Liberia: Reading the Riot Act to Boakai, Cummings


..... Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Vox Rationis, Vox Utilitatis

The string of Latin headlining this piece is as tricky a problem to solve as those facing the front-runners in the upcoming presidential race. We know well that the voice of the People is not always the voice of God; nor do both their voices often match what is reasonable or expedient.

Hebrews 11 does enough to enumerate the cases where all this holds true. But would that chapter have named Former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai or Alexander B. Cummings amongst the stalwarts of faith? I think not, when their storied relationship has been so fraught with mutual — perhaps justifiable — mistrust. But perhaps there is hope that the two can square the political circle that these times demand. 

Liberians were itchy-eared, last week, when the Unity Party (UP) announced that Boakai would be naming his 2023 running mate on April 28th. In Liberia’s prodigious rumor mill, it took a fraction of 24 hours to cure the suspense.

But the Daily Observer held its peace for unimpeachable sources to confirm Jeremiah Koung would play second. That news came through on Monday, April 24th, from those close to Boakai. It was no surprise. Koung seems to have topped the shortlist for months, with party leaders expecting him to deliver enough of the Nimba vote to win. 

While early congratulations may be in order for Koung, Boakai must be mindful that this is merely the selection part — he has yet to get through the election! And, arguably, his last choice of a running mate helped tank his presidential hopes. Will history repeat itself, come Friday?

Beyond the single criterion of county-level popularity, it is unclear what experience Koung brings to the ticket in terms of leadership, policy and economic strategy. It is equally unclear whether Boakai intends to break the tradition of the ‘weak vice president’ or the ‘parked car’, which he had bemoaned as his twelve-year enslavement, throughout the 2017 race.

The UP and its rivals in the opposition say their aim is to turn the tide of poor governance and economic strain prevailing under the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC). But, if our reading of Boakai’s choice is accurate, then it is business as usual in a party that claims to have learned from past mistakes. Personality, not substance, remains the most valuable asset — especially for a candidate destined for the second chair… or shall we say, the garage? 

We raised these and many other questions with key stakeholders in the UP and Alternative National Congress (ANC), as well as both sides of the split Liberty Party (LP). There is apparent consensus on one point: most opposition-leaning Liberians are bent on Boakai-Cummings being the most electable ticket against the CDC. Asked whether this hope is hopeless, political insiders’ responses offer poignant and revealing insights about both leaders’ chances in the ensuing elections and their leadership abilities. Here is the thrust: 

  1. Can this ticket restore Liberia’s political and economic prospects? 

The short answer: Absolutely maybe. 

The long answer: The CDC has shown the efficacy of setting egos aside to secure the win and maintain cohesion thereafter. The Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) comprising the UP, ANC, LP, and others, showed too how swiftly and decisively a unified coalition could shift the balance of power in the legislature. Under Cummings’ leadership, the CPP unseated several CDC candidates in the 2020 senatorial mid-term election.

Had that unity held firm, the CPP could have effected real and positive change. But, under Boakai, it floundered and disintegrated into chaos with the Old Man sitting at the center, as quietly as he had when his inner circle revolted against outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and expelled her, in 2017. Who would want to be a running mate to a man like that?

  1. Maybe Cummings. Has Boakai ever asked him to join his ticket? 

The short answer: Probably not.

The long answer: The UP gives no straight response. Cummings’ team can’t recall when the two last spoke. All we have heard from both sides is the same old hearsay of the last two years, rehashing each man’s role in breaking trust and undermining the CPP. The lack of clear accountability from both camps shows why a seemingly perfect pairing took sick and died so quickly. 

  1. Can Boakai still ditch Koung for Cummings, or is it too late? 

The short answer: Anything is possible, before ‘the big reveal.’ 

The long answer: Neither one wants the other for the reasons stated above. More so, both standard bearers are glued to their top seats and would never accept ‘number two.’ The official narrative is each man is absolutely clear about his own leadership agenda for the country.

But that has the ring of two proud old men grinding their teeth on the seeds of discord fed to their fragile egos. This foreshadows another nasty divorce, were the UP and ANC ever to attempt a reunion. Whatever the case, that ship may have sailed with the clusterfuck that broke them up in the first place. Why bother trying again?

  1. Perhaps there is hope of repairing the broken relationship between Boakai and Cummings. 

The short answer: Somewhat. Maybe not.

The long answer: Despite resisting second place, Cummings has said on record (and I paraphrase) that he will put aside his differences with Boakai to see President George Manneh Weah defeated at the October polls. This shows an important shift from his second-round stance in 2017, when he effectively left ANC partisans to split the vote as they saw fit, and thereby helped hand Weah the presidency.

Do we perceive some personal growth there? Perhaps, but not enough. It is one thing for Cummings to offer his support under circumstances least likely to achieve decisive results, and quite another to engage for optimal impact. Furthermore, Cummings is not a woman and this is not The Bachelor. Is he waiting to be proposed to? Turning our earlier question on its head, has he approached Boakai with terms for a better coalition, both as running mates and partners in governance?

These terms must take the shape of a power-sharing agreement. Yes, the fiasco between Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai comes to mind, but it does not have to follow that pattern. As with any relationship, communication is the bedrock. Boakai must prove that he has done away with his silent seething and passive aggression, and is ready to be the partner to any vice president that he failed to be to Ellen.

He must show that he is the vocal, unifying, and decisive leader of this party, rather than remaining the silent sanctioner of their puerile, divisive, and destructive behavior. Boakai must prove himself a better leader than Sirleaf, by correcting in himself every flaw for which he has criticized her - including by elevating to full effectuality the role of the vice president.

He must give Cummings (or Koung, God help us!) authority over the key sectors best suited to his strengths and experience, with the capital to move the needle on development therein. And Boakai must share the limelight, giving his partner the space to develop into a leader that can and will build on his legacy. You are welcome, Mr. Cummings. I think we just wrote your proposal for you. 

  1. But does Boakai want the top seat bad enough to show significant change? 

The short answer: Apparently not. 

The long answer: From the tenor of public opinion regarding a Boakai-Cummings ticket, it is clear that their refusal to work together may see the country sink further (or burn) under the current administration, which enriches itself and leaves the poor clamoring for handouts. This electoral loss could come about either through disillusionment leading to low voter turnout, and/or a 2017 repeat — the splintered vote of an undecided populace. The pool of presidential candidates is already getting crowded again.

Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, a human rights lawyer and former Minister of Labor has entered the race. Dr. Clarence Monibah, former Minister of State for Presidential Affairs is also hinting at his aspirations. More will follow, most of whom will do so in hopes of gathering enough votes to buy themselves a plum job and a seat at the winner’s table.

But, no matter their intentions, name recognition, or leadership potential, each will pick up stray votes here and there, eating away at the front runner’s margin — whoever he or she turns out to be. But this time, such an outcome will deal a death blow for both Boakai’s and Cummings’ political prospects seeing, as the public will, that they will have sacrificed the nation’s future on the altar of their respective egos. This is not a race either Boakai or Cummings should risk-taking to a run-off. But the onus is on Boakai, more so than Cummings, to offer terms for a truce. 

To be clear, Boakai could win with Koung on his ticket. In fact, he might just. But then what? Would Koung be loyal enough to support Boakai’s legislative agenda and ensure the fufilment of campaign promises? He might. Or he could take several leaves out of the former VP’s playbook, playing passive while UP legislators mutiny left and right and both houses delay legislative processes.

That is how, under Sirleaf, annual budgets and debt agreements for vital infrastructure projects rotted for months on the political vine. Of course, no one would expect any better from Jeremiah Koung. Neither before nor during his short stint as Nimba Senator has he distinguished himself as a statesman. And he would not know the first thing about navigating international systems to garner support for Liberia’s post-Weah recovery. Indeed, the doors of the world may be closed to him, affiliated as he is with the party of unrepentant warlord, Senator Prince Y. Johnson. 

The latter point raises another serious one. Does Boakai feel safe joining forces with a man who did not scruple to ally himself with a murderer, to gain a senatorial seat? This pairing is worrying, to say the least, and one wonders how the Old Man’s family and friends read the risks at play here.

This election could be one of the most critical in Liberia’s recent history, and could literally make or break us. The National Elections Commission does not have the money for a second round, nor do the Liberian people have the patience for it. But beyond that, we cannot afford for post-election tensions to take a dangerous turn, once a political upstart with a warlord in his ear grows too impatient to let natural causes decide which heartbeat ushers him into the presidency.  

Life and death aside, perhaps such an ineffectual vice president is just what Boakai is looking for. Koung could not outshine him, but would keep the bar low so that Boakai would do the bare minimum and still seem effective. By contrast, Cummings would sail through a flat learning curve in international politics and development and, given the fiscal and political space, deliver major traction to Boakai’s executive agenda. But that would put the Old Man under pressure to produce, so as not to appear asleep at the wheel. Here, it appears, is the crux of the matter, from Boakai’s perspective. Cummings as VP seems doomed to transgress the first of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power: “never outshine the master.” 

But, high potential and experience aside, Cummings must learn to observe the law. The master, after all, is not the presidency, but the legislature. The first branch of our democratic government, it is a living organism that thrives in deep, dark waters and stings you when you least expect it. An effectual politician must learn to ride that jellyfish with delicacy and gravitas. Coca-Cola Cummings, a lifelong corporate type with no legislative experience, surely knows he is best suited for the executive branch.

He may be avoiding the Vice Presidency, because it would place him in the unfamiliar territory of the Capitol. But, if he wants to win executive power and wield it effectively, he must survive that crucible. And it would be better to do so in the relative obscurity of the vice presidency, where his inevitable failures will come at the expense of the Head of State, creating a buffer and giving him room to strengthen his legs.

The alternative would be for him to forget the presidency, for the present, and run for a legislative seat. He is not so inclined. Whatever the path Cummings chooses, he has what it takes to master this. He, like Boakai, is a College of West Africa (CWA) Fox, after all. Foxes are clever, curious, quick; subtle, hardly flamboyant, yet organized. He will learn the ropes over time. He just has to be patient with the process and be willing to get jostled in the washing machine that is Liberian officialdom. He also has to be more affable. Dare we turn the tables on a sexist trope and urge him to smile more? 

As for Boakai, he will not succeed without real humility. As he must have seen in his “enslavement” under Sirleaf, running a race and winning it is not a success. It is the bumpy bus ride to the factory where the sausage gets made. Then the boring, frustrating, backbreaking work begins to serve a public that neither sees nor understands what you do, but is keen to criticize your every step. Success is found in the process, especially in grooming the leaders who will carry the endless, thankless work forward.

As we have seen, it does not matter if one administration rehabilitates the hydroelectric plant, if its successor is neither equipped nor disposed to maintain it. Effective leaders value constructive people management as equal to program delivery and surround themselves with people who are smarter and more capable than they are. They appreciate their followers and let them shine. In so doing, these leaders make themselves look good.

But it takes courage for a leader and a statesman to recognize that he needs his partners and followers just as much as they need him, if not more so. And it calls for painful introspection, to constantly pick out the points of dysfunction and insecurity that prove destructive to oneself as well as to the institutions one leads. Is it too late for Boakai to engage in that constructive enterprise and become the kind of leader Cummings would feel safe and confident to follow? If so, is it too late for him to be president? Only he can answer these questions; only he can decide how badly he wants true power and success. 

As the Liberian parable goes: “When monkey is jammed, he will eat pepper.” From our lips to God’s ears, may rationality reign and great men act with wisdom.  And may they, for the love of God,  do so before the 11th hour. Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Vox Rationis, Vox Utilitatis.