Joseph Boakai: The Incoming President of Liberia Faces a Formidable Task

Derided by his detractors as “Sleepy Joe”, 79-year-old Joseph Boakai is poised to take office as Liberia’s oldest-ever president following a narrow victory in November’s run-off election, with the support of a former rebel commander.

There will be a significant change in leadership, as Mr Boakai is set to take over from George Weah, who was the country’s youngest-ever elected leader.

The former international football star became the president at the age of 51 after winning against Mr Boakai in elections six years ago, but this time he lost to him by a margin of just over 20,000 votes.

For Rodney Sieh, the editor of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa news site, Mr Boakai’s victory was expected.

“People had grown tired of the Weah administration – its rampant corruption and excessive luxury, with its extravagant cars and upscale dining establishments. A high-ranking individual from the presidency went to great lengths to showcase his extravagant lifestyle, even going so far as to publicly display a photo of a luxurious car he purchased for his spouse, accompanied by a bottle of Moet champagne being playfully tossed.

“Voters expressed their concerns about how officials could maintain such lifestyles while ordinary people are facing increasing challenges in providing for their families and meeting their children’s education expenses,” he shared with the BBC.

Mr Boakai emerged victorious despite facing criticism from his opponents and some Liberians on social media. There have been claims that he appeared to doze off at public meetings, which his aides deny, attributing it to his small eyes and drooping eyelids.

Mr Boakai frequently donned stylish sunglasses during his campaign appearances this time, aiming to enhance his image. However, there are lingering concerns about his fitness and health, particularly due to the fact that his term in office will conclude when he reaches 85 years old.

“Boakai didn’t make extensive trips to the various counties to campaign for votes. According to Mr. Sieh, despite claiming to have a clean bill of health, it is common knowledge that he has a pacemaker due to a heart condition.

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Prior to the election, Mr Boakai downplayed any concerns regarding his health.”Age should bring prosperity to this nation,” he stated in an interview with the BBC. He described himself as an experienced and dedicated individual who is committed to the betterment of the country.

Mr Boakai served as vice-president in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government until 2018 and ran for the presidency with the United Party (UP).

Gyude Moore, a Senior Policy Fellow at the US-based Centre for Global Development, highlighted the significant factor that played in Mr Boakai’s favour – the perception of him as a trustworthy individual, particularly in light of the scandals during the Weah administration.

“He has had a long-standing involvement in Liberian politics for many years.” “He is highly respected as a senior statesman,” stated Mr. Moore, who served as a minister in the Sirleaf administration and developed a close relationship with Mr. Boakai.

“I believe he will be a capable manager, and I anticipate that he will appoint individuals who previously held deputy minister and assistant minister positions in our administration to ministerial posts.” According to Mr. Moore, the government will now have the experience that was lacking in the Weah administration, as he mentioned in an interview with the BBC.

However, the individual to keep an eye on in the recent government is Jeremiah Koung. He has an inspiring journey, starting as a street hawker and eventually becoming a successful businessman and lawmaker. At the age of 45, he is now poised to take on the role of vice-president.

“Boakai’s choice of Koung as his running-mate had a positive impact on the discussion surrounding his age, leading to increased support for the Unity Party alliance,” explained Daniel Sando, a political analyst based in Liberia, in an interview with the BBC.

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Mr Moore praised Mr Koung for his youthful energy.

“He is likely to have aspirations for the presidency and will expect a significant role in government,” Mr. Moore commented.

Mr Koung is a member of the Movement for Reconstruction and Democracy (MRD) party, which is led by Prince Johnson – a pastor and lawmaker with a history as a rebel commander. His forces famously captured the-then military ruler, Samuel Doe, in 1990, before killing him and slicing off his ears, while Mr Johnson watched.

The murder was recorded on a vintage video tape, and duplicates of it were extensively circulated by Mr. Johnson’s associates while they commemorated Mr. Doe’s demise.

On that day, Mr Johnson had a life-changing experience and later pursued a career as a pastor, politician, and lawmaker following the achievement of peace in Liberia in 2003.

“Johnson’s influence in Liberian politics has reached new heights,” Mr. Moore stated, highlighting his significant backing in Nimba, which is not only the second most populous county in Liberia but also the primary arena for electoral competition.”

“Weah’s victory in the 2017 election was influenced by Prince Johnson’s endorsement.” However, he supported Boakai in this election, citing Weah’s failure to fulfil his commitments.

“The details of the promises made by Boakai to secure his endorsement remain undisclosed, but his candidate has successfully secured the vice-presidency.” Koung is highly regarded by the younger generation, particularly in Nimba, and plays a crucial role in fostering intergenerational connections,” Mr. Moore stated.

George Weah was given an assist by Prince Johnson (in the red hat) six years ago, but he has since dropped him.

After forming a partnership with Mr. Johnson’s party, Mr. Boakai is not expected to comply with the requests of certain civil society groups to establish a war crimes court. “Families have endured immense hardship due to the war, and the need for justice will forever persist,” expressed Mr. Moore. “However, Liberia achieved peace only after an agreement was made that there would be no legal actions taken.” Peace has triumphed, and a new generation has come of age in a democratic society – unlike the previous generation, which experienced the horrors of war. According to Mr. Sieh, the upcoming government will face a significant task of addressing the economic crisis in the country.

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“I’ve heard that Liberia’s economy relies heavily on imports, and it seems that the central bank is facing challenges in acquiring enough foreign exchange to purchase goods.” We have a limited supply of petrol until 20 March. Even rice, which is a staple in our diet, is imported.

Shortages continue to be a persistent issue, with prices consistently on the rise. “The Boakai administration must act swiftly to find solutions, or it may face potential protests in the coming months,” Mr. Sieh expressed concern.

According to Mr Sando, it is crucial for Mr Boakai to prioritise addressing the issue of drug cartels that are negatively impacting the lives of numerous young, unemployed Liberians. “Young people face significant challenges in Liberian society.” According to Mr. Sondo, a majority of them are individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

The latest substance to make its way into Liberia’s urban areas is kush. Reportedly a combination of various substances, this substance is inexpensive but has severe consequences. It causes young men to wander aimlessly through the busy streets of Monrovia, resembling zombies.

Occasionally, residents are startled to discover multiple lifeless bodies strewn along the roadside, leading to speculation that an illicit substance may be involved. However, there is currently no medical evidence in Liberia to substantiate these claims.

The drug addicts serve as a poignant reminder of Liberia’s underlying socio-economic issues, highlighting the importance for Mr Boakai to address what previous leaders have overlooked – assisting them in their journey towards self-improvement, as Mr Sando eloquently states.

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