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.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Liberians listen to the announcement of election results on a portable radio in the 19th Street area of Sinkor, Monrovia, Liberia, Oct.14.

Liberia's self-proclaimed "kingmaker," Senator Prince Johnson, has made his decision: He will support President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in next month's run-off, despite accusing her of rigging the Oct. 11 first-round election.

It's “for the sake of the nation,” he says.

Mr. Johnson, best known around the world for ordering the 1990 torture and murder of then-President Samuel Doe, has emerged as one of the most important political players in Liberia’s presidential elections.

Johnson's National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP) party came in third in the first-round presidential vote, with 11.6 percent. But with neither President Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party (UP) nor the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) – headed by Harvard-educated Winston Tubman and his vice presidential candidate, soccer legend George Weah – able to command a majority of the vote required for victory, Johnson's support will likely decide the winner of the second-round vote.

The former warlord turned evangelical Christian is well known in Liberia for his dramatic public statements and erratic political behavior – his pledge of support for the UP followed his threat, made with other opposition parties, to boycott the runoff due to alleged electoral fraud. And senior NUDP members criticized his current support for Johnson-Sirleaf, saying they did not endorse his support of the UP over the CDC.

But for Johnson, who has been a vocal critic of President Johnson-Sirleaf throughout the campaign, the choice seemed logical. Johnson-Sirleaf is not an Americo-Liberian like Mr. Tubman. Mr. Weah insulted Johnson and rejected his proposition to be his running mate because Johnson was indicted under recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But most importantly, Johnson-Sirleaf says she would not implement the recommendations of the TRC to try Johnson.

In front of numerous supporters on the stoop of a hotel in Ganta, a town in Johnson's political stronghold of Nimba County, Johnson said jokingly said that it was better to support one who has also been indicted by the TRC, than someone who was not an indictee.

The contentious TRC recommended that Johnson-Sirleaf be banned from Liberian politics for 30 years, due to her alleged support for former President Charles Taylor in the early stages of the insurgency. It also recommended that Johnson by prosecuted for human rights violations, including sanctioning killing, abduction, torture, forced labor, and rape. Tubman had previously said he would implement the recommendations and prosecute, but later retracted his statement when Johnson announced he would support Johnson-Sirleaf.

Despite his allegations of electoral fraud, Johnson has said that he will support Johnson-Sirleaf “for the sake of the nation," and his own presidential ambitions in the 2017 elections.

“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.”

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.

The next president?

At an old concrete hall in the middle of Sanniquellie, the small capital in Nimba, Johnson is met by thousands of supporters. During a round of thunderous applause as he spoke on the stage, some yelled: “Here’s the next president.”

But while some people in Nimba, like Johnson himself, believe he will be the next president, most analysts think that Johnson’s political appeal among voters will never extend beyond his home county.

“To be a president you need to be more then popular" Guannu said. "He is not highly educated, even though he was high in the ranks and rose to lieutenant in the army. He cannot stand toe-to-toe with any of the leaders in Africa who are highly educated and experienced.”

While Johnson states with certainty that he can “deliver the people of Nimba to the Unity Party,” it remains uncertain whether Johnson will be able to convince all of his voters to back Johnson-Sirleaf, according to Dan Sayree of the Liberian Democratic institute.

“The general voting patterns of the population would suggest that it will be an automatic win for her,” said Mr. Sayree, adding that voting patterns and support for political parties can change during the second round. “But Johnson has a lot of work to do. It is uncertain that those voters who carried him previously will support him again in backing the UP.

An uneasy alliance

The details of the agreement between the Unity Party and Johnson have yet to be finalized or made public, but Johnson-Sirleaf’s alliance with Johnson could raise eyebrows among her supporters in the international community and questions domestically regarding the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's commitment to justice. Sayree has said that Johnson’s justifications for backing Johnson-Sirleaf, who has yet to comment on the alliance, could raise challenges for the president and possibly damage her profile domestically and abroad.

“His statements put Madame Sirleaf in a difficult position of providing reconciliation between the Nobel Peace Prize that she has won and the implications of the prize, versus the implications of a TRC Commission indictee saying that 'I am joining you because I don’t want to be prosecuted,'" says Sayree. "The issue is of concern because we want to build a society that will thrive on justice and not impunity, and Madam Johnson-Sirleaf has said repeatedly that she subscribes to the rule of law and justice.”

But for Johnson this matters little; he is the king, the father of a county that could determine who becomes Liberia’s next president.

“I don’t trust Ellen; I don’t trust even the CDC. But it is better the devil you have than the angel that is waiting to come.”

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