At 78, Boakai Claims Age Makes Him the Best President. Critics Say He’s Too Old and Alliance with Johnson Will Hurt Liberia

Joseph Boakai at the Unity Party’s rally on September 17, 2023. Credit: LIB-Online TV.

MONROVIA, Liberia—With just weeks to the presidential election, pundits say Joseph Boakai, standard-bearer of the Unity Party (UP), presents a serious threat to George Weah, the incumbent president. Without opinion polling, that is impossible to confirm but they say Boakai’s name recognition and long experience in government make him a likely choice for many voters frustrated with the corruption-ridden Weah administration.

But questions about Boakai’s health and frequent travels abroad have put question marks over the former vice president’s campaign. Boakai, 78, would be 84 if he were to win October’s poll and run for a second term. The next president will have a big job in tackling the mounting troubles plaguing Liberia’s 5.3 million people from rising food prices, food insecurity, drug trafficking to rampant corruption. The former vice president and his party have been working hard to convince the voting public that his is fit to lead the country for what experts say would be six difficult years. 

In the midst of heavy downpour on Sunday, September 17th, Boakai looked fit and energized, as he joined thousands of supporters at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium.

“As we embark on this campaign, I ask for your trust, your support and your vote,” he said to the roaring crowd.

“Our pa sorry,” they chanted in response, acknowledging that many in the crowd had voted for Weah when the two faced off in the 2017 election. “We made mistake.”

Crowds cheer Joseph Boakai at the Unity Party’s rally on Sunday September 17th. Credit: Fatu Kamara.

If he makes the presidency, it would be the culmination of 40 years in government for Boakai. He first served in office as Minister of Agriculture under Samuel K. Doe, the then president, between 1983–1985. He also served as vice president alongside Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s first female president during a 12-year administration in the period immediately after the civil wars.

This is Boakai’s second time contesting the presidency. In the 2017 presidential and legislative polls, he finished second to Weah with 29 percent of the vote in the first round to Weah’s 38 percent. In the second round, Weah won 62 percent of the vote to Boakai’s 38 percent.  

At the time, analysts surmised that a majority of Liberians, frustrated that their living standards had not risen faster under president Sirleaf, voted against another six years of a UP government. This time, analysts say voters may well choose a UP government to avoid another Weah term.

While Boakai has tried to portray his age as an asset, his opponents say it is prohibitive.

“Well, we have no evidence that experience has positively affected the country,” says Manipakei Dumoe, a former supporter of the UP, who has defected to the opposition Collaborating Political Parties. “This is a man who is asking for a second chance to go back when he has served as vice president and we have not seen an indelible mark he’s made.”

Dumoe highlighted the mixed messages that Boakai sent after he left the vice presidency.

“People voted for you twice. They voted for you in 2005. They voted for you in 2011. You told them in 2011 that you have achieved a lot together. When Madam Sirleaf left you told them she squandered opportunities.”

Supporters say Boakai’s main appeal is his integrity. In a government that dismissed more than 20 top officials for alleged corruption, Boakai was never accused of misdeeds. They say his moral discipline is essential in a president.

“Boakai is a man of integrity, a man of honesty,” says Professor Augustine Konneh, Dean of the United Methodist University Graduate School, who has known Boakai since 2006. “This integrity and honesty come with the fact that he champions public integrity and anti-corruption causes. We need someone that knows the history of this nation, to lay that foundation, which will allow the younger people to move forward in this country. And so, the age for me, comes with the experience. I believe it is the right time for him the president of this nation.”

Boakai was born into a poor family on November 30, 1944, in the remote village of Worsonga in Foya District, Lofa County. He attended the College of West Africa, a high school in Monrovia. He later worked there, going from janitor to Assistant Dean of Boys. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Liberia, and later Kansas University in the United States. He is married to Katumu and they have four children. He is a Christian and a deacon at the Effort Baptist Church.

In his bid to become the country’s next president, Boakai continues to receive criticism for not doing enough during his 12 years as Vice President. But Samuel Kofi Woods, a lawyer and a former Minister of Labor and Public Works under Sirleaf’s administration, thinks otherwise.

“He’s one I can personally trust with leadership,” says Atty. Woods, who has known Boakai since the pair worked at the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA), of Liberia in 1991. “When I talk about leadership, I’m not just talking about presence. I am talking about effectiveness, a results-oriented individual, but one that has respect for every individual in the workplace. What Liberia needs now is an environment for law.”

Woods points to Boakai’s strong family life as evidence of his character.

“He has maintained a relationship with his wife for almost 50 years. These are important characteristics of an individual who can lead our country at this time. One who is not carried away, who is not susceptible to the temptations of accumulation of wealth and materialism, who does not value materialism and wealth above human dignity.”

Abdulai Kiatamba, a political analyst, believes Boakai has a good chance of winning for several factors:

One is the fact he has a name recognition,” says Kiatamba. “Also, the Unity Party is grounded in experience and is the oldest party in the race. It has inherited a lot of goodwill, rural sympathy and support. So I think all of that’s making him familiar. But he also represents a vessel or channel through which those who are disenchanted against the ruling establishment want to defeat the ruling establishment.”    

But Boakai lost the confidence of some people when he made an alliance with Prince Johnson, giving the vice presidential spot to Jeremiah Koung, Johnson’s party ally. Johnson is a former warlord accused of mass human rights violations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He has also been placed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Magnitsky sanctions list for widespread corruption, including selling his senatorial vote.

That alliance would not help a future President Boakai’s relationship with Liberia’s major donor, the United States, diplomatic experts say.

“It gives the impression that the JNB’s alliance is challenging the impact of the sanctions,” says Kiatamba. “Why? The sanctions seek to minimize and reduce the influence of PYJ (Johnson) in politics, but his power in this new alliance expands that power.”

Weah also courted Johnson’s vote, but lost out to Boakai, who met most of the former warlord’s demands. Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe and Alexander Cummings, two other leading candidates—refused to consider a deal with Johnson. Boakai may have calculated that winning was more important than keeping the Americans onside. With the challenges facing Liberia, only time will tell if that calculation was worth it.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.