Liberia: Legislative Politics in Battleground Counties a Harbinger for the Presidency?

Liberians stand in queues as they wait to register to vote. (Photo: Darlington Porkpa)


Tribalism takes all, until it doesn’t

No surprises greeted the latest preliminary voter registration results from the National Election Commission. The big five counties remain the time-honored battlegrounds for the presidency, leading up to the October 10 polls — Montserrado, Nimba, Bong, Lofa, and Margibi. At 1.7 million people combined, they represent more than half of the nation’s 2.4 million registered voters. 

Poll analysis has historically taken on a tribal tenor, and little looks to change in 2023. But the top two contenders, incumbent George Manneh Weah and former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, will find they cannot lean solely on ethnic and regional loyalties to win. 

Among these five counties -- Montserrado, and Nimba have a preliminary registered voting population of a little over 1.1 million. And if any one of the three leading presidential candidates manages to win a majority or supermajority share of voters, and perform well in the remaining three counties, they would easily cross over to the run-off or win the election in the first round of voting. 

A presidential candidate in Liberia needs 50.1 percent of the total votes outright to win the presidency. And with the election expected to be crowded, a strong performance is needed in Montserrado, and Nimba counties for any one of the three candidates to win the election.

Montserrado and Nimba have a voting population of  891,201 and 308,421 respectively, while Bong's share of the vote is 237, 463; Lofa 177, 892; and Margibi 184, 425.

Winning these counties, however, would not be an easy task for any of the country's three leading presidential candidates. Millions of dollars would have to be poured into advertising and campaigning. 

But the voting outcome would be influenced by a variety of factors, including voter preferences and candidate performances.  

The two other key issues are the candidates' campaign messages, which have to discuss how they intend to tackle the country’s prevailing socio-political conditions.  Or how it has been tackled for Weah, who is seeking re-election on a dismally poor achievement record and US sanctions slapped on three of his close associates. 

The first priority for these battleground states is the economy, which is a major concern for nearly all Liberians — and with the exchange rate between the Liberian and the US dollar rising,  the resulting cost of living is leaving many families struggling to make ends meet.

Unemployment is also a major problem, leaving many graduates fearful that they may not find work even after years of university study -- prompting many to try and leave the country.   Figures from Macotrend show that the country's unemployment rate in 2021 was 4.10%, a 0.12% increase from 2020, with the working population expected to be around 2 million people. 

Most important is poverty, which affects nearly half of the country's estimated 5. 5 million people, according to World Bank data. 

Other areas are investment in education, infrastructure, and issues of electricity, among others.

Many of these issues have already been touched on in rallies and speeches by the three front runners.  But the problems have been mounting for several years, leaving some Liberians  skeptical about whether whoever wins the election will actually be able to fix them -- bring about apathy and how many people will actually show up on the day to cast their ballot. 

However, for the remaining 10 counties,  the share of the voting population is just 669,531, and half of these counties would be highly inaccessible during the campaign season, which is the middle of the rainy season. 

The most voting block counties among the ten are Grand Bassa, which has a voting population of 157,712; followed by  Grand Cape, which stands at 86,589; and Maryland, which has 69,034. 

Next is Bomi  64, 395; Grand Gedeh 64, 061; Sinoe -56, 011; Gbarpolu  50, 887; Grand Kru 42, 7 29; River Gee - 37, 912; and Rivercess  40, 201. 

The data are from the just-ended biometric voter registration exercise, which the Commission split into two phases. 

Weah, hailing from the scantily populated southeastern bloc, relied on football stardom and a wave of populist sentiments in 2017. But his governance failures and a litany of scandals saw his popularity slide within three years. He felt the consequences, losing his former Montserrado Senate seat to the Liberty Party’s Darius Dillon, in 2020. No less troubling for Weah is the stark reality that the party headquarters of both the  Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and National Patriotic Party, as well as the residence of this Vice President, Jewel Howard Taylor, are located in District 10, represented by the Weah’s most brazen critic, Representative Yekeh Kolubah. This alone highlights how far the ruling coalition’s popularity has eroded, during its incumbency. 

Boakai faces much the same conundrum. Liberia’s Uncle, riding high on the tribal supremacy of his Kissi heritage, looked to gain and maintain the loyalties of the ethnic groups that call Bong, Margibi, and Lofa home. These are the Kpellehs, Gbandis, Lormas, and Kissis. Then came the 2020 elections that saw former Defense Minister and Unity Partisan, Brownie Samukai, win the Lofa Senate seat but lose a lawsuit accusing him of misappropriating military funding. Cllr. Joseph K. Jallah took the seat on the CDC ticket, in the ensuing 2022 by-election, running  a close race against former Lofa Superintendent, Galakpai Kortimai (UP). That the UP, largely unchallenged in Lofa (with its 177, 892 registered voters), could lose ground in just two years, raises questions about how much farther UP loyalties there have fallen since the last poll. 

Notwithstanding, Boakai’s chances are strong. His ethically dubious choice of a running mate may do more for him than merely split the vote Tiawan Gongloe could claim in Nimba. Jeremiah Koung, of Dahn (Gio) heritage, claims the most populous share of the county’s two tribal groups, which together account for 308,421 registered voters. Plus, Bong seems to be in the bag, with its 237,463 voters. UP’s Prince Moye defeated CDC’s Senator Henry Yallah in the midterm, while independent Henrique Tokpa holds the second Senate seat. He is up for election this year. 

So, even without a strong showing in Lofa — or in Margibi (184,425 voters), the current stronghold of CDC-aligned People’s Unification Party — the Unity Party could still regain the rulership. That would be no thanks to Boakai’s former running mate, Emmanuel J. Nuquay, still popular in Margibi. 

But all this puts Montserrado in play, where economics trump tribalism hands down. Montserrado is home to the nation’s political and commercial capital, Monrovia. It also holds 891,201 or nearly forty percent of all registered voters. And it is the country’s cultural melting pot. Here, the high inflation and exchange rate volatility, driven as much by geopolitical trends as by the structural deficiencies of Liberia’s economic trade deficit, hold more sway than county ties. And Weah’s failure to maintain, let alone build on, the governance gains he met in place in 2017 will augur well for the opposition. That is, provided they coagulate to remove him. 

That raises the Cummings question. Alexander B. Cummings, standard bearer of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) has long tried to stay above the fray of county and tribal politics. His ancestral home of Harper, Maryland has not been recorded as a sweet spot for the former CocaCola executive. Beyond a non-voting Diaspora, Montserrado seems to be where he has the greatest name recognition and momentum, although the latter is largely untested at the ballot box. He has one confirmed legislator in each house — Larry Younquoi of Nimba District #8 and Gbarpolu Senator Daniel Naatehn. But both, who crossed to ANC mid-tenure, are up for re-election this year. Yekeh Kolubah, much of a wildcard among the opposition, has flirted with the ANC but does not need Cummings to keep his seat.

Cummings’ clout will show, come October, when the split Liberty Party tests the strength of its two factions in the presidential polls. Charlyne Brumskine, whom Cummings is poised to crown as his running mate in Bassa on Saturday, sided with the Supreme Court in tacitly recognizing Musa Bility as the head of her late father’s party. This left her Grand Bassa sister, Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence in a lurch, she having sided with Boakai in the failed hope of securing a VP pick. Legal outcomes notwithstanding, the upshot will show which faction — Lawrence or Bility — has the soul of the party and who merely has the party in name. Grand Bassa has 157,712 votes in contention.

It is worth noting that the aggregate preliminary data is subject to change at any time as the NEC has begun investigating several issues of underaged voter registration and duplicates from 2,080 voter registration centers across the country.

While the NEC has not disclosed the number and magnitude of cases of voter registration malpractice discovered so far, nor the alleged culprits, the Commission has said that the registration process has been halted pending the investigation. Those found guilty will have their voter registration removed and a complaint filed to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution, a spokesperson said.

Further, the electoral body is expected to carry out deduplication and adjudication processes to ensure that the final voter roll is credible. This will result in changes to the final voter registration dates for some counties. However, that would have little bearing on the ranking of counties by population.