The Optics of Politics: Resurgence of an Age-old Rivalry?

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Liberians across the political spectrum have begun to sift, dissect and draw conclusions that the old political rivalry between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her onetime strong ally, Cllr. Varney G. Sherman, have continued to fester, shattering the foundation of the Unity Party (UP).

Bitter Beginnings
According to political pundits, the partisan bitterness between President Sirleaf and the Grand Cape Mount County Senator and UP Chairman Varney Sherman started as far back as 1997 during the national convention of the then Liberia Action Party. Sirleaf had resigned her post as Director General of the Africa Bureau of the United Nations Development Program in New York in order to return home and run for president during the presidential elections that year. She intended to seek the endorsement of the LAP, of which she was a founding member in1985.

The election of the standard bearer had been scheduled to take place at the Centennial Pavilion in the afternoon. But when it became clear that Sirleaf was arriving that afternoon to throw her hat in the race, the leadership decided to hold the convention in the morning. So by the time she reached the LAP convention hall, the party had already that morning elected Cletus Wotorson as standard bearer.

Past accounts reveal that prior to the arrival of candidate Sirleaf for the slated LAP national convention, political manipulations in the rank and file of the party further led to Sirleaf’s departure.

‘Greener Pastures’
She contended that the political process was characterized by undemocratic manipulations and outright stage managed bureaucratic bottlenecks.

That is when she ran to the Unity Party, founded by the late Edward B. Kesselly in 1985. UP embraced her and elected her as its standard bearer, enabling her to participate in the 1997 elections. In that election, she came second to Charles Taylor, who won by a wide margin.

The next contest for Sirleaf was the race for the chairmanship of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, which climaxed the peace talks in Accra, Ghana. Interested in that position, there she encountered Cllr. Varney Sherman, and the two again clashed.

In that election, Cllr. Sherman threw his weight behind the LAP Chairman, Charles Gyude Bryant, who won that election and became Chair of the National Transitional Government.

But perhaps the conflict that climaxed the rivalry between the two Harvard graduates came in the 2005 presidential elections, which both Sirleaf and Sherman contested.

More Bad Blood
Sirleaf emerged second in the first round, and Cllr. Sherman threw his support behind George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) in the runoff — a move that surprised most people. How could a Harvard-trained lawyer endorse for the presidency of Liberia a man who had barely an eighth grade education, against a woman who was not only a Harvard graduate but who had attained extensive national and international experience working for the World Bank, Equator Bank, Citibank and the United Nations? That, perhaps more than anything else, added further poison to the already bad blood between the two politicians.

Sirleaf eventually won the 2005 presidential contest and went on to secure her second term in 2011.

It is widely rumored that in the 2014 senatorial elections, the UP Chairman, adding insult to injury, adamantly refused to give the Madame Sirleaf’s son, Robert, the UP’s backing of his bid against CDC’s George Weah for the Montserrado seat.

Reliable sources have intimated that even recent attempts by VP Boakai to mediate between the two failed to diffuse the raging animosity.

‘Finish Varney?’
Some say the President is on the warpath to “finish Varney.” If such is her intent, the recent damning allegations by Global Witness (GW) seem to provide the perfect ammunition. Another rumour has it that the President has met privately with each Associate Justice to ensure that Sherman and others caught in the GW alleged bribery scam do not get away with it.

But anyone who knows the consummate politician and the astute lawyer can bet that neither will stand down.

So much rancour between the two leaves little room for President Sirleaf and Cllr. Sherman to meet at the golden table of compromise in the interest of party unity, let alone political and economic discussion and agreement on pressing issues of national importance.

The much publicized Global Witness report, ‘The Deceivers’, has all but severed the relationship between the two distinguished Unity Party leaders, throwing their organization into chaos.

The comprehensive GW report has implicated other top Liberian government officials including House Speaker Alex Tyler.

The report further linked the Sherman and Sherman Law Firm of Cllr. Sherman and partners to the allegations of bribery to give Sable Mining an advantage in their negotiations with the Liberian government to obtain a concession agreement to operate Mount Wologizi in Lofa County.

Politically and from all indications, the Unity Party and its many stalwarts are sailing over troubled waters as their Chairman and Standard Bearer seem not to agree on the bitter pills to curb corruption and nepotism that have engulfed the nation.

Public View
A team of Daily Observer reporters went out to interview Liberiansin Monrovia and its environs on the fuss between President Sirleaf and Cllr. Varney Sherman.

The Chairman of the Northern Alliance Youth Congress of Liberia (NAYCOL), Vamba Kanneh, noted that he foresees more conflicts between President Sirleaf and Cllr. Sherman if the Global Witness report is not channelled through the legal process.

Kanneh pointed out that the reaction from a cross-section of citizens and residents of Grand Cape Mount County speaks volumes on the anger and disenchantment about the country’s legal system.

He urged the government’s legal representatives to work out a concrete legal framework to ensure the prosecution of all those connected to the Global Witness report.

In a mobile phone interview, Voinjama District youth activist Darlington B. Mulbah stressed the need for Liberia to assemble a legal team that will meticulously and legally scrutinize the Global Witness report.

He also underscored the need for the Liberian government to work out the modalities to ensure the timely prosecution of all past and present corruption and financial malpractice cases in the country.

“I think there should not be selective justice. Fellow Liberians linked to eating the Liberian people’s money should be brought to justice through the legal process,” Mulbah argued.

A Monrovia-based political commentator, Francis B. Yonton, recommended that all past indicted Liberian government officials should be prosecuted and, if found guilty, should be convicted and serve the required jail sentences.

The Optics
Most people intently following the events of the past few days climaxed by the arrest and indictment of Sen. Sherman, Speaker Alex Tyler and others are left wondering how the GW allegations involving US$950,000 can cause those involved to be so swiftly brought before the law when allegations against the President’s son, Robert, for the disappearance of US$31 million from NOCAL’s coffers go ignored.

But at this juncture in the saga of Sirleaf versus Sherman via Global Witness, Sherman succeeded in wresting the case from the President’s Task Force headed by Cllr. Fonati Koffa, a disbarred lawyer and ex-convict from the United States, and submitting himself instead to the court of law.

Cllr. Koffa recently stepped away from the chairmanship of the opposition Liberty Party to accept an appointment by President Sirleaf as Minister of State Without Portfolio. Here again, the optics suggest an intentional axe to grind when a former chairman of an opposition party is brought into the establishment and tasked with the job of investigating the sitting chairman of the ruling party.

On the bright side, Sherman and Koffa have much in common. Both men are lawyers, have served as party chairmen, both been accused of financial crimes (with one convicted). Now, they are both gladiators in a duel that resembles the parable of the pot and the tea kettle.

“You can’t threaten fish with water,” Sherman said recently, having succeeded in reaching the safety of the court before Koffa could reach him. And with the President’s Special Task Force more or less in the dust, LACC will assume its rightful role in the Global Witness corruption investigation in collaboration with the court system.

Whether or not Sherman will get away this time is anyone’s guess. But the Sirleaf-Sherman rivalry, by all indications, is far from over.

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