On Monday, January 22nd, Liberia swore in Joseph Boakai as its new president. Boakai, whose critics call “Sleepy Joe”, had scraped a 50.64% to 49.36% win against George Weah, the former football star, in November’s run-off elections. The win was controversial, as he had help from a former rebel commander, Prince Johnson. There’s a famous video from 1990 where Johnson was 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 sitting head of state. And there are concerns about his fitness to govern. The “sleepy” tag has a lot to do with this concern. He seems to have a habit of dozing off during public meetings. However, his aides have denied it, saying his small eyes and drooping eyelids give this impression. To improve his image, Boakai often wore dark shades during his campaigns.
During his swearing-in, Boakai brought his fitness worries to the fore again. He paused during his speech, showing distress, and aides rushed to fan him. A few minutes later, he resumed but halted again. This time, aides helped him walk away from the podium, and the ceremony ended abruptly. The presidency said Boakai suffered heat exhaustion during what was an outdoor ceremony. But that doctors had since declared him “perfectly fine,” adding that “he has resumed his normal activities.”
Out with the old, in with the older?
Boakai lost the previous election to Weah, and the former Ballon d’Or winner became the nation’s youngest elected leader at 51. Now, the tables have turned because public goodwill towards Weah waned as he neared the end of his six-year term. Critics accused him of not fulfilling campaign promises to fix Liberia’s ailing economy, stomp out corruption, and ensure justice for victims of the country’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003. Transparency International ranks Liberia 142 out of 180 on its Corruption Perceptions Index. The mysterious deaths of four government auditors also raised suspicions.
Public debt rose under Weah’s administration to about $2.03 billion —more than 50% of its GDP— at the end of December 2022. Liberia also became one of the African countries with the lowest foreign reserves. So, the big question is whether Boakai’s tenure would be any better.
The flip side of Boakai’s age concerns is that he has 40 years of political experience behind him. He was vice president from 2006 to 2018 under Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, before losing to Weah in the 2017 election.
However, his age is not the only concern. Boakai’s new-found friendship with Prince Johnson came with a price: Johnson got to choose the vice president. He nominated Jeremiah Koung, a 45-year-old who rose from being a street hawker to becoming a businessman and lawmaker. Jeremiah Koung hails from the Movement for Reconstruction and Democracy (MRD) party, led by Prince Johnson. Because Koung is much younger, many seem to believe he would cover the lapses in bringing the rapid changes Liberia’s economy needs. But only time will tell whether that would be the case.