Joseph Boakai: Can Liberia’s new ‘sleeping’ president wake up the economy?

by MMC
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On Monday January 22, Liberia swore in Joseph Boakai as its new president. Boakai, who critics call “Sleepy Joe,” won 50.64 percent to 49.36 percent against George Weah, the former soccer star, in the November runoff election. The victory was controversial, as he had help from a former rebel commander, Prince Johnson. There is a famous video from 1990 of Johnson drinking a beer while his men tortured former President Samuel Doe to death. But that’s not all the drama.

Boakai is now the country’s oldest serving head of state. And concerns remain about his fitness to govern. The label “asleep” has a lot to do with this concern. He seems to have a habit of dozing off during public meetings. However, his collaborators denied this, saying that his small eyes and drooping eyelids gave that impression. To improve his image, Boakai often wore dark sunglasses during his campaigns.

During his swearing-in, Boakai once again brought his fitness concerns to the forefront. He paused during his speech, showing his distress, and his aides rushed to stir him up. A few minutes later he started again but stopped again. This time, aides helped him away from the podium and the ceremony ended abruptly. The presidency said Boakai suffered heat exhaustion during an outdoor ceremony. But since then, doctors have declared him “perfectly well”, adding that “he has returned to his normal activities”.

No more old people, room for old people?

Boakai lost the previous election to Weah, and the former Ballon d’Or winner became the country’s youngest elected leader at 51. Today, the situation has reversed as public goodwill toward Weah has waned as the end of his six-year term approaches. Critics accused him of failing to deliver on campaign promises to repair Liberia’s ailing economy, root out corruption and provide justice for victims of the consecutive civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. Transparency International ranks Liberia 142 of 180 on its corruption perception index. THE mysterious deaths of the four government auditors also raised suspicions.

Public debt increased under Weah’s administration to approximately $2.03 billion —more than 50% of its GDP—at the end of December 2022. Liberia has also become one of the African countries with the lowest foreign exchange reserves. So the big question is whether Boakai’s tenure would be better.

The flip side of Boakai’s age concerns is that he has 40 years of political experience behind him. He served as vice president from 2006 to 2018 under Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, before losing to Weah in the 2017 elections.

But his age isn’t the only cause for concern. Boakai’s new friendship with Prince Johnson came at a price: Johnson had to choose the vice president. He named Jeremiah Koung, a 45-year-old who rose from street vendor to businessman and lawmaker. Jeremiah Koung comes from the Movement for Reconstruction and Democracy (MRD) party, led by Prince Johnson. Because Koung is much younger, many seem to believe that he would fill the gaps by bringing the rapid changes Liberia’s economy needs. But only time will tell if that will be the case.

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