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Friday, July 19, 2024

Liberian Politicians Scramble for 1990s Warlord’s Backing Ahead of Elections

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By Festus Poquie

Since the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003 and the return of democracy, Prince Yormie Johnson, the notorious warlord of the 1990s has used his dominance in vote rich Nimba County to cut political deals, playing a spoiler role to advantage a leading presidential candidate.

In 2005 and 2011 Johnson helped former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf win the presidential elections. In 2017 incumbent President George Weah was at the benefiting end, securing a landslide victory with the ex-rebel chief’s backing.

This shows when PYJ supports you in a presidential race you win. But it’s not a free lunch. The Senator’s support carries huge financial, social and moral burdens: money must be paid to PYJ to rally the vote of his “people.” You must guarantee that he will not be prosecuted for his atrocious role in the war. You must appoint his supporters to lucrative public offices. Provide government contracts. Pay him to “keep the peace” and know how to manage his unpredictability characteristics.

Politics is a lucrative market for many people in this country, mainly people like Johnson where he has earned fortune. In 2021 while sanctioning him under the Global Magnitsky Act the United States Treasury Department said Johnson has been involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment.

“Upon receiving funding from the Government of Liberia (GOL), the involved government ministries and organizations launder a portion of the funding for return to the involved participants.

“The pay-for-play funding scheme involves millions of U.S. dollars. Johnson has also offered the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money.”

With barely seven months to elections day on October 10, the Nimba County Senator has understandably positioned himself as a free agent. After spending nearly 18 years in the senate, the Nimba lawmaker is seeking a nine-year-third term this year and will not stand as a presidential candidate.

Senator Jeremiah Koung, a fellow Nimba Senator is the man PYJ is pitching as his political next of kin. Johnson has coroneted Koung as leader of his Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction party to play the game in accordance with his written script.

Despite United States government’s efforts to limit or stem the influence of individuals including the likes of Prince Johnson who have directly or otherwise
undermined the rule of law and democratic governance, the man remains the most courted politician in Africa’s oldest democracy.

When declaring support to Sirleaf in 2011 Johnson told the British broadcaster BBC he is “adaptable” and “can change at any time.” So, which presidential candidate or political party is willing to buy PYJ and his people’s votes? George Weah? Joseph Boakai? Alexander Cummings?

“We are open to all parties,” Johnson told the Voice of America.

“We are working with the Unity Party, we are working with the ANC, we are working with the newly certified parties on the ground. One party cannot win elections without the other.”

CDC Broken Alliance

PYJ and the Coalition for Democratic Change enjoyed better relationship since 2017 until end 2022. The ruling party helped his MDR to win a vital Senate seat in 2020.

In a noisy devoice, 64-year-old Johnson and his MDR parted company with the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change in January citing betrayal and withholding of funding to his county.

Johnson alleges President Weah has sidestepped terms and conditions of a certain political deal agreed with his Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction. In October the MDR will not back Weah for a second-term in office, he told worshippers at the Christ Chapel of Faith in Monrovia.

“Change this nation democratically through your votes,” he said.

“Don’t be intimidated or threatened by anyone. Liberia depends on you.”

President Weah replied the Nimba County Senator calling him a killer, blackmailer, beggar and crook.

“If you don’t want to work with us step aside,” he said.

“Anybody that wants to vote for us will vote for us. And anybody that is going to ask me for money because they want to declare their support to my party, I rather give the money to the people of Liberia…

“This Government is not going to be tied down or blackmailed by anybody.”

Aware of Johnson’s unpredictability, Weah and his CDC are working with voters directly in Nimba. Party Secretary General Jefferson Koijee has been on grounds working with young people in the region.

Unity Party New love

Johnson in February had talks with opposition leader Joseph Boakia in what carries the appearance of rekindled love affairs after a bitter breakup in 2017 when he opted to support President George Weah at the expense of Boakai.

On Feb. 17, UP confirmed in a statement, “the two national leaders held critical discussions on matters of national concern, including the upcoming 2023 presidential and legislative elections”.

“The former Vice President and Senator Johnson promised they will continue their healthy consultations periodically as political events unfold in the country.”

PYJ and the Unity Party ties is dated as far back as 2004 when he returned from exile in Nigeria to run for the senate on the UP tickets. A fallout from the 2005 Saclepea primaries, which he was announced loser pushed him to go solo and subsequently standing in that election as an independent candidate.

After securing his senate seat in a landslide, he would back Johnson-Sirleaf who was losing 19.8% to George Weah 28.3% after the first round of voting. His support contributed to Sirleaf strong show in the runoff vote, winning 59.4% compared to Weah’s40.6%.

In 2011 Prince Johnson emerged third in the presidential polls and decided to back then freshly named Nobel peace laureate and incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a run-off election claiming the then main opposition Congress for Democratic Change wanted to set up a war crimes tribunal.

The born-again-democrat told journalists he preferred to deal with Sirleaf who is also indicted by Liberia’s erstwhile Truth and Reconciliation Commission because he did not want to go to The Hague where the International Criminal Court is based.

Prince Johnson was also named in the TRC report among those who should face prosecution. Johnson was infamously filmed ordering his men to cut off the ears of dictator Samuel Doe.

Sirleaf kept her apparent promise to PYJ, failing to implement the TRC’s recommendations, which named her on a list of people who should be barred from office for supporting and financing the war.

Alexander Cummings Alternative National Congress

Alexander-Cummings-of-the-Alternative-National-Congress.jpg

Alexander Cummings is another political actor in the scramble for PYJ’s vote. Johnson called him a good humanitarian. Reports linked the Alternative National Congress (ANC) to a collaboration wherein the MDR leader Jeremiah Koung would go as running mate to Cummings. Nothing has been publicly confirmed.

The warlord had kind words for the former Coca-Cola executive vice president when he financially contributed to his foundation.

Cummings in September 2022 donated US$50,000 to the PYJ Polytechnic University in Ganta,Nimba country. Johnson said the payment was made in separate installments.

Writes Festus Poquie

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