As the race for the 2023 presidential election grows increasingly acrimonious, Joseph Boakai, the standard-bearer of the Unity Party (UP), is increasingly facing doubts from within his own ranks of supporters who are reportedly setting the groundwork for a quiet campaign to replace him. These supporters view the anointment of a new opposition standard-bearer as the most viable way to bring a “jolt of energy” into the UP’s floundering effort to regain control of the opposition alliance and mount a strong challenge to George Weah next year.
The challenges facing Boakai, the experienced but aging former Vice President, have been mounting.
First, as an elderly former statesman, there have been clear concerns about Boakai’s lack of energy and stamina for the campaign trail, and a decidedly “sleepy” profile that has failed to generate traction among Liberia’s youth voters. This, coupled with reports that he is suffering from a serious illness which required unexplained disappearances and medical treatment in the United States, there is a movement within the ranks to set up a Plan B.
Adding to the panic over his failing health, supporters are worried about the questionable wartime backgrounds of key political associates, as well as a recent NEC decision to restrict UP candidates from contesting a key Senate election in Lofa County. Adding to the troubles is Boakai’s apparent unwillingness to testify under oath in the politicized trial of Alexander Cummings over the allegedly altered CPP Framework Document, there is growing discontent among UP faithful that the standard-bearer is failing at every level and could cost them a historic opportunity.
Boakai’s association with Benoni Urey, the leader of the All-Liberia Party, has raised eyebrows both in Liberia and abroad. As US President Joe Biden has ramped up his efforts to combat impunity both in the US and abroad, reports in key US media outlets have indicated that the US Embassy in Monrovia as well as key policymakers in Washington have zeroed in on Urey as the likely next target of the United States anti-impunity efforts in Liberia following the March arrest of former warlord Seikou Kamara.
Doubts about the UP leader’s health have also dogged him for years. Then came a seemingly endless stream of worrying revelations last year. In May, Boakai explained that he was hospitalized due to “stress.” Then, while refuting claims that he underwent heart surgery, Boakai dubiously declared there was nothing to worry about because he had a pacemaker. In September, Boakai gave an interview where he declared himself to be in perfectly good health, but then refused to release his health records. Then, in December, the UP delayed the opening of the new party headquarters due to an “urgent and important international trip” that insiders said was in fact an emergency medical visit to the US.
Then there are the ongoing issues of the recent NEC decision – which was made in response to an application from Liberty Party leader Musa Bility – to bar the UP from contesting the Lofa County Senate election on the ground that Boakai – along with his political partner Benoni Urey –pulled out of the CPP in breach of the constitution. Boakai has ominously threatened a “political crisis” over the NEC decision, but in the eyes of many UP supporters, it is one more strike against Boakai for poor strategy and mismanagement.
Adding to the concern is Boakai’s apparent backroom dealing with Solicitor General Cllr. Seyma Syrennius Cephus as the government looks to bring Boakai to the stand as its star witness against Alexander Cummings. This is viewed by many as yet another risk to Boakai’s reputation and standing.
One source interviewed pointed to the fact that Boakai’s supporters in Lofa County held a demonstration late last year calling for him to “retire honorably.” Now, after months more of scandal and doubt over the former Vice President’s ability to remain competitive, these same supporters are setting the groundwork to bring in a fresh face to the campaign.
While still in the early stages, Brownie Samukai’s name is increasingly mentioned as the one most likely to be able to re-unify the opposition against both Cummings and the incumbent, George Weah. Supporters point to Samukai’s convincing victory in Senate elections in Lofa County in December 2020, as well as his very public support for the UP candidate in Lofa’s upcoming May 10 Senate election following the NEC decision against the UP.
Furthermore, Samukai’s pardoning in February, clearing his name from any legal trouble, has opened the door for the former Defense Minister to throw his hat into the ring again.
Boakai’s supporters in the Unity Party have entered damage-control mode. A change at the top is increasingly viewed as the only viable way forward – and the idea that this “shock” move could energize the base and allow the party to regain its lost edge, is gaining support, according to several sources within the party.