In the run-up to the just-concluded presidential elections, I noted two trends in the international press coverage:
- A greatly accelerated rate of critique of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. Liberian public intellectuals and journalists were at the forefront of this writing.
- A general emphasis on ‘a vote haunted by a savage civil war,’ including the alarmist claims that from his U.K. jail cell, ex-President Charles Taylor was angling to get his surrogate, George Weah, elected. Most of these writings emanated from the Western press.
While I believe the declarations of the former were long overdue, the concern over Taylor’s perceived meddling is grossly misguided. It is also indicative of the environment that made it possible for the Sirleaf administration to coast along with vast international support until the twilight of her administration.
Representative of this alarmist coverage was a BBC piece published on October 6, entitled “Is ex-Warlord Charles Taylor Pulling Liberia’s election Strings from Prison?” I agree with the article’s contention that the alliance of George Weah and Jewel Howard Taylor as his running mate is odd. It would seem to cost Weah a lot of support in Grand Gedeh, a traditional CDC stronghold, in return for minimal gain. I’m not convinced, however, that it, therefore, means Weah is under Charles Taylor’s sway.
The chief evidence cited in this piece is a phone call that Taylor made from prison at the beginning of the year to his supporters, coupled with the status of his ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, as George Weah’s running mate. A lone phone call vaguely discussing political strategy (the article also rather inarticulately alludes to a direct call between Weah and Charles Taylor), even if it violated the terms of Taylor’s imprisonment, does not in itself constitute a particularly compelling argument.
Extending the accusation to Jewel Howard Taylor, based on one comment, smacks of the condescension often reserved for female politicians who are perceived as stand-ins for their husbands. However, Howard Taylor has served in the Liberian Senate for over a decade, all after her husband left office, and was divorced from him before she assumed office.
Weah later refuted the BBC report while Howard Taylor said she was quoted out of context.
The focus on Charles Taylor’s alleged or potential machinations through the Weah-Taylor ticket fits a narrative that the West likes to play up of Liberia’s potential for renewed violence (see Vice News). It also criticizes the Weah-Taylor ticket while ignoring similar dynamics that would seem to have been fruitful grounds for condemnation of the highly lauded Sirleaf administration.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that Sirleaf herself be barred from holding elected office for 30 years for her early support of Charles Taylor. As president, Sirleaf appointed a number of Taylor associates to prominent positions, including his chief justice and both of his foreign ministers. Another ex-Taylor minister represented her government in Washington, D.C. and at the U.N. She did not reject the endorsement of former warlord Prince Johnson after the 2011 election and subsequently praised him for ‘his vision’ for Liberia. Another former warlord, Alhaji Kromah, served as her ambassador-at-large. The son of the former National Patriotic Party (Taylor’s party) chair was a deputy minister in her government until his death in a car accident.
As a small country, it is inevitable that remnants of the old order will persist, or be recycled into new administrations. A number of Tolbert associates served in the Doe government. Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia lingered on for decades after his death. Charles Taylor’s NPP continued to be represented in the legislature after his exile and subsequent arrest. Conversely, Sirleaf associates like Togar McIntosh and Gbehzohngar Findley switched to the Congress for Democratic Change in the twilight of her presidency.
Allegations of a Charles Taylor voice in a Weah presidency are at this stage largely speculative. From a competency standpoint, a Weah presidency leaves much to be desired. Prematurely tarring him with a Charles Taylor affiliation will only make his relations with the international community all the more difficult.
Featured photo by AK Rockefeller