By Wynfred Russell
It is official. George Weah and Joseph Boakai are going to a runoff on Tuesday, November 7. But, the headline instead should read: “Prince Johnson Defeats Alexander Cummings.” How did this happen? How did Senator Johnson, who barely canvassed or produced any campaign paraphernalia, defeat one of the most resourced, energized and optimistic candidates in the race?
Of the parties that made the top five, according to the National Elections Commission (NEC), the Alternative National Congress (ANC) came in dead last and didn’t win any county, not even the birth county of Cummings, where he launched his run for the Executive Mansion.
After the general elections, the former Coca-Cola executive held a “Thank You” dinner for his devastated staffers and tried to put the rosiest possible frame on a calamitous picture.
The message to the young women, obsessed Diasporic Liberian supporters, and shell-shocked surrogates: We did everything we could have. We wouldn’t have changed a thing. There were irregularities, mainly of the process. We are investigating, but we are proud of the campaign we ran.
Some sleep-deprived campaign workers said they rolled their eyes and shook their heads in frustration and disbelief. So, I asked: What was the ANC strategy? How did the party prepare for the Prince Johnson factor? How was the process to select the vice presidential candidate, who didn’t deliver Bong County (Jewel Howard-Taylor had a more significant impact for CDC partly due to the NPP factor)? What happened? The phone went silent. Not because of the cellular network, but no one could answer, and no one has since been able to tell me in clear and simple terms what was the ANC’s overall strategy for winning.
I put the same question to Cummings’ senior campaign staffers via email, I received a response from Taa Wongbe, saying: “I am not commenting on the elections and the results.”
His tepid response is a seeming justification of the claims made by keen political observers that the Cummings campaign team lacked a well thought out reality-based strategy. As such, it was involved merely in incestuous crowd ‘renting’ with other parties. In their naivete, they believed that he would win. Sadly, he suffered a similar fate as other politicians who had been exploited in the same way.
Cummings’ loss at the hands of a warlord turned senator amounted to one of the most surprising outcomes of the elections. Of course, things could have been done differently. And ignoring that fact isn’t going to make the searing defeat any easier.
For example, Cummings received a shellacking from Weah in Maryland by nearly 10,000 votes.
When I asked an ANC supporter and staunch Cummings backer to explain how they lost Maryland to Weah, who is from Grand Kru, even though he [Cummings] kickoff his campaign in Cape Palmas? She dismissively said, “It is because Marylanders are not tribalists; they vote for you whether you are from Maryland or not.”
It seemed like a coded attack on the vice president’s candidacy that received 78.5% of the votes cast in his native Lofa. Though, I appreciated her feel-good response, but I disagreed. The reason Weah swept the southeast region was the CDC had a stronger local mobilization network than the ANC. Weah continuously had people campaigning in the area, sending youth volunteers to every nook and cranny.
“We are pissed at them because we lost due to arrogance,” an ANC volunteer told me during a scratchy telephone conversation from Dixsville, a township outside of Monrovia, sharing the candid sentiment suffusing the high levels of the party ‘command center’ in exchange for anonymity.
“I decided not to vote, not to even register because I had given up on this country. The same old people with the same old mindset – “our time to eat” – until I read an article he [Cummings] penned and interestingly it was non-political. He was speaking about the fundamental problem we have. At that very moment, it hit me that maybe, just maybe, we still had hope. That’s why I registered. That’s why I voted for Cummings,” she added.
It’s no surprise that the hierarchy of the Cummings campaign leadership was new, insular and self-assured. But some ANC campaign workers say the party’s mostly US-based team’s presumptuous, tone-deafness, know-it-all attitude caused it to ignore early warning signs of electoral trouble inside the counties. Some partisans even felt largely marginalized or altogether neglected for most of the campaign.
And there was significant tension between the party’s branch in the US and the standard bearer’s campaign apparatus in Liberia. But in the wake of Cummings’ loss, intraparty finger-pointing is inevitable; some ANC apparatchiks describe the relationship between the two entities as uniquely ineffectual. And they attribute it to one fundamental reason: Cummings’ campaign staff operated in an echo chamber and always thought they knew best.
Cummings’ high command – led by Wongbe, a senior strategist; Bennie Perkins, confidante; Mouna Farhat, social media practitioner; and Lafayette Gould, party chair – knew their candidate had a long shot but thought he would have at least won one county. And indeed, didn’t think he would have come in after Johnson in the ranking.
Some campaign field workers are depressed, but they are also angry, reeling through times they were not valued or downright insulted.
“It was all about Facebook with them,” said one young campaign volunteer, speaking of the ANC’s campaign team. “They were too reliant on social media presence and not enough on instinct and human intel from the ground.”
Many ANC operatives seemed more comfortable on social media and lacked a ground game and get-out-the-vote strategy. The party had an abundance of Facebook practitioners but few, if any, seasoned political strategists.
Now is a chance at a fresh start, and ironically, the loss of the presidency and all legislative seats will give the ANC new life and relevance.
The ANC must begin a process of soul-searching and purge from its ranks of blind gatekeepers and bring in experienced hands who understand Liberia’s contentious political landscape which could be used as filters who understand the heart and soul of the Liberian electorate. Cummings seemed to have been operating in a bubble. Many of the people around him have personalized relationships as opposed to a professional association; there was no buffer.
Cummings had a ‘messianic’ momentum during the campaign; Liberians genuinely like him and his story of success, but because of some apparent missteps, he missed many things, and his handlers did not feed him the truth. They were like a bunch of snake oil salespeople from America selling him what they thought he wanted to hear.
“Another thing, Liberians were afraid he would bring people from outside the country especially America since he had been out of here for so long. Liberians are nervous when it comes to change. We always want people we have seen around (in the flesh) regardless of what you have done,” said an ANC volunteer from Paynesville.
The party should now hire outside experts to begin mining data from the NEC to draw some meaningful conclusions about the best path forward for Cummings and his movement. There are obvious lessons from his successes and failures to be learned. Or, the ANC may not be the best vehicle for the economic empowerment and job growth of his movement. The ANC was a ‘rented’ political party; therefore, he was a part of its organic growth like the experience that Boakai, Brumskine, Johnson, and Weah have had with their parties.
A good exit strategy could be to strengthen the leadership and the reach of the Cummings Foundation. Build it with a substantial expertise of people who can do some rigorous thinking. It should engage in political, humanitarian, and civic engagement institutional building; not entirely for politics, but to understand Liberians. Embarking on this now might come in handy because UP may just retire with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as it appears highly likely that the Weah will overpower Boakai during the runoff election. ANC can begin to position itself to be a viable opposition party that could offer a real alternative.