Presidential Candidate Tiawan Gongloe Promises to Sweep Corruption from Liberia, But Can He Win Over Voters?

The final in an FPA/New Narratives series profiling the leading opposition presidential candidates. 

Cllr. Gongloe carries a locally made broom as a symbolic gesture against corruption. Here, he is greeted by a large group of supporters in Ganta, Nimba County. Credit: Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe’s Facebook page.

MONROVIA– Counsellor Tiawan Saye Gongloe, a veteran statesman and human rights lawyer, is one of few of the 20 presidential candidates in next week’s election with a detailed plan to fix Liberia’s problems.

At the forefront of his presidential campaign, Gongloe, a former cabinet minister and solicitor general, has unveiled a comprehensive 10-point plan called “A Better Liberia Agenda” and a 12-point “Strategy to Fight Corruption in Liberia” which aims to strengthen the rule of law, combat corruption, and implement an economic policy focused on decentralizing the economy and promoting youth employment while expanding the government’s revenue base. He claims that these strategies will serve as the guiding principles for the national reform and renewal he intends to lead.

“There will be zero tolerance for corruption under a Gongloe Government,” the candidate declared at a news conference last month. “Within the first 100 days, a thorough review of all audit reports conducted by the General Audit Commission (GAC) will be carried out. This review will determine prosecutions and make recommendations on cases that may be statute-barred.”

Gongloe, who draws large crowds in his home county of Nimba – the second most populous in the country – has been campaigning with his vice standard bearer, Dr. Emmanuel Urey Yarkpawolo, carrying  a locally made broom as a symbolic gesture against corruption.

“The broom will be used to sweep away the old politics of big-shotism, tribalism, sectionalism, regionalism, nepotism, selfishness, greed for power, corruption, arrogance of power, elitism, injustice, impunity, and reckless disregard for the rule of law and human rights, as well as other forms of misuse of public office and abuse of power,”  Gongloe said. 

As part of his anti-corruption agenda, Gongloe plans to commission routine audits, including lifestyle audits, of all public servants to determine if they are spending above their means.

“Without the rule of law, which provides the framework for all activities we can go nowhere,” he said. “The issue of corruption is fundamentally a rule of law question because corruption is essentially theft of the people’s money.”

Gongloe’s supporters say that his record in public service  is the perfect background for the presidency, but some of his critics say his plans lack details on how he intends to fund his plans. They also say that his past role in the cabinet of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose administration was mired by repeated corruption scandals, is troubling.

In an interview, Gongloe rejected that saying he left the Sirleaf’s government because of its failure to fight corruption and govern by the rule of law. “A man cannot be victimized for making a proper decision to change for the better,” he said. “There is no way they can put me in the corner and associate me with the Unity Party’s failed policies.”

Gongloe’s Journey to presidential candidacy

Born on August 6, 1956, in Glehyee-Zorpea, a small town in Yarwin-Mehnsonoh Statutory District, Nimba County, Gongloe began his education at the JW Pearson High School in Ganta, the St. Francis Catholic School in Tappita and later graduated with honors from St. Mary’s Catholic School in Sanniquellie. He embarked on a path of student activism in the late 1970s at the University of Liberia and was imprisoned and subjected to beatings for speaking out against then-President William Tolbert’s government and that of his successor, coup leader Samuel Doe.

He married his long-time friend Mrs. Sonie Kolako Gongloe and has two children from his previous marriage. He and his wife have four grandchildren.   

After completing his studies at the University of Liberia’s Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, Gongloe actively championed human rights cases at Garlawolu & Associates Law Offices. In 1990, he further honed his expertise through a human rights fellowship at Columbia University in New York City.

In the heat of Liberia’s first civil war, Gongloe served as special assistant to Dr. Amos Sawyer, then chairman of Liberia’s Interim Government of National Unity from 1990-1994. He played a crucial role in peace negotiations, actively participating in various agreements aimed at resolving Liberia’s devastating civil conflict.

Gongloe defended journalists, political activists, and marginalized individuals during President Charles Taylor’s oppressive regime. His condemnation of human rights violations and abuses led to his arrest and torture at the hands of Taylor’s government. Despite these hardships, Gongloe said he remained steadfast in his pursuit of justice, even continuing his advocacy from abroad after seeking refuge.

Upon his return to Liberia, Gongloe continued to champion systemic change and the rule of law, earning numerous national and international awards along the way including Canada’s prestigious John Humphrey Freedom Award. He served as solicitor general of Liberia and Minister of Labor in the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration. In his role as solicitor general, Gongloe received former President Charles Taylor at the Robert International Airport following his arrest in Nigeria and deportation to Liberia in 2005. He handcuffed him and turned him over to the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone to face prosecution.

Gongloeinitiated reforms in Liberia’s justice system. When he took over as solicitor general, almost all the county attorneys were high school graduates, but by the time he left, they had been replaced with law school graduates. As Minister of Labor, he crafted the Decent Work Bill that promotes the fundamental rights of workers.

He was one of a few cabinet ministers who refused to return to government after President Sirleaf sent her entire cabinet on a compulsory leave following a damning corruption scandal.

Fondly known as the “Poor-man’s Lawyer,” Gongloe’s journey, from people-centric activism to his resolute stance against corruption, has earned him the admiration and respect of countless Liberians.

“He has the best potential to lead Liberia from its present state of decomposition and decay,” says Dr. Sam Kpahn, Gongloe’s longtime friend. “Because he is steadfast and reliable, he is a great role model, someone who leads by example – which is the most important characteristic that Liberia needs presently.”

“Tiawan Gongloe is the best candidate that can revive Liberia; that can build the private sector, ” adds Philip Woods, former secretary-general of the Liberia Business Association in a call from the U.S. “This is the man who is not greedy and hungry for money. He will not take bribes.”

 Gongloe’s Ten-Point Agenda

Gongloe pledges that his administration’s review of General Auditing Commission (GAC) audits could lead to prosecutions and recommendations for statute-barred cases. He also promises not to interfere with the judiciary and the police. He plans to introduce legislation to make interference with the judiciary and police by government officials a felony.

Education, agriculture, and health are also central to his agenda. Gongloe promises free and compulsory quality education from kindergarten to grade 12, free vocational schools in all 15 counties, and a swift elimination of illiteracy through stipends for junior and senior high students to teach basic reading and writing in their communities.

The “Broom Men”: Cllr. Gongloe (left), flanked by his running mate, Dr. Emmanuel Urey Yarkpawolo, delivers an address at his party’s headquarters. Credit: Gerald C. Koinyeneh

In the healthcare sector, Gongloe aims to provide free healthcare for pregnant women, Liberian children under five, and Liberians aged 65 and above. He plans to conduct surprise visits to medical facilities to ensure their proper functioning, taking administrative action against any facilities falling below the required standards.

Rice production, a staple in Liberia, would receive special attention. Gongloe’s promises his administration would provide rice farming machines to farmers through cooperatives, with a 15 -year loan repayment plan in bags of rice. The military will also be empowered to cultivate rice farms in each of the 15 counties, ultimately achieving self-sufficiency and lower rice prices.

Asked how he will generate funds to implement these programs, he says his government would generate funds through robust anti-corruption measures. Campaign officials said that would include slashing high government salaries and eliminate costly loopholes in government policies.

Road Connectivity and Economic Growth

Ephraim Nyumah, an ardent Gongloe admirer, says everywhere Gongloe works he leaves a mark, and he’s confident he will do the same as president. Credit: Ephraim Nyumah.

Lack of road connectivity is a major problem for many Liberians. Currently, most of southeastern Part  Liberia is difficult to reach. The practice of Liberian officials and politicians of traveling through Ivory Coast to avoid the deplorable road conditions has faced criticism from a significant segment of the Liberian public, with some accusing the government of neglecting its primary responsibilities.

Gongloe says this is unacceptable. To address the bad road problem, he plans to build more farm-to-market roads and establish public works yards in each of the 15 counties.

Economic challenges have plagued Liberia, leading to a decline in international investor interest. Gongloe emphasizes the importance of creating an enabling business environment to empower Liberian businesses. His administration would guarantee soft loans for Liberian businesses and commission a study within the first 100 days to determine who is eligible for these loans.

To prepare Liberians for active participation in economic activities, Gongloe plans to establish vocational training centers in each county. He also aims to shift the balance of trade by incentivizing manufacturing companies to place plants outside Monrovia every 50 miles, promoting rural employment and reducing rural-urban migration.

Transitional Justice

Gongloe is one of the two candidates committed to holding a war crimes court to prosecute alleged perpetrators of the civil wars. (Alexander Cummings is the other candidate). This court was a key recommendation of the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission but has not received support from past presidents. Gongloe, as president of the Liberia National Bar Association, led efforts to draft a bill for a war crimes court in 2021, although the legislature did not pass it.

Gongloe’s stances on these crucial issues have garnered support. “Everywhere Cllr. Gongloe works, he leaves a mark. As president, I am confident he will do the same,” says Ephraim Nyumah, a law student and an ardent admirer of Gongloe.

Angel Morris, a first-time voter, told NN/FPA that she decided not to vote along tribal lines or personal connections, common practices in Liberia. Instead, she opted for a diligent examination of all candidates and concluded that Gongloe possesses both integrity and a deep respect for the rule of law.

“I realized that this guy does not just have integrity, but he has respect for the rule of law. And if given the opportunity, he will be able to implement those laws, especially that he came from a law background,” she says.

But critics continue to raise questions about Gongloe’s capability to lead a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign and fix Liberia’s broken economy.

Otis Kruah, a supporter of Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Parties, argues that Gongloe’s involvement in past governments raises concerns about his suitability to spearhead the fight against corruption. Additionally, Krua contends that Gongloe’s platform lacks detailed information on how he intends to revive Liberia’s struggling economy.

“Tiawan [Gongloe] does not provide lot of economic solutions. His solutions are basically around the rule of law. Rule of law is a challenge we agree, but the economy is Liberia’s foremost challenge. How do you invite investors, empower the youth? He is not suggesting more of that.”

Gongloe is not thought to be a frontrunner but is hoping that if he makes enough votes to make the second round he may win over Liberians in the final round.

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.