'Secret weapon' at BKSH propelled woman to the presidency in recent Liberia election

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf faced long odds in her bid to become Liberia’s new president. She overcame a field of 22 other candidates that included a soccer hero deemed the favorite and a male-dominated culture that many believed would prevent a woman from winning the presidency.

But one K Street lobbyist believed Johnson-Sirleaf, a grandmother and Harvard-educated economist, could pull off a surprise victory. For Riva Levinson of BKSH & Associates, it was more than just wishful thinking, although, having worked with Johnson-Sirleaf for several years, some wishful thinking undoubtedly played at least a small role in the outcome.

Levinson, aided by focus groups and polls conducted by a Liberian-American systems engineer, had helped craft Johnson-Sirleaf’s message, spelling out a strategy in a memo that focused the campaign around education and the economy.

“Riva was the secret weapon for Ellen in this campaign,” said Amara Koneh, the expatriate who worked for Johnson-Sirleaf’s campaign.

After finishing 10 percentage points behind soccer star George Weah in the first round of voting, Johnson-Sirleaf won by 20 percent in the runoff to become the first woman elected president of any African country.

Details of how that happened are emerging as Johnson-Sirleaf meets with senior American officials for the first time in her position as president-elect. She is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House International Relations and Senate Foreign Relations committees.

Last week, she met with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

After helping with the campaign, Levinson registered to lobby for the transitional government. Liberia is likely to need long-term assistance from the United States to rebuild after a brutal and devastating 14-year-long civil war, which ended with a peace accord signed in August 2003 and dictator Charles Taylor’s exile to Nigeria.

“There is a historic opportunity to rebuild the relationship” between the United States and Liberia, said Levinson, who has also worked with the Iraqi National Congress. Freed American slaves colonized the country, and its capital, Monrovia, is named for U.S. President James Monroe.

Levinson worked on the campaign pro bono but expects the country to retain BKSH as it continues to seek U.S. assistance with a variety of infrastructure issues. The country suffers from 80 percent unemployment and has little electricity or running water.

During the campaign, Levinson and Koneh used modern election tools on Johnson-Sirleaf’s behalf, when her rivals, Koneh said, were relying on appeals to tribal roots, a traditional political practice in Liberia.

Koneh, whose parents were killed in the war, helped conduct an issue group and polls in the months before the election. Education emerged as the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, with the economy coming in at No. 2.

He led a team hired from the University of Liberia that conducted polls in six of Liberia’s 15 counties. They talked to more than 2,000 Liberians. With few hotels in the country, Koneh often had to sleep in his car.

“It was a tough exercise,” he said.

There was good and bad news in the results: voters were concerned that Weah, a high school drop-out, might not be able to “deliver the goods” and get Liberia back on its feet, Koneh said. But Johnson-Sireaf was trailing badly in Liberia’s second and fourth largest counties and in Bomi, the candidate’s home county. In contrast, some voters thought of Johnson-Sirleaf as “an old woman,” not a serious political contender, Koneh said. She was also linked to the Taylor regime, which she had worked for before challenging Taylor in a 1997 presidential race.

Koneh said campaign strategists were initially reluctant to use the results of the polling. At Koneh’s urging, Levinson went to Liberia to convince the team to trust the information.

“We didn’t have any slogans,” Koneh said. “The campaign was not being managed properly.”

Fifty-one percent of the electorate is female, but Koneh said the campaign worried whether the country would embrace a female president.

“Our culture is dominated by men,” he said.

Signs posted in Johnson-Sirleaf’s county provided just the right balance; “Ellen, she’s our man” became one favorite theme, Levinson said.

Sounding a bit like a professional American political operative, Koneh said the Johnson-Sirleaf campaign provided hope to Liberians.

They rearranged campaign resources to build support in the three counties where it was weakest and pounded the “education message and the economy message,” Koneh said.

“Liberians needed hope, and Ellen gave them hope,” he added.