Joseph Boakai: Liberian vice president shaking off sleepy image

Vice-president since 2005, Joseph Boakai has campaigned for president as a natural transition candidate after helping to ensure peace has prevailed in Liberia after back-to-back civil wars.

Boakai goes head-to-head with former football star George Weah on Tuesday’s long-delayed run-off for the presidency after trailing him in most of the country in the first round of voting.

Weah won 38.4 percent of votes on October 10, while Boakai came in second with 28.8 percent, triggering a second round as neither man had more than 50 percent of the vote.

Boakai has since led a losing Supreme Court battle against the National Elections Commission (NEC) alleging fraud and irregularities marred the vote. The failed complaint delayed the second round for seven weeks.

He has also accused President Ellen Sirleaf, a member of his own party, of supporting Weah — a claim bolstered by a joint public event held by the president and the footballer on Thursday.

Presenting himself as an everyman who transcended his humble beginnings, Boakai has attempted to craft a more energetic image after earning the unfortunate title of “Sleepy Joe” for his propensity to fall asleep at public events.

Boakai, 72, has also had to undertake a delicate balancing act to promote his record in government while his feud with Sirleaf has cracked into the open.

His Unity Party has struggled to deliver economic prosperity alongside peace, and Boakai has pledged to invest in infrastructure and to alleviate the extreme poverty still suffered by most Liberians.

“We need to assure the people that this time they are going to see progress, that they will see corruption going away,” he told AFP in an interview.

– Stable or stuck? –

Born in a village in northern Lofa County as the fifth of six children, Boakai passed through a succession of family members’ homes while growing up, leaving behind his disabled mother and soon learning to take care of himself.

Against the odds he secured a good education by working as a cleaner to pay his fees, before chancing upon Sirleaf’s sons in the same dormitory at university.

Boakai then served as agriculture minister under former president Samuel Doe, who was brutally murdered in 1990.

A father of four, Boakai benefits from the backing of older voters who value the stability his party has brought after living through civil wars between 1989 and 2003.

“He will be able to continue where this outgoing government left off,” explained supporter Samuel Gbazeki, 64.

“To rebuild after war is very costly. This government has done some tremendous things,” he told AFP.

Others are concerned that his court battle has distracted from his message of dependability and continuity in a country with a history of electoral violence.

“I know that the outcome of the court has somehow demoralised some partisans,” said supporter Herbert Nagbe.

“Now that the court has clarified things we have no option but to go for the political fight,” he added.

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