enclose the notorious warlord for eventual war crimes charges. 

The US said the Nimba Senator has been involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment — while also receiving funding from government ministries and organizations to launder a portion of the funding for the return to the involved participants.

“The alleged pay-for-play funding scheme involves millions of U.S. dollars. Johnson has also offered the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money.” Also sanctioned following PYJ are the former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill, the former Solicitor General Cyrenius Cephus, and the Director of the former National Port Authority (NPA), Bill Tweahway. Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman was the first Liberian government official to be sanctioned. Despite the sanction, former Minister McGill seems to be wielding political clout in Margibi County.

Apart from his alleged acts of corruption, Senator Johnson is a notorious ex-warlord, whose defunct Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) captured and killed former President Samuel Kanyon Doe. The Truth and Reconciliation Report documents Johnson as having committed atrocities during the country’s first civil war.

Despite these, politicians seem not to be heeding the US’s caveat as they go all out in search of potential votes with little or no ‘moral consideration’ given to where those potential votes could be amassed from—and what favors they may be obliged to return.

The opposition and ruling parties have been tussling over PYJ, who has become a kingmaker since 2005. While the CPP and the UP are courting Senator Johnson in order to have a strong hold on Nimba, the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change is doing all in its power to maintain the flamboyant lawmaker with whom they struck a collaboration in 2017 that helped them to get hold of the presidency.

Tweh said that the UP is aware of the sanction against Johnson, and that is why the party thought it prudent to engage other officials of the MDR, not just PYJ himself.

“We are very much aware of the sanction; that’s why I said earlier on that we are holding discussions with some leaders of the MDR. So I was very careful as a party to say to you that we are holding discussions with the MDR, and, of course, these are parts of the effort.  

“Probably you have one partisan of the MDR who was placed on sanction, but minus that partisan, [there are] the rest of the other partisans, leaders, and members of the Legislature who are also part of the MDR. So they are part of the leadership of that party. They are the ones we are also talking to.”

Tweh noted that the former ruling party is very careful with how to deal with individuals who have been placed on sanction, “because we know very well that the American people have said very fairly and we have actually been amplifying that. So we can’t be the ones trying to breach what the American people have reported.”

Senator Johnson continues to enjoy unlimited political power in the county and massive support among his people since 2006—a feat that has practically given him leverage in the national political space and positioned him as a kingmaker in the Liberian polity.

This made him a political “darling boy” for both the former and current ruling parties of Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George Weah, though it appears that he has left the grip of the latter.

A political marriage consummated with the CDC in 2017 that helped propel President George Weah and his CDC to the presidency of the country has gone sour in recent months, with Johnson halting his support for the ruling Coalition.

He recently terminated the political association between his Movement for Development and Reconstruction (MDR) party and the ruling Coalition at a time when the crucial 2023 presidential and legislative elections are on the horizon.

He called on Liberians, especially citizens of his native Nimba, not to give the CDC-led government a second chance because they had failed the people.

In a Voice of America (VOA) interview last week, Senator Johnson disclosed that he is holding talks with other opposition political parties about collaboration.

 The second-term senator, who acknowledged that no single political party wins elections in the country, stated, “We are open to all parties, we are working with the Unity Party, we are working with the ANC, we are working with the newly certified party, the EFCC, all the parties on the ground, we are working with them. One party cannot win elections without the other,” he said.

The decision to halt his support for President Weah's reelection bid, he said, is based on the president’s failure to prioritize the interests of the people of Nimba County.

“What we expected in the past is not what we see on the ground. We had believed that, being the world's best, the European best, the African best, with his election, he would have attracted investors to Liberia to create jobs and alleviate the suffering of our people through their investments. But since his election, the world has abandoned us in the sense that no investors are coming. And what we are doing in the country is just ratifying loan agreements, and you cannot build a country based on loans,” Sen. Johnson told the VOA.

PYJ has since stood down as the political leader of the MDR, relinquishing power to his political protégé, Senator Jeremiah Koung. But many see the move as a way of taking the back seat, due to the US sanction, though he is still actually in charge and approving every major decision.