Elections 2005: First Presidential debate


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 20, 2005


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A year ago, a debate amongst the presidential aspirants who met today in the studios of the Catholic radio station Veritas would have been a determining moment for the upcoming elections. The four candidates, to a certain extend, personify the various currents and major political tendencies of the past twenty-five years.

In the first of a series of debates, Radio Veritas brought together Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party (UP) Varney Sherman of Liberia Action party (LAP), Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh of a coalition that includes the United People’s Party (UPP) and the Liberian People’s Party (LPP) and Dr. Roland Massaquoi of the National Patriotic Party. Members of these parties have had a certain impact in the recent history of the nation. Had it not been for the uncertainties created by the George Weah factor, any of these candidates could stand a great chance of winning the elections.

According to the moderators of the two-hour “conversation”, others candidates will have their turn in the coming weeks, on Fridays. The debate was carried live on 4 other local stations. After the first hour dominated by questions by the two journalists, listeners were able to call and pose questions directly to candidates. Some listeners sent emails and questions came from as far as Zwedru, in Grand Geddeh. Besides minor technical problems – most callers wanted to be on the air and listen to their radio at the same, the debate went pretty.

After introducing themselves and speaking for a few minutes about their backgrounds and why they thought they should be elected “president”, the candidates briefly presented their party platforms. Varney Sherman said that from what he knew, the political parties have the same platform, with a very few variances and therefore said the issue then becomes peace, adding that without peace and stability, there would never be a chance to implement any of those beautiful programs.

The two moderators as well as callers questioned Varney Sherman about his relationships with the Lebanese community and the role he played in the Bong Mines workers compensation issue. A seemingly very angry caller asked Ellen Johnson Sirleaf about her role in the NPFL and LURD and the reasons that led to her leaving the Liberia Action Party. Dr. Tipoteh had to respond to caller who asked him about “combating” corruption when he himself was recently dismissed by Chairman Bryant along with the entire board of the National Port Authority for irregularities. Dr. Massaquoi had to deal with his past in the Taylor government where he served as Minister of Agriculture. The candidates defended their positions on these issues.

The debate was mostly civil, although candidates took swap at each other indirectly. Varney Sherman on a few occasions spoke about never having left the country and never having participated in any action that brought war that lead to the destruction to the country. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in an indirect response, said that there are those who sat here and never stood for anything, never dared to speak out while Liberians were mistreated and now want to claim that they are all holy. She said every time she left the country, it was because she had spoken against the unfair practices of a particular government. She added that during her exile, she had a chance to take part in other nations development and therefore acquired experience that would be needed in running the country. By all accounts, the majority of questions from caller were addressed to Mrs. Sirleaf.

The moderators did not stay on top of their games and at times, rather than act as impartial referees they tended to insert themselves into the debate. One of them used the term “xenophobia” when speaking to Varney Sherman after unsuccessfully trying to trap him in saying that he supported the idea of extending Liberian citizenship to Lebanese. When Varney Sherman said he never supported such an idea, the journalist turned around and accused him of harboring “xenophobic sentiments.” At another moment, the same journalist attempted several times to force Mrs. Sirleaf to say “sorry” for aiding the NPFL at the beginning of the war. It seemed that the moderators were trying to force sparkles in a very mild “conversation”. There were no clear rules established at the beginning and questions sounded personal at times, although couched in political language. Some of the questions could only lead to platitudes. Finally the song used theme music for the program was not the kind of lyrics one would expect in a serious debate about the future of the nation.

Around town, after the first batch of T-shirts and posters has been distributed, the campaign trains seemed to have slowed down. Even the CDC (Congress for Democratic Change) compound of candidate George Weah has been quiet in the last few days and last night there was crowd where there used to be thousands of youth roaming around.

In her first outside of Monrovia major test, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is heading this weekend for Gbarnga, in Bong County, to campaign in the former stronghold of exiled president Charles Taylor. How well she will be received in Gbarnga could be an indication of how far the county has moved on after Charles Taylor.

On Thursday afternoon, John Morlu scored a major surprise by bringing out thousands of supporters in Sinkor for the official launching of campaign. Introduced to the crowd as “a son of the soil”, John Morlu said that it was time that Liberians start to enjoy the fruits of their labor and the God given resources the country has been endowed with. “With all the natural resources and the small population of this country, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry or any child to die of malnutrition.”

The Alliance for peace and Democracy composed of UPP and LPP will launch its national campaign tomorrow on the D. Tweh Memorial High School in New Kru Town.