Liberia: Lofa Senatorial By-Election Shows Unity Party Needs Change at the Top


LAST WEEK, the Unity Party (UP) headed by the aging Joe Boakai suffered its most embarrassing defeat yet when it lost the by-election in Boakai’s home county, Lofa. The CDC-backed independent candidate, Cllr. Joseph Jallah won the Senate seat over the UP’s Galakpai Kortimai by a narrow but definitive margin.

PARTY LOYALISTS are asking searching questions about whether a serious change in leadership might be necessary to bring the party back to a stable footing.

MANY WITHIN the party have noted that the UP should have had the further edge because the original winner of the Lofa seat was Brownie Samukai, who had his seat stripped from him before the criminal case against him was dismissed. This generated great resentment within the county as Samukai enjoys immense popularity there. Samukai’s active campaigning for Kortimai should have been enough in its own right to usher in a victory. Boakai’s own poor leadership and questionable decisions about the party’s direction are largely to blame for the embarrassing loss.

THE LOSS IN LOFA marks a precipitous fall in the party’s fortunes over the past years. The UP dominated the county’s electoral politics in the 2005, 2011, and 2017 elections, which many credited to Boakai hailing from Lofa but are now starting to question. What went wrong this time around?

MANY UNITY PARTY insiders are pointing to a protest held in Lofa back in November in which demonstrators called for Boakai to ‘honorably retire from politics’ after nearly 50 years in politics as an unheeded signal that the party leader’s time as an effective politician was already reaching an end.

IN A SIGN OF DESPERATION, some pro-Boakai stalwarts within the party pointed to alleged wrongdoing by the National Elections Commission (NEC) – an increasingly worrying trend within a Unity Party that is struggling to win at the ballot box and is instead attacking the commission responsible for ensuring free and fair elections. In a post-election speech, Boakai declared on behalf of his party, “We declare that the conduct of the senatorial elections was marred by many irregularities. Some of these were outright illegal actions that impacted the results.”

TAKING HIS ACCUSATIONS further, the embattled Boakai added that “the Unity Party and its allies are convinced that the current Elections Commission is not representative of the people’s interest and should therefore be scrapped and replaced by a competent and partisan free NEC to prepare for 2023 general and presidential elections.” Boakai’s dangerous remarks this week came after previously declaring that “there are people that are unpatriotic” within the NEC and questioning its integrity.

ANOTHER SIGNAL that Boakai’s tenure at the top of the Unity Party is increasingly in question came in a searing Front Page Africa analysis published on Monday. FPA cited the decision to disband the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) and the willingness of Boakai – at the irresponsible urging of the All-Liberia Party’s (ALP) Benoni Urey – to assent to and even participate in the criminal proceedings against Alexander Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC).

What’s More, analysts are questioning the ability of the UP under Boakai’s leadership to stay in touch with the electorate and survive as an independent party separate from the defunct CPP.

FPA WROTE on Monday that many voters “no longer see Amb. Boakai as having their best interest in the politics of the county. In their view, Amb. Boakai has failed to strike a balance in the politics of the county.” FPA added that the loss in Lofa is “a reflection of a party that is losing touch with the people and an opposition party that can no longer stand by itself – without collaboration.”

THE UNITY PARTY has entered crisis mode, but analysts who have been following the party closely are not surprised by last week’s embarrassing development. The decision to get into bed with Benoni Urey, a man with a history of associating himself with war criminals, and the self-defeating choice to blow up the CPP are both factors that have led to last week’s outcome. And as with any organization, such catastrophic decisions come from the top: Joe Boakai.

IT IS OFTEN said that in politics, crisis can also bring opportunity. The UP must take its current crisis and act decisively if it has any hope of being a political force in next year’s crucial elections, and this means replacing Joseph Boakai with an individual capable of unifying the party, making sound decisions over the next year, and drumming up popularity among voters across the country while recovering traditional party strongholds such as Lofa. The man on many UP insiders’ minds is none other than Brownie Samukai, who has already demonstrated his electability in Lofa in December 2020 and his willingness to be a ‘team player’ by campaigning vigorously for the UP’s candidate this month despite being stripped of his rightful senate seat.

THE INCREASINGLY virulent attacks against the NEC by Boakai and his UP loyalists are a sign of very dangerous things to come. The attacks against the election commission are a sign that the UP is following a classic anti-democratic playbook: When a once-mighty party can no longer win at the ballot box, complain about fraud and turn to anti-democratic methods to stay alive.

THE TIME FOR A CHANGE at the top of the Unity Party has come. It must be done before more damage is done to the UP and the wider Liberian opposition before next year’s crucial election.