Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Queenmaker

Meet Prince Johnson, the former bloodthirsty warlord turned evangelical Christian turned presidential candidate who just might hold Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's legacy in his hands.

GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images
GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images
GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images

MONROVIA, Liberia — On the bright Saturday morning of Oct. 8,  three days before the Liberian elections that saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf take a significant, but not commanding, lead for November's runoff election, I rolled into the normally quiet city of Tappita in Nimba county. It was crackling with an energy that, these days, can mean only one thing. "PYJ! PYJ! PYJ!" chanted a ragtag army in the center of town. They were awaiting their hero, Prince Yormie Johnson: presidential candidate, former warlord, and now, perhaps, queenmaker.

Following the inconclusive first round of elections in Liberia, Sirleaf now faces a fraught run-off to continue her presidency. She received 44 percent of the vote, while second-place challenger Winston Tubman received 32.2 percent. Prince Johnson was a strong third-place finisher with 11.8 percent, and his endorsement may now prove to be vital.  

Outsiders who know Sirleaf only from her international reputation may be surprised that Africa's most feted leader since Nelson Mandela -- and the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize only four days before the election -- should find herself in such a precarious position, dependent on the endorsement of one of her country's most internationally reviled figures to keep her in office. To learn more about how Liberians view their government and their famous president, I spent the 10 days prior to the election traveling the country by motorcycle, speaking with voters, officials, and even the infamous Johnson.

MONROVIA, Liberia — On the bright Saturday morning of Oct. 8,  three days before the Liberian elections that saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf take a significant, but not commanding, lead for November’s runoff election, I rolled into the normally quiet city of Tappita in Nimba county. It was crackling with an energy that, these days, can mean only one thing. "PYJ! PYJ! PYJ!" chanted a ragtag army in the center of town. They were awaiting their hero, Prince Yormie Johnson: presidential candidate, former warlord, and now, perhaps, queenmaker.

Following the inconclusive first round of elections in Liberia, Sirleaf now faces a fraught run-off to continue her presidency. She received 44 percent of the vote, while second-place challenger Winston Tubman received 32.2 percent. Prince Johnson was a strong third-place finisher with 11.8 percent, and his endorsement may now prove to be vital.  

Outsiders who know Sirleaf only from her international reputation may be surprised that Africa’s most feted leader since Nelson Mandela — and the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize only four days before the election — should find herself in such a precarious position, dependent on the endorsement of one of her country’s most internationally reviled figures to keep her in office. To learn more about how Liberians view their government and their famous president, I spent the 10 days prior to the election traveling the country by motorcycle, speaking with voters, officials, and even the infamous Johnson.

In Tappita, Johnson wore a bright scarlet kufi-style hat and waved a stark white handkerchief,  grinning broadly at his followers. Though he now wears a politician’s hat, he was once the most feared of Liberia’s warlords. In 1990, he oversaw the torture and killing of then-President Samuel K. Doe (captured on video), declaring himself president before retreating to ignominious exile in Nigeria. Upon his return, he defied expectations by being elected senator of his home county, Nimba, by a record margin.

A genial minder with a glinting gold tooth ushered me into the modest hotel where Johnson had slept the night before, on the crest of a hill outside the town. He sat serenely, gospel music playing in the background. Johnson, who rarely speaks to Western journalists, seemed tickled to hear that a young Scottish man in grubby shorts had motorcycled all the way here just to talk to him. I asked him about the devotion he inspires in his followers, who mainly come from his native Nimba.

Johnson smiled in satisfaction. "I am their hero. I am their umbrella," he said. "All of the people are under my umbrella. I am the shade that covers them from the rain."

Few of the voters I spoke to here in Nimba, where government rarely registers in daily life, talked about improving public services. Rather, they talked about "Pappy" Johnson with a combination of fanaticism and reverence, as a strong, traditional father from Nimba who would protect — and discipline — his flock. His visceral appeal is, in many respects, the inverse of that of the technocrat Sirleaf.

Throughout our hour-long conversation, he was unremitting in his criticism of Sirleaf. "Is Liberia peaceful right now?" he asked, eyes ablaze, emphasizing each word like the preacher he became following a spiritual conversion while exiled in Nigeria during the 1990s. "Peace is not the absence of war. When the men and women cannot find job, is that peace? When the nation’s staple food is rice, and the bag is $50, is that peace? When the man has no shoes on his feet, and he’s walking on the concrete, and the gravel is duking on his soles, is that peace for him?"

All of Sirleaf’s opponents agree that she has not done enough. But beyond broad statements on decentralization and corruption, they have little to say about what they would do differently. Identity politics have more than filled the gap.

Liberia still bears the scars of a complex divide between its tiny, dominant Americo-Liberian elite descended from freed slaves, and its majority indigenous population. Its history is characterized by the simultaneous exclusion and exploitation of the indigenous "country-people" by an educated class who monopolized government in Monrovia. Sirleaf, though widely perceived as Americo, has tended to stress the roots of her father, who was the first indigenous man to sit on the country’s legislature.

Johnson is a master manipulator of this sensitive history. "If we are truly united as they say, why don’t they be vice president to indigenous? Never in history! They are always first," he said, referring to the fact that both Sirleaf and Tubman have indigenous vice presidential candidates on their tickets. He plays off suspicions of educated elites to present himself as a straight-talking country man. As Ben Menkoah, a 33-year-old Nimba man who voted for Sirleaf in 2005, later explained to me: "To be wise is better than to be clever. When you’re clever you crook people. You learn to be clever. Wise man come from God. Prince Johnson, he is a straightforward, wise man."

I asked Johnson where his allegiance would lie in a run-off — whether with Sirleaf or her opponent, the former U.N. diplomat Tubman and his extremely popular running-mate, one-time presidential candidate and soccer hero George Weah. Johnson is adamant. "Definitely, any candidate that will be in second round against Ellen, I will support them." When I later relay this to Jusu Gono, a mechanic originally from near Johnson’s home-town Butuo but now working in Monrovia, he just laughs. "You can’t rely on that man! He will always just go where he is best fed."

Sure enough, on Oct. 18, Johnson announced he would be supporting Sirleaf in the run-off, describing her as the "lesser of two evils."

***

From the start of my journey, many of the Liberians I spoke with were clearly disappointed  by the slow progress of their country, and many nursed resentment of Sirleaf for creating false hope. Drenched by rain near dusk on Oct. 3, I took shelter in the mud-walled hut of Otis Teekeh, a delivery man living at a bleak spot called Nimba Junction, in River Cess county. "I just put my sister in the ground. She died from diarrhea," he told me, shoulders hunched against the rain. "I just watched her pass, everything running from her. I couldn’t call nobody because no cell coverage. No doctor or health clinic around. The road is too bad for car anyway. No pump for good water." He simmered with resentment. "We never had these things before, but we were never promised them before."

One of Sirleaf’s many campaign slogans, plastered across the country’s billboards, is "Keeping the Promise." Teekeh brandished a plastic bag disdainfully, the smiling faces of the president and vice president Joseph Boakai on the front. "She sent us plastic bag for the election. Shall we eat it? Shall I put it in my child stomach? She brought matches. Same face on the box. They never light."

The damp matches are an apt metaphor for how many rural Liberians view a Sirleaf presidency that seemed alive with possibility following 14 years of horrific civil war. While she has made some progress towards wider provision of free elementary schooling and improved healthcare access, her crowning achievements are convincing international creditors to cancel Liberia’s crippling foreign debt and successfully tempting back foreign investment. These are vital macroeconomic accomplishments, but are only distant abstractions for a majority of Liberians, who face more pressing issues on a daily basis. Outside of the capital city, many of Liberia’s mud roads become impassable — except by motorcycle — during the punishing seven-month rainy season. Noisy generators provide electricity only for those relatively few who can afford them and the gasoline on which they run. And the basic cost of living is always rising.

In Geeboer town, Grand Bassa county, retired county official Joseph Davies took a worn-through plastic flip-flop, the type ubiquitous across Africa, and shook it in front of me. "My slipper! One hundred and thirty-five Liberian dollars [around $2]! 1-3-5-L-D! 30 LD in Taylor time," he said, referring to former President Charles Taylor, who is now awaiting a verdict at a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In the most remote parts of the southeast, even I am shocked by the prices. A gallon of watery gasoline poured from a glass mayonnaise jar costs $8. The price of a sack of rice has reached almost $50.

It wasn’t always this way. As the steel frame of my poor, battered bike was being welded back together in Kanweaken, River Gee, motorcycle-taxi driver Thomas Gaye described an earlier era. "In Taylor time money was flowing, things were cheap. Your money wasn’t safe anywhere, so you spent it." The surrounding mechanics nodded in agreement. "You were happy, but I suppose it wasn’t good for us. Now, we can plant rice. But in Taylor time you just spend, spend, spend!" A perceived dichotomy has emerged in the minds of many I meet, where an affordable cost of living under Taylor has been bartered for freedom of speech and stability with Sirleaf.

During this campaign, Sirleaf’s strategy has reflected the high-stakes political game she is playing. On Oct. 6, I parked my motorcycle in a ditch to watch the long presidential motorcade arrive at Pronoken School in the southern county of River Gee. Sirleaf emerged, sporting a T-shirt and scarf in the green of her Unity Party. Visibly tired by the toil of a long campaign, she greeted the children with a joke about the presidency now being a woman’s job. She told them of the gifts she had for them: soccer uniforms, a ball, and a wad of Liberian dollars (around $50 U.S.) were handed to their principal.

This is business as usual in Liberian campaigning. In the town of Sweken, locals told me of packages of 35,000 Liberian dollars (around $500 U.S.) given to women’s groups, youth groups, and village elders. "She is our mother, she is just looking after us all," said Jolubah Sokan, a road worker I meet in the town. There is an inveterate expectation here that the president will provide: "We are happier about the free schools and the uniforms," Sokan said.

I met the recipients of Sirleaf’s largesse in town after town, some of the poorest people in one of the world’s poorest countries — ranked 165th on the United Nations Development Programme’s human development index. In this tight election, Sirleaf has used all means necessary to secure their support.

In far-flung, historically neglected areas like Nimba county and Grand Gedeh, these campaign hand-outs are an attempt to engender in voters a personal stake in Sirleaf — a stake that they do not have in government itself. Even in the most remote areas I visited, locals boast T-shirts, hats, plastic bags, matches, pens, even motorcycle helmets bearing Sirleaf’s visage. And yet these gifts proved insufficient to secure her the first round majority she desired, thus requiring a run-off ballot. She triumphed in most counties, but not by nearly enough.

Some of her campaign actions certainly seem at odds with the uncompromising democratic image beloved by the international community. But domestically, Sirleaf has always been viewed as a pragmatist negotiating Liberia’s dysfunctional political scene. Many blame her inability to meaningfully address high-level corruption on just this pragmatism — her recognition of the likely repercussions for her own political viability if she were to hang political elites out to dry in public. The Anti-Corruption Commission she formed has remained largely impotent.

Further back, having fled Samuel Doe’s brutal regime during the 1980s, Sirleaf threw a small amount of financial and moral support behind a man who it seemed could usurp him. Her short association with Charles Taylor, who turned into a brutal warlord-cum-president, has dogged her since. Liberia’s much-disputed Truth and Reconciliation Report said that, due to this association, she should not serve in political office for 30 years. On Oct. 7, the morning Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Prize, I told the news to a group of men drinking Atai (a popular form of tea) in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh. Most were unmoved, but one remarked that "the international community has given Sirleaf gloves to hide her dirty hands."

The peace she is maintaining — with the not inconsiderable assistance of 8,000 U.N. blue helmets — remains Sirleaf’s trump card in this race. But, as memories of war become less vivid compared to the reality of daily, grinding struggles, this argument is losing its potency. The period leading up to the Nov. 8 run-off vote will be fraught with tension, rumor, and back-door politicking. Sirleaf’s main opposition parties have already once publicly resolved to pull out in a vaguely explained boycott, before hastily relenting and rejoining the race. Yet Sirleaf’s supporters are confident: "It will surely hold!" is still the campaign mantra.

And it is women like Mary Dukpo of Geeboer town who will bring Sirleaf to victory. I met her on Oct. 3, near the start of my journey, bouncing up and down with excitement after having heard a rumor the president was due to visit. "You hear that?" she exclaimed, pointing to the air triumphantly. "Nothing. No-thing. No gunfire! That is why I say thank you to our Mother [Sirleaf]." The head of her sleeping baby, peeking out from the bright country cloth slung round her back, bobbed as if in silent agreement.

F. Charles Young is a Scottish journalist and lawyer who has lived and traveled widely in West Africa.

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