Liberia: From Peasant to President

A look into the journey of Liberia’s incoming President Joseph N. Boakai; his challenges, triumphs, and what chances he has to set Liberia on a trajectory for success

The moment has come. The stage is set, and the audience is prepared not only to grace the inauguration of a distinguished statesman to Liberia’s highest political leadership office, the Presidency, but also to hear the incalculable wishes and expectations from his ascendancy as a new day dawns over the country.

Monday, January 22, 2024, is the day, and the venue will be on Capitol Hill, the seat of government (where all three branches: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are situated).

As the auspicious occasion beckons, there is a wave of excitement in the air as Liberians, many of them impoverished, anticipate glamorous endeavors from their new leader. The occasion is expected to be graced by foreign dignitaries, including a high power delegation from the United States Government, some African Presidents as well as former heads of state and the diplomatic community. 

The Daily Observer dives into piecing together accounts associated with Joseph Nyumah Boakai, Sr., the new captain of the Liberian ship of State.

Humble beginning 

Joseph Nyumah Boakai, Sr., a son of peasant parents, Tamba Yamba and Lusu Kumba Kpetu from the village of Foya, is set to take office as Liberia’s next President on Monday, January 22, 2024. Boakai’s journey to this prestigious position has been marked by both challenges and triumphs, particularly considering his humble beginnings. 

Born on November 30, 1944, in the remote village of Worsonga to parents who were poor farmers and struggled to provide for their family, Boakai grew up facing limited opportunities for education and a prosperous future.

However, circumstances took a turn when Boakai left his village to live with his maternal uncle in Kenema, Sierra Leone, after his father passed away. Life in Sierra Leone was not particularly fruitful for Boakai, and he eventually returned to Foya.

However, his aunt, Kumba Kendeh, who was married to a man named Boakai, recognized his potential and took him under her wing. This opportunity allowed Boakai to access education in Bomi Hills, where he eventually adopted the name Joseph Nyumah Boakai. 

Young Boakai’s pursuit of education led him to attend the prestigious College of West Africa in Monrovia, from where he matriculated to the University of Liberia, earning a Bachelor's degree in agriculture. He married his long-time companion, Kartumu, and they have four children together.

Beginning of career life

Boakai’s public service career began in 1973 when he secured employment with the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC), responsible for managing agricultural produce. He held various positions within the LPMC, including resident manager in Lofa County. He later served as Minister of Agriculture under the military regime of Samuel Kanyon Doe from 1983 to 1985 and as Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refinery Corporation (LPRC) from 1992 to 1993. 

Political Life

In 2005, Boakai was chosen as running mate by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and they won the presidential elections, becoming Liberia’s first post-war leaders. Boakai served as Vice President to Sirleaf for two consecutive presidential terms (2006 to 2017). However, when Boakai decided to run for president in his own right in 2017, their relationship became strained, and he was ultimately defeated by George Weah, who was Sirleaf’s apparent choice. 

Capitalizing on Weah’s missteps and winning 2023 Election

Weah had come to the Presidency with much euphoric hope and promised a new Liberia in which the challenges from many years, including those of his predecessor, Former President Sirleaf, would have been addressed and give the country not only a new look in infrastructure but also further improve its image internationally.

Many had thought that Weah, an international soccer legend with lofty connections in Europe and many other parts of the world, would have attracted more investment opportunities to the country. However, things soon took a turn for the worse, ranging from the harmonization of salaries and wages of government employees to the mysterious deaths of professionals who worked in strategic positions, especially those in the fiscal accountability and audit systems.

These problems were compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, both of which added significant pressures on Liberia’s import-heavy economy. 

Unlike his predecessor’s era when many competent and qualified professionals from both home and the diaspora were employed in government, Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) led government prioritized partisanship over competence, though few highly qualified officials had the opportunity to contribute.

President Weah lost control of coordination in communication about his government’s operations as almost every cabinet member and other junior staffers went on calling press conferences and appearing on radio talk shows in defense against opposition claims and attacks. This often resulted in conflicting messages on government policy and direction. 

Even city mayors became direct spokespersons for the government, something that became unique to Weah’s governance paradigm. 

When allegations emerged that L$16 billion had gone missing and another US$25 million misappropriated in “mopping up excess liquidity” of US Dollars that caused the exchange rate to soar, almost every major government official had a slant, often contradicting one another on the facts. These were apparent attempts to demonstrate party loyalty by rebutting the opposition community’s efforts to make the Weah administration unpopular.

Meanwhile, the voting population grew apprehensive of Weah’s leadership style, most especially when he took out time and recorded music. The President used his musical outlet to throw jibes at the opposition as a means of self-consolation against suspicious misrepresentation of him and his government.

Weah’s CDC began paying the cost in 2020 when the opposition community won more Senate seats than the ruling establishment.

In hindsight, as attested by outgoing Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor recently, given the incessant propaganda machinery of the opposition, with the Unity Party and the Alternative National Congress (ANC) of Alexander Benedict Cummings at the forefront, Weah’s chances at a second term were slim to none.  

The first round of vote did not see any candidate party obtaining the required fifty percent plus one but, as in 2017, a runoff was held between Weah and Boakai. 

Heavily followed and supported by their respective supporters and allies, the second vote on November 14 was dramatic, with Boakai consistently topping Weah, albeit with a narrow margin until the President himself realized that his incumbency had failed. 

Boakai won with 50.64 percent of the vote, against 49.36 percent of the vote for Weah, the former international football star. The former Vice President won with a vote margin of at least 20,567 of the over 2 million votes counted.

Herculean Tasks Ahead

Everyone knows that the task ahead for President Boakai is not an easy one. However, for a man who rebounded from a suspected cardiac scare just twelve months ago to run a successful presidential campaign — this is legendary, to say the least. 

Known for his principled mindset and strict discipline, many believe these are entrenched qualities that will help Boakai succeed. And for a man who is no stranger to adversity, his faith and hard work have helped him to persevere. The economy is reportedly in shambles as the country faces a huge infrastructure deficit. Unemployment is at an all-time high, meaning that economic empowerment is at its lowest. These are the challenges that the Liberian people will be looking up to Boakai to solve.

He has promised to fight corruption and ensure the proper functioning of the country’s institutions, particularly the justice system. Corruption has long been a cancerous problem in Liberia — empowered by impunity — hindering the country’s development. 

Boakai will face the challenge of working with many whose mindset is to come to government “to eat and lay (abscond)”, but the onus will be on him to deliver on his campaign promises. It is worth noting that his predecessor, Sirleaf, also promised to tackle corruption and nepotism, but ultimately fell dismally short of expectations. 

Sirleaf’s failure was exemplified by allegations that members of her inner circle, including her son, misappropriated millions while at the helm of the National Oil Company, which was very lucrative at the time. 

Similarly, President Weah, who had promised to audit Sirleaf’s government, neglected to do so, let alone hold accountable members of his own inner circle responsible for corruption. He also failed to establish the War and Economic Crimes Court — one of his key campaign promises. Weah's decision may have been influenced by his support from Senator Prince Y. Johnson, who also backed Sirleaf during her two successful presidential campaigns. 

Boakai, too, chose to embrace Senator Johnson and other former warlords during his campaign, which could potentially tie his hands from pursuing the establishment of the War and Economic Crimes Court. 

At age 79, Boakai is now the oldest person to be elected President in Liberia’s history, surpassing Sirleaf, who was 67 when she won in 2005, and Weah, who was 51 when he won in 2017.