Prince as kingmaker: Can an ex-warlord deliver Johnson-Sirleaf the Liberian presidency?
Senator Prince Johnson has pledged his support to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the second round of Liberia's presidential elections, despite having accused her of vote-rigging.
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“I know there was massive rigging and there are flaws and we have evidence,” says Johnson. “But the evidence of fraud we got cannot make us make trouble…. When you have two evils, you must go with the lesser of evils.”Skip to next paragraph
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UP media coordinator Bushuben Keita has said "The Unity Party wholeheartedly welcomes the support and think it will push us ahead in the run off."
But how did Johnson become a powerbroker in these elections? And can he “deliver the people of Nimba to the Unity Party,” as he claims?
Warlord or “freedom fighter”?
While Johnson may have few admirers and commanded few votes outside his political stronghold of Nimba, he is widely regarded in his home county as a freedom fighter who saved his people from the then brutal dictator President Samuel Doe.
Samuel Dahn, a forester from Ganta, says he would support the UP in the run-off now that Johnson had endorsed the party.
“We love the way he does things; we love his platform,” says Mr. Dahn. “What he says, he follows it. Before he said he would liberate his country, which he did.... He liberated us from the Samuel Doe regime. He saved us by preventing Samuel Doe’s soldiers from massacring us.”
In 1985, after an unsuccessful coup attempt by Thomas Quiwonkpa, a member of Gio people of Nimba and Doe’s former second in command in the armed forces, Doe retaliated with military force and state repression against ethnic Gios and Manos both in Nimba and other parts of Liberia.
Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu, also a Gio Nimbadian, was the Liberian Ambassador to the United States at the time and was fired by Doe, as were many Gio and Mano public officials. Now a historian at the University of Liberia in Monrovia, Dr. Guannu said that Johnson’s popularity can be traced back to this period, when he, with the help of his then-ally Charles Taylor and training and support from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, drove Doe’s forces out of Nimba.
Guannu advised Johnson during his senatorial campaign, and like many people from Nimba, he regards the senator as a freedom fighter rather than a former warlord.
“He was a real revolutionary,” said Guannu, later adding: “It’s not that he owes the people of Nimba, the people of Nimba owe him.”
From senator to powerbroker
Johnson’s popularity is read by many as an example of the continuing role that ethnicity plays in Liberian politics.
“The emphasis on ethnicity is declining,” Guannu said. “But take the Johnson case in Nimba, voting strictly on ethnic lines despite his popularity. Where you see him receiving votes outside of Nimba, it is because his two groups, the Mano and Gio have sizable communities.”
But Johnson’s popularity in Nimba, coupled with the large number of votes he has commanded, have put him in a powerful position. Last week he said that he would demand 30 percent of ministerial, ambassadorial, and agency positions in the government, and is now negotiating with the UP over the conditions for his support.