By John Morlu
It is a well established axiom that elections are not won on Election Day. Election Day is just the validation of the political planning, strategic and tactical maneuverings that the winner executed. As we went into the first round of voting, the Liberian media and international media characterized the race as a struggle between Ivy league and former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and internationally acclaimed soccer super star George Manneh Weah.
But all the media institutions were convinced that this election was Weah’s to lose because of his vast popularity and the massive state of unemployment and illiteracy, which down trodden Liberians blamed squarely on the educated class. So we went into the first round with the expectation that Weah will pull a sizeable number of votes, with all of Weah’s supporters and CDC Executives downplaying a possible run off. But a large number of Liberians were convinced of a run off. There were 22 candidates in the race after all. It was impossible in such a crowded field for anyone individual to win outright during round one.
At a bare minimum, Liberians believe that Weah would get somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent, topping the percentage of the youth votes. He did not. He came in at 28.3 percent. His opponent Johnson-Sirleaf was also expected to be in the run off. But her team managed to lower expectations. So her coming in at 19.8 percent was no surprised to anyone.
On October 26, NEC Chairman Frances Johnson-Morris announced the official results, setting a run off between Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf. And this is where I veer to discuss how Madame Sirleaf won this election. But before I begin, it is important to note that elections are pretty mechanical, predicated on strong organization, a carefully developed and executed strategy, and above all else money.
First Round Favored Johnson-Sirleaf than Manneh Weah.
In an earlier commentary, I argued that the first round of results provided no mandate for Johnson-Sirleaf or Manneh Weah. Weah received 28.3 percent and Johnson-Sirleaf took the second prize at 19.8 percent, with a combined total of about 41 percent. This suggested that about 52 percent of Liberians preferred a different candidate.
But as we entered the run off, I discussed with several top members of both the Johnson-Sirleaf and Weah campaigns that the task ahead in winning was quite difficult for the soccer legend than the Ivy Leaguer. In dissecting the numbers, I informed them that the 52 percent of the electorate was more likely to favor Johnson-Sirleaf than Manneh, especially voters who voted for candidates in the top 10. For instance, a Brumskine, Sherman or Tubman’s voter would more likely vote for Johnson-Sirleaf than Weah.
While arguably some of these voters voted on tribal lines, they also voted on the basis of competence and qualifications. And without the tribal factor, education, experience and competence were critical in their thinking. In checking the pulse of the nation, Weah was less favor on these measures than Johnson-Sirleaf. Hence, it matter less whether the likes of Brumskine, Tubman or Sherman endorsed Manneh Weah. Their voters will follow Johnson-Sirleaf.
In a nutshell, on an aggregate level analysis, Manneh did not have broad support amongst Liberians as was being portrayed in the international media. I told a reporter at the New York Times and London Esquire that Weah’s base of support was small and stagnant, dominated mainly by rag tag ex-combatants. In terms of numbers, these people were somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 to 300,000 including other unemployed and disgruntled Liberians. In a voter poll of 1.3 million people, that was a small number to give him an untamed confidence level.
Manneh Weah Political Base of Support–Liability?
Another important clue that the Weah people missed was that his political base of support had increasingly become a liability. For instance, many well reasoned Liberians, educated or not, are afraid of the rag tag child soldiers who amassed at Weah’s CDC Headquarters all day playing soccer. Undoubtedly, many Liberians were victims of these same boys during the war. They were accused of raping, beating, molesting and killing friends and relatives of Liberians.
Liberians fear what would happen if Weah became President with such a notorious group of followers.
Compounding this fear factor was the issue of the Khran people. The defunct rebel group MODEL is alleged to be composed mainly members of the Khran tribe from Grand Gedeh County. The rank and file of MODEL was aligned behind Weah.
Weah won 90 percent of Grand Gedeh, a marked performance he could not even monster in his home county of Grand Kru.
In some quarters in Liberia, some people have fond memories of Samuel Doe. He was the first country man to become President. He ended 133 years of settlers rule. He invested in education and sports, built roads, and provided enormous opportunity to many indigenous and settler class alike by giving them high profile ministerial jobs. Samuel Doe was also the leading champion of multiparty democracy on the African soil.
On the flip side, Samuel Doe was also viewed as a dictator who killed his opposition whenever he was challenged. For many Liberians, the issue of the Khran people coming back to power through Weah scares the heck out of them. Even the open minded Liberians, who usually frowned upon tribal politics, were concerned. This is not fair to the Khran people for blaming them for the problems caused by a few notable ones. But politics is not a fair game. A candidate must do all he or she can to win, including creating a bogeyman of a group people.
Second Round Political Realignment—Game of Personal Diplomacy
The second round of political realignment favored Johnson-Sirleaf. As soon as the first round ended and Johnson-Sirleaf people realized that she would be in the run off, she and her team began talking to every opinion leader in the country including presidential, house and senatorial candidates. A friend who is not a fan of Johnson-Sirleaf informed me last night that the “woman really came down to earth. She wanted to win, so she was willing to talk to everyone, even taking away from Weah credible people who should have been in his corner.”
Basically, Johnson-Sirleaf’s canvassing for votes involved getting as many endorsements as was possible. She and her team worked the phones and made personal visits to opinion leaders, defeated presidential, senatorial and house candidates. She ensured that those endorsing her would serve as foot soldiers. And these people did en masse.
Weah gained some endorsements from high profile people like Sherman, Tipoteh and Tubman. But in no time, these endorsements were undermined by mass defections from the party’s rank and file to Johnson-Sirleaf’s camp.
Notable amongst them was Tubman VP Jeremiah Sulunteh’s contrarian decision to support Johnson-Sirleaf; Sulunteh is credited for Tubman’s surprise win in Bong. The women wing, the youth wing and other strategic groupings within the parties broke away and went to Johnson-Sirleaf. The kind of massive support from the grassroots and opinion leaders for Johnson-Sirleaf in the six voters rich counties of Montserrado, Nimba, Bong, Bassa, Margibi and Lofa made a Weah win rather difficult, if not impossible.
No matter how one slice and dice the issue of endorsements, it matters big time especially when it comes from credible individuals who command a sizeable following in their respective counties. For me, the failure of Weah to convince critical opinion leaders around the country to support his candidacy was a political blunder. It formed an integral part of why he lost this election. In my judgment, foundation for Weah losing an election he was supposed to win began on October 12 and ended on October 26, when the NEC announced the run off.
During that period, Johnson-Sirleaf and her team engaged opinion leaders while Weah sent surrogates to do his betting.
I told some members of his team that it was a political miscalculation for Weah not have personally engaged these opinion leaders. Surrogates like J. Rudolph Johnson, Cole Bangalu, Samuel Tweah, Isaac Randolph and Jake Kabakollie could not serve as substitute for Weah own personal involvement. When Weah finally got involved, it was little too late. Johnson-Sirleaf had grabbed many of them, except the War Lords, Sherman, Tubman and Tipoteh, a bunch of failed and discredited politicians.
Issue Politics—Failing The Test
In every election, people vote on issues. But how one defines an issue is a matter of personal taste and preferences. An issue for a typical voter could be building a Christian nation. Charles Brumskine and his Christian Right come to mind. Another issue could be who can provide pipe borne water in 60 days. Practically all the candidates said that. An issue could also be who can unify a divided nation. Oh, yes. That was Tubman’s stump speech. Better yet, a voter could define an issue of who loves Liberia. Manneh Weah in the lead on this one. And a voter could define an issue as who is most experienced to lead post war reconstruction efforts. Johnson-Sirleaf flaunted her international and government credentials. Or who will advance the interest of the “Country” people or “Congau” people? I will leave this one.
The job of what issues should be put on the national agenda has to come from political operatives, relying mostly on observing the public mood. On that score, Johnson-Sirleaf did a better job than Weah. For me, I believe Weah and his team misidentified the issue, so losing the elections.
For instance, Weah and his team believe that the slogan “educated people failed” Liberia was the main issue. After all, in 1997, it was war and peace, culminating in the now infamous song, “you kill ma mama, you kill ma papa, I will vote for you.” Taylor won. Weah thought he would win also on another popular slogan, “you know book, you not know book, I will vote for you.” He was dead wrong.
It is true that a meager 20 percent of our people can read and write, indicating that 80 percent of our brothers and sisters are illiterate. But these percentages have nothing to do with people who believe in education as a way to attain success. And that is where Weah and folks misunderstood.
Take for instance, our mothers and market women. These people work day in and day out to educate us. Bashing educated people do not go down well with them. Our mothers and market women were asking, what in the world are they working for since sending their children to school is a waste of time? Were Weah and friends accusing them of being stupid? A person is more likely to vote against someone who makes them to feel stupid.
The education debate also worked against Weah because it became a constant reminder of Weah’s own level of education. It was negative for Weah. It hardened the opposition against him from Liberian professionals and students. For example, during the second round, I learned that students from various universities and high schools were going out on their own to campaign against Weah. Some students paraded Boima Fahnbulleh to help them make the case against Weah. Mind you now, the student population is part of that 40 percent youth vote we have talked about.
Weah also appeared to have boxed himself in a conundrum on the education question.
On the one hand, Weah’s supporters bashed and blamed the educated people for all of Liberia’s problems. But on the other hand, many of his top brass were educated people, some rather viewed as a disgraced to Liberia. Baccus Matthews, George Boley, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Raleigh Seeky, Milton Teeajay, Varney Sherman, and Winston Tubman are amongst the politicians frowned upon by Liberians. They have no credibility with the Liberian people. Period.
Weah and his team misdiagnosed the issue. The constant drumbeat on the education issue worked in Johnson-Sirleaf’s favor. It also created all sorts of domestic and international jokes turning Liberia into a laughing stock. We have each read headings such as brain and brawn, hearts or heads and qualifications versus popularity. Harvard Economist, a World Banker, a U.N. Official and former Finance Minister against the international soccer legend. These were the description we got. Nothing more, nothing less. Who in the world benefit from such juxtaposition of characteristics? Johnson-Sirleaf.
An Ivorian top the joke when he stated in a letter to the BCC suggesting we give his country the Ivy Leaguer and in turn his country will buy us all the footballs we need. Anytime a candidate becomes a subject of intense domestic and international ridicule on a subject, he or she is likely to loose on that issue, especially when such issue is not counterbalanced by a negative issue on the opponent.
Two issues that would have worked for Weah were the civil war and “country-congo divide.
But Johnson-Sirleaf team inoculated her from the war issue on several fronts. The introduction of notorious Charles Julu, disgraced war lord turned speaker George Dweh, Samuel Doe and all things Khran and MODEL. Multiplying the problem was the massive support he received from former Warlords like Alhaji Kromah, Sekou Damante Conneh, Prince Johnson, and Yaya Nimly. The support from Charles Taylor’s wife Senate-Elect Jewel Howard and Boima Fahnbulleh downplayed Sherman’s argument that Johnson-Sirleaf still had enemies.
Topping it off was the accusation by two of Weah’s former soccer team mates that he (Weah) is also a war monger because he financed MODEL.
The only issue that would have hurt Johnson-Sirleaf was to brand her as Congo woman, a woman of privilege who is out of touch with the common people. Weah was ill-advised not to engage in such a debate. He walked away from it. But strategically, the Johnson-Sirleaf camp understood the tribal dimension. They selectively used it against Weah in Nimba and it worked. On yes, we all remember Samuel Doe, Charles Julu, George Dweh and khranophobia.
Weah’s alleged connections and favoritism to these people and groups put him and his team on the defensive from the onset of the second round. He never recovered. In politics, as we all know, it is not good to be on the defensive. Or if you do not define your opponent, he or she will define you. Weah as defined as the uneducated and inexperienced soccer player just as his protégé Samuel Doe, so he would be easily manipulated by Baccus Matthews and his cronies. Johnson-Sirleaf climaxed the campaign defined as the experience international banker and financier and the Ivy Leaguer.
Domestic, Regional, and International Dimension
Liberia does not live in isolation.
There is vast regional and international interest in Liberia. It appears that Weah faced strong domestic, regional and international opposition. For the most, Liberians in the Diaspora and the professional and student groups in Liberia opposed Weah. Yes, Weah was viewed as the popular candidate. But that characterization was misrepresented. His political popularity did not extend beyond the vocal ex-combatants.
In my humble judgment, it is unfathomable for a candidate to win an election when he or she faces such strong opposition from the professional class and students as well as from the mainstream media. Read the front pages of Liberian papers, the majority of them are anti-Weah. Talk to the professional class. A Weah win was like sending them send into a coma, a Rip Van Winkle land. The Student leadership, especially the Liberian National Student Union (LINSU) was dead set against Weah.
There was no evidence provided to substantiate a covert regional backing of either Johnson-Sirleaf or Manneh Weah. None whatsoever. But some highly placed Weah people have accused Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and ECOWAS mediator of backing Johnson-Sirleaf.
For Liberia, some Weah folks point to the Dew Mayson, Harry Greaves and Amos Sawyer’s connection to the Nigerian President. In their view, Johnson-Sirleaf was in alliance with Nigerian president as evidenced by the numerous trips to Nigeria by the Ivy Leaguer.
In Guinea, Weah people blamed it squarely on rebel woman turned Johnson-Sirleaf backer Aisha Conneh, the estranged wife of LURD leader Sekou Damante Conneh. Aisha is alleged to have close ties with the aging Guinean President. In Sierra Leone, Boima Fahnbulleh takes the hit. He was alleged to have strong ties with important people in the Sierra Leonean Government, including its president.
For ECOWAS, Weah folks believe the key mediator was just carrying out the mandates set in Abuja. They would argue that the only countries that were supporting or leaning towards Weah were Ivory Coast and Ghana. “But Ghana has since gone to Johnson-Sirleaf or become silenced because of all Charles Taylor folks are now in her corner,” argued an insider. It is alleged that the ruling party in Ghana (NPP) and Charles Taylor’s NPP have close connections and similar routes.
The Ivory Coast connection comes mainly from the fact the current President is of Khran decent. But he is at war so he could not do much for Weah, sealing Weah’s fate in a sub-region in which all the main players are alleged to be with his opponent.
On the international front, except for Italy and France, Weah people believe that America was leading the pack for a Johnson-Sirleaf. Whatever the merits and demerits of the charges, it was a firm perception in Weah’s camp that he was a favored candidate. The fact of the matter is that the belief that all was against Weah in the sub-region and the international community impacted Weah and his campaign team psychologically, creating a cascading demoralizing effect that diminished his chances of winning.
Recent Experience in Africa: Second Runner up Candidates Win Run-Off
Recent history in Africa was not in Weah’s favor. Second runner up candidates in a run off situation won during the second round, especially in countries were the elections were free, fair and transparent like in Liberia. Not Côte d’Ivoire or Togo style of elections. Those do not count. Anyway, I was just reminded of my own experience in college, where on two occasions, the person that came second in the first round won during the second round.
But in the international arena, there are two recent come to mind. In Senegal, veteran politician Abdoulaye Wade came in second during the first round. He got 31 percent of the votes while his erstwhile rival incumbent President Diouf got 41 percent. In the second round, Wade won by a wide margin, defeating incumbent President Diouf. In Guinea-Bissau, the second runner up Nino Vieira defeated in the second round the top vote getter in the first round Malam Bacai.
Central Africa Republican was the lone exception from a Google search performed on recent run off in Africa. In that election, first round highest vote getter François Bozizé won in the second, defeating opponent Martin Ziguélé. But he was the President who had seized power through coup. He was a military dictator turned politician. He ran and won for a five year term. In any case, that is 2 out of 1 in favor of the second runner up in the first round.
One reason given for the second runner up topping the second round is that voters have already made a determination on the top vote getter in the first round. “Voters are not usually sure of the second tier candidate. They have not completely made up their minds yet on that person. But they have settled on the first round highest vote getter,” argued a former professor from UVA. Whatever the case, this did not bore well for Weah, “King George.”
Another reason provided is that the first round voter getter usually becomes overconfident. That person relaxes instead of capitalizing and re-energizing the support base he or she got, suppressing turn out.
Independent Groups Favored Johnson-Sirleaf
In America, we also have what is called independent expenditures. It is basically people and groups who have an interest using their own money to support the activities of a favor candidate. There are a lot of pro-democracy groups in Liberia. But they concentrated mainly on technical issues relating to the overall fairness and transparency of the campaign. The independent expenditures came from America and abroad. By and large, all of them were supporting Johnson-Sirleaf.
For example, we had some group calling themselves Liberian for Ellen (LIFE), Movement for Political Reform (MOP) in Liberia, Concerns Citizens of Nimba County and others. During the last round, MOP out performed everyone else. MOP was Liberia’s version of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Swift Boat Veterans for Truth bashed U.S. former Presidential candidate John Kerry for three straight months in the summer of 2004, diminishing Kerry’s standing as a decorated military veteran from Vietnam. MOP did just that. In the past two weeks, it has bashed Weah on all fronts, evening accusing Weah of been a 4th grade student and questioning his competence and veracity at every twist and turn. Weah did not have any formidable institution to spend independently on his behalf.
Superior Campaign Management and Coordination
After elections, there can be harsh recriminations resulting from the blame game. This blame game usually boils down to how well were the strategy conceived, planned and executed. No reasonable person can argue that Johnson-Sirleaf did not run a far superior campaign than her opponent Weah.
From the ground operations to the implementation of political and media strategy, she and her team were on top of the game during the second round. One can document it from the look of the number of press releases and favorable domestic and international coverage. Another way to look how well her campaign was run is on the basis of how well things were coordinated and expensing of foot soldiers in strategic counties.
Astute Internet chatter put it bluntly, “the old ma was ready for the second round. She did not leave anything undone. Weah team seemed that they have lost their way half way into the second round. I cannot even understand what they were doing. They were going to places in an uncoordinated and not strategic manner.” He goes on to argue that, “look at the event in Nimba. I learned it was poorly planned and not well attended. Weah back to Monrovia and had 75,000 people match instead of the over 200, 000 people match he had during the first round. Truth be told, his people dropped the ball big time.”
On the contrary, the Johnson-Sirleaf people are happy with the performance in the second round. An insider put it this way, “Ellen did a fantastic job of planning and campaigning during this round than the first. Maybe John Bestman, Ellen and others saved their energy for the second, because I was disappointed with the way things were run during the first round.”
By and large, insiders and outsiders of these campaigns believe that Johnson-Sirleaf campaign beat Weah’s in organization, strategy planning and execution. Johnson-Sirleaf seemed also to have more money than Weah during the second run, capping it off with demoralizing helicopter parade over Weah’s campaign.
It seems that she saved her money and energy for the second round.
This is how Weah lost. Take it or leave it. I know there are other reasons. But this is my two cents take on the second round. Congratulation to Weah and his team. Congratulation to Johnson-Sirleaf and her team. A big congratulation to Liberians for a peaceful election.