Candidates started to arrive around 12:45 for the 4-hour-long program. The first candidateto make to enter was Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, who in his unpretentious manner, walked in alone, shaking hands and stopping to talk to people. He was closely followed by Cllr. Charles W. Brumskine who was accompanied by his vice-presidential candidate Amelia Ward. Just a few feet ahead of them, a woman was carrying a red Bible, in her right hand. Then the crowd of invited guests started to fill the hall. There was a roar and clapping when Unity Party Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made her entrance.
Notwithstanding the number of participants, the debate turned out to be vivid and participants as well as the audience stayed hooked to the end. The format was simple. Names of the candidates were randomly drawn from a box and Cllr. Brumskine was the first to make use of his allotted 5 minute to present his platform and introduce his governance program. Cllr. Sherman who was called last gave thanks to God for bringing him out last to make sense of everything that had been said before him. As he said, there was not much difference between the various platforms. The question was the implementation of all the great ideas. Cllr. Sherman said that in his platform, “peace was first and peace was last, because without peace, all these beautiful plans will remain just plans.”
There were a few moments of confusion when those directing the debate asked that participants in the audience try to ask questions to other presidential candidates because all the questions were directed at either Mrs. Sirleaf or at Cllr. Sherman, with a few to Cllr. Brumskine. People refused to go along and the organizers had to allow the debate to proceed according to the wishes of the audience. “This is the new Liberia, you can’t just walk in a place and impose something,” said Dr. Toga McIntosh, a member of the Governance Reform Commission. The audience had similar reactions and a few people even booed when Mrs. Sirleaf tried to brush aside accusations levied against her by former NPFL Defense Minister Tom Woweiyu as lies and innuendoes from a “paid mercenary.” Evelyn Reeves, who called herself a die-hard partisan of the Unity Party presidential candidate, said that “Ellen would have to address these lies and put them behind. We know it’s all lies but she has to tell and reassure us that it is all lies.” Cllr. Varney Sherman also got a bit emotional when asked a question, provoking reactions from the audience.
There were good and bad moments, the bad ones were mostly technical, with the sound system being capricious. The debate was lively, very polite and candidates rarely went against each other, with the exception of an exchange between Mrs. Sirleaf and Cllr. Sherman.
We randomly collected a few lines that we thought are worth being remembered from the debate:
Tipoteh: “If it were not for the sacrifices and the struggles we carried out almost thirty years ago, many of those on this platform could never dream of running president of Liberia…”
Korto: “The greatest thing about this debate is to see Liberian presidential candidates sitting here and talking to each other and trying to convince voters rather than being in the bush and shooting at each other.”
Sherman: “Why those who are now talking about putting in place beautiful programs could not do so when they served in government?”
Ellen (responding to above): “Because vested interest from outsides have always undermined our efforts.”
Brumskine: “Experience is important in running a government. One has to have the capacity to understand problems and be able to solve them.”
Korto (responding to above): “What is so desirable in the past that one may want to build on that experience? How can those responsible for the wrongs in the past correct it?”
Nathanial Barnes: “I sit here and listen to all these politicians talk about - all these politicians are talking about all these programs; I am not a politician…”
Ellen (To Varney): What has been your contribution to the struggle for peace, justice and fairness in this country?”
Varney’s response: “I am not one of those who spend their money to bring war and destruction to this nation. I created jobs opportunities for people.”
George Kieh (New Deal): “One cannot talk about building democracy in a failed system, it will not work…”
“Varney: “Peace is not the absence of war; peace is the absence of fear.”
Brumskine: “Gender equality is paramount in Liberty party agenda and we have already begun this by giving the vice-standard bearer position to a woman of quality…”
And the jewel for quick, witty reaction goes to Ellen who followed-up on Brumskine gender issue:
“Why settle for second best when you can have the number one job?”
The exercise was healthy one and allowed an open discussion of many subjects. It was also an occasion to judge the political maturity of the partisans who stood side by side, outside, dancing and singing praises for their candidates without a single incident.
Next to this whole political exercise, two teams of young soccer players were going at each other, on a small pitch adjacent to the incomplete building of the National Bank. And as usual, marketers were roaming around, selling soft drinks, shoes, belts and oranges. A kid asked me if he could do my nails, showing me his clippers and scissors…
List of Participants: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Unity Party); Charles W. Brumskine (Liberty Party); Togba-Nah Tipoteh (Alliance for Peace and Democracy); Nathanial Barnes (Liberia Destiny Party); Varney Sherman (Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia); George Klay Kieh (New Deal); Joseph Korto (Liberia Equal Right Party); Samuel Divine (independent candidate); Joseph Woah-Tee (Labor Party); George Kiadii (National Vision Party); Alfred Reeves (National Reformation Party).