Liberia: Major Contenders Stay Away from USAID-Sponsored Presidential Debate

Monrovia – Liberians, eager for a high-stakes showdown among prominent presidential contenders ahead of next week’s crucial elections, were left disappointed when three of the leading candidates – President George Manneh Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), former Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai, Unity Party (UP) and Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), opted out of Tuesday’s presidential debate.

The debate, held at the Ellen Johnson Ministerial Complex in Congo Town, Monrovia, marked the first of two debates organized by a consortium of media and civil society, with support from USAID through Internews Liberia.

According to Internews, the primary objective of these debates is to facilitate informed decision-making among voters. They provide an opportunity for voters to gain insight into the candidates’ positions on critical issues, their policy proposals, and their vision for the future, enabling them to make informed choices during the elections, Internews said.

Ten presidential candidates were scheduled to participate, including the incumbent President George Manneh Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), former Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai of the Unity Party, Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), Simeon Freeman of the Movement for Progressive, Allen Brown, Jr. of the Liberian Restoration Party (LRP), Bendu Alehma Kromah as an Independent Candidate, Lusinee F. Kamara, Sr. of the All Liberia Coalition Party (ALCOP), Richard Saye Miller of Liberia for Prosperity (LFP), William Wiah Tuider of the Democratic National Allegiance, and Joshua Tom Turner of the New Liberia Party (NLP).

However, while some presidential candidates not originally scheduled to participate in Tuesday’s debate did join, most of the expected contenders did not.

Why Did They Skip?

Organizers of the debate did not officially disclose whether these candidates provided valid reasons for their absence. Nevertheless, President Weah and Amb. Boakai were on campaign tours in southeastern and northern Liberia, respectively.

Prior to the debate, Eugene Nagbe, the campaign manager of the CDC, had announced that President Weah would not participate in any debate, but the CDC did not provide further explanation. When contacted, Amos Tweh, Secretary-General of the UP,

referred to a letter addressed to Internews, explaining Boakai’s absence due to campaign commitments.

Here is an excerpt:

“Vice President of Liberia and Standard Bearer of the Unity Party. His Excellency would have me convey to you that though he would have love to attend the debate among Presidential candidates scheduled for October 3, 2023 at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Ministerial Complex, Congo Town, Monrovia at 9:30 am, unfortunately, due to his campaign tours of Lofa and the challenging road conditions, he is unable to be at the debate. It is the hope of His Excellency the former Vice President Joseph Nyumah Boakai that the debate organized will meet its targeted goals.”

The CPP did not respond to FrontPage Africa’s inquiries.

Debates stand as a cornerstone of a thriving democracy, enabling citizens to assess the stances, policies, and leadership attributes of candidates. So, when the standard bearers of the ruling CDC, CPP and UP – the most likely to win presidential candidates abstain from participating in debate they had earlier signed up for, it prompts concerns regarding their commitment to open dialogue and their ability to defend their ideas directly to the electorate.

This sentiment was shared by some voters following the conclusion of the first debate at the EJS Ministerial Complex.

“Timing of the debate is not good. They should have done this before [the] campaign started. Also, the fact the incumbent doesn’t participate takes away the flavor it should have,” wrote Joel Bimba, a follower of FrontPage Africa who watched the debate live.

Tony Flex, another voter wrote: “We always lose the opportunity to leverage such an important activity to inform voters’ decisions because this event is always held at the peak of [the] campaign. Organizers need to be more strategic in scheduling the event at

the time all aspirants will be available to participate. If I will suggest it should be done around the period when NEC is still reviewing political parties campaign schedules for approval.”

But Ed Dun was more appreciative of the candidates that showed up: “Liberia votes on popularity! Thanks for coming and explaining your plans! But keep coming and we will circle back next elections. God bless y’all.”

Highlight of the Debate

Despite the absence of the leading candidates, the debate was not without its share of drama.

Simeon Freeman, a Liberian businessman and politician, pledged to repurpose the Ministry of Gender’s budget for programs benefiting women. Freeman said doing business in Liberia is difficult and vowed to improve the business environment if elected.

He urged Liberian voters to elect him and not to be frustrated with the current government and Amb. Boakai, as it could lead to a disaster.

Bendu Kroma, one of the two female presidential candidates, called for the election of another female leader, emphasizing Liberia’s history of electing only one female president, who performed exceptionally.

Sheikh Kouyateh of the Liberia First Movement proposed creating Easter and the end of Ramadan as national holidays for Christians and Muslims, respectively.

Joshua Turner, a relatively lesser-known candidate, expressed his intention to install video cameras in the offices and vehicles of cabinet officials to combat corruption effectively.

The debate covered a range of topics, including education, agriculture, health, rule of law, infrastructure, foreign policy, economy, peace and reconciliation, youth empowerment, corruption, and gender inclusion.

Meanwhile, the upcoming debate is scheduled for October 6 in Gbarnga, Bong County. Organizers have announced that candidates who were initially slated to take part in the

first debate but did not attend are welcome to participate in the second and final debate if they choose to do so.

Source: Front Page Africa