Though she was not a founding member, the Unity Party has been exceptionally good to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Two successful nominations for the presidency, both of which she and UP won—that’s small thing?
Unity Party was founded by Dr. Edward B. Kesselly in 1985. That was the year the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), which staged the coup d’etat in 1980 overthrowing the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr., lifted the ban on politics.
It was an announcement many Liberian politicians had been eagerly awaiting. Notable among them were Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Harry A. Greaves, Sr., Jackson F. Doe and S. Byron Tarr. These were among the founding members of the Liberia Action Party (LAP).
Another leading party born during that exciting season was the Liberia Unification Party (LUP), founded by Teacher Gabriel Kpoleh.
The 1985 election was clearly won by LAP, but Head of State Samuel K. Doe of the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) and his notorious Elections Commissioner Emmet Harmon said Doe’s NDPL had won the election. It was that fateful faux pas that led the country, barely four years later, to civil war.
During that deadly conflict, which Charles G. Taylor, started on December 24, 1989, he formed his National Patriotic Party (NPP) to contest the 1997 elections. By that time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had found employment, in 1991, as Director General of the UN Development Program’s Africa Bureau.
It was from that position that Ellen resigned in 1997 to contest the Liberian presidential elections. But by the time she returned home her party, LAP, had already chosen its candidate for president—Cletus Wotorson.
It was then that Ellen sought refuge in Unity Party, which wholeheartedly accepted her as its standard bearer. She came second to Charles Taylor, who won the 97 presidential election.
But Ellen was undeterred. She returned home in 2004 to head the Government Reform Commission (now Governance Commission). In early 2005 she resigned to enter the presidential race, again as UP standard bearer. She came second to George Weah of the Contress for Democratic Change (CDC). But she and her UP stalwarts redoubled their efforts in the run-off, which she won.
Though she told her supporters that she would do only one term, Ellen threw her hat into the 2011 presidential race and again, the UP saw her through to a second term. The party was indeed very strong. Its “awesome strategist,” as she described Willis Knuckles when he died, Willis mounted probably the biggest political rally in the nation’s history. The die had been cast. In January 2012 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was again inaugurated President of Liberia.
Since then, however, the party (UP) seems to have lost its steam and has become riddled with division.
Young Binyah Kesselly, son of the UP founder, hinted as much when he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Dr. S. Jabaru Calon last year. With President Sirleaf sitting right there, Binyah called on party leaders to keep UP “united.”
Alas! That was not to be. As time went on there appeared to be strained relations between the two most important party leaders, the President and standard bearer and the party chair, Counselor Varney Sherman.
The rift between the two became glaringly evident when Varney won the race for Senator of his native Grand Cape Mount County with over 63% of the vote. Yet he was challenged by his opponent, Dr. Foday Kromah, who ran to the Supreme Court to deny Varney certification by the National Elections Commission (NEC).
The delayed certification, which both NEC and Counselor Sherman thought was patently unnecessary, denied Varney the chance to contest the race for President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate. Whether real or imagined, many suspected the hand of President Sirleaf in this. Some speculated that President Sirleaf had been behind Kromah’s run to the Supreme Court, just to put a monkey wrench in Varney’s suspected pursuit of the President Pro-Tempore position.
But that was not all. Another UP stalwart, Margibi Senator Oscar Cooper, too, entered the President Pro-Tempore race. But he became dumfounded when his own dear party and its standard bearer, President Sirleaf, failed to support him in this bid.
Feeling betrayed by the party, he resigned from UP and is now an Independent Senator.
More troubling rift was yet to come. This time it came as a double blow to the President and standard bearer: the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler, who hails from the President’s own county, Bomi, and who speaks the languages of her sainted father Carney Johnson—Dey and Gola—resigned from Unity Party!
This clear and decisive political bombshell came as a big, indeed very serious embarrassment to President Sirleaf. Party stalwarts are wondering whether the President, having won their overwhelming and enthusiastic support in two successive elections, is now dumping UP by failing to take leadership and hold the party’s anchor together.
What about the politics in Bomi itself? Whoever heard of so staggering a defection, not only from within the party but also from within the same county? Clearly, the question can legitimately be asked, Can UP survive this bombshell?
The public has heard nothing from the President and UP standard bearer, nor from the UP chairman, Cllr. Varney Sherman about these shocking developments.
By the same token, no one expects the next most powerful UP partisan, Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, to comment on these disquieting developments.
How will Ellen leave UP—stronger, or weaker than she met it?