Liberia's female President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is on paper 75 years old, far below that of one of Africa's longest serving leaders, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, 89 but recent months reports have been heightening about complicated health issues hampering the ability of the West African head of state once dubbed the 'Iron lady' to continue her hold onto power.
Information Minister Lewis Brown, in an interview with VOA last week dismissed suggestions about the President's ailment even as rumors of her death spread like wildfire during her recent trip to Kuwait and Belgium.
Brown insists that Sirleaf is alive and well and capacitated to continue to carry out the duties for which she was elected. This comes as rumors are circulating, particularly among the Liberian Diaspora in the United States that the president might be seriously ill. Speculation intensified in the media two weeks ago when the president left the country without the usual official announcement. Later the presidential palace released a statement saying that Mrs. Sirleaf had left the country to attend conferences in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Belgium.
Said Brown: "There is no reason for that kind of information. The president is not just alive she is as well as she can humanly be. She just recently represented our country at the Afro-Arab summit in Kuwait. Then she had a state visit in the United Arab Emirates, and then she was special guest at the Europe-based program held in Brussels. So the president is alive. She is very well, fully capacitated to continue to serve this country for which the people of Liberia are grateful," he said.
Brown also dismissed rumors that President Sirleaf may have cancer. "The president did a surgery about two months ago on her right hand where the doctors diagnosed that the cartilage in the wrist had worn out and she was experiencing discomfort in using the right hand. People saw her wearing a cast, and now it has been removed. So, how that got translated into a major ailment is still a mystery. But she is not just alive, she is very, very well," Brown said.
President Sirleaf turned 75 last month, and Brown said her recent checkup showed all her "vitals" were well in place.
"I have interacted with the president, including today, and every medical examination she's undergone over the last year indicate that she is well, fully capacitated, grateful to God and will continue to serve the people of Liberia in this transformation," Brown said.
Sirleaf's years of political struggle characterized by imprisonment and other forms of treatment meted against political prisoners under the rule of military leader Samuel K. Doe have been cited as some of the reasons behind her rumored poor health.
Should Sirleaf's health become a stumbling block to the continuation of her second six-years term which expires in four years, the succession tale is expected to become the big issue hovering over Liberia, as President Sirleaf is believed to have made numerous political promises to several individuals cajoling them to help propel her to state power.
But even more troubling and even aides to the President fear that the President's failure now to tip a likely successor could push the post-war nation into political uncertainty.
African politics is replete with succession stories but in most instances these leaders fail to let go of power as they hang on until death. There is no sign that Sirleaf will let the cat out of the bag soon and give out power to take a rest.
Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, 58, was flown to Saudi Arabia for foreign treatment but still held unto power until he returned to his country, remaining out of sight until his death after the Nigerian parliament had already voted to transfer power to Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president, until the president was fit to resume his duties.
Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika succumbed to death in April 2012 and the state is now run by Vice President Joyce Benda, the second African female President.
Before his death, Mr. Mutharika and Vice-President Joyce Banda fell out after a row over the succession in 2010, and she was expelled from the ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP).
Mr. Mutharika's brother, Foreign Minister Peter Mutharika, was chosen instead of Ms Banda to be the DPP's presidential candidate in the 2014 elections but Ms Banda took over as president in line with Malawian constitution.
For Liberia, the constitution provides in Article 63 (b) "Whenever the office of the President shall become vacant by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, or the President shall be declared incapable of carrying out the duties and functions of his office, the Vice-President shall succeed to the office of the President to complete the unexpired term. In such a case, this not constitute a term".
Article 63 d) also states "whenever the office of the Vice-President becomes vacant by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, inability or otherwise, the President shall, without delay, nominate a candidate who, with the concurrence of both Houses of the Legislature, shall be sworn in and hold office as Vice-President until the next general elections are held. Whenever the Vice-President elect dies, resigns, or is incapacitated before being inaugurated, the President elected on the same ticket with him, shall, after being inaugurated into office, nominate without delay a candidate who, with the concurrence of both Houses of the Legislature, shall be sworn in an hold office as Vice-President until the next general elections are held".
Besides these constitutional provisions, in politics strange things happen as the Sirleaf's succession story is tipping the names of several individuals within the inner circle. There is also the probability that the political game could see Vice President Boakai giving way to allow President Sirleaf nominate a candidate as Vice President in line with article d of the Liberian constitution before later turning over power to such candidate to take over as President.
Amongst the names emerging is Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, football legend George Weah, opposition politician and head of the Liberty Party Cllr. Charles W. Brumksine; Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia, Mills Jones; Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, Cllr. Varney Sherman, amongst others.
Ambassador Boakai is the current Vice President of the country and based on constitutional provisions, is poised to succeed president Sirleaf in case the unexpected happens. Vice President Boakai is also aged but while many believe he might not be able to step in the shoes of President Sirleaf, some political observers and historians caution that Boakai's political strength cannot be overlooked just as Tolbert was to Tubman in the 1970s. Tolbert came into his own in the aftermath of Tubman's demise. The vice president recently moved quickly to dispel opposition calls for President Sirleaf to resign her post and turn over power to him until fresh elections are held in 2017. His public stance came at a time the opposition protest was yielding wide attention from Liberians both at home and aboard.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Boakai's service spans more than 35 years, including various positions in government, private sector, agro-related, church and civil society. His critics see him as a soft leader but his supporters see him as simply doing the role he was elected to perform, an unthreatening second fiddle to Africa's first female president. Sirleaf once envisioned she and Boakai sailing into the sunset together leaving many wondering whether she would gave the veep who has been a loyal servant his moment in the spotlight.
The football legend may have lost some support when he accepted a position as peace ambassador in the Sirleaf government but even his opponents and critics cannot discount the numerical advantage his Congress for Democratic Change presents to the political landscape.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Weah's decision to contest the 2014 Senatorial race could prove pivotal to his political future. Many political observers have already given Weah the edge to sweep the 2014 race but whether he will mature in time to make a second quest to the presidency remains to be seen. Sirleaf and Weah have bonded well in recent months spurring suggestions that Sirleaf could strike a deal for Weah to fill her shoes when she decides to hang up her presidency boots.
CLLR. CHARLES W. BRUMKSINE
Brumksine, a veteran lawyer has twice contested the presidency unsuccessfully, in 2005 and 2011 on his opposition Liberty Party ticket. In 2005 following the first round of voting, he refused to support any of the two run off candidates- eventual winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George M. Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change.
In 2011, Brumksine supported incumbent Sirleaf in the runoff and helped her to campaign in his native Grand Bassa County and other parts of the country with indications that some political compromises were reached for Sirleaf to support the presidency of Brumksine in the ensuing election. Although following the 2011 elections Brumksine publicly declared his retirement from active politics but there are indications that the relationship between him and President Sirleaf has grown over the last two years since the elections. Speculations have heightened in recent months that Brumskine has been tipped as the heir apparent to Sirleaf.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Brumskine's involvement in the ELWA land saga as one of the lawyers against evictees' interests could come back to haunt his political play for 2017.
MILLS JONES, GOVERNOR, CENTRAL BANK OF LIBERIA
Governor Jones is another name that has been echoing the political landscape of Liberia over the last few months. Jones has not officially expressed interests in the presidency but his ambiguous small Liberian businesses loan program is a hit among the working class and market women, a key constituency for anyone seeking the presidency. Jones has become the subject of discussions across Liberia even with political activities four years away but according to inner sources, there are ongoing discussions to see the possibility of Jones stepping in to fill Sirleaf's void to enable him solidify his quest for the Presidency come 2017. He is said to be a political project of President Sirleaf.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Jones is facing a herculean task of stabilizing the Liberian economy as his loan scheme has been seen as one of the major reasons for the depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the United States dollars in recent months. The depreciation of the Liberian dollar has seen steep increases in the prices of basic commodities. Jones was also recently embarrassed by a secret recording released by a dismissed employee of the Central Bank of Liberia in which Governor Jones was boasting about his wealth and looking down on ordinary Liberians. The recording heightens the long existing Congo-Native divide across Liberia. Many Liberians will see a Jones presidency as a continuation of the elite Congo ruling class. But more troubling for Jones is what some see as a burgeoning rift with the president over the loan scheme. Some insiders say, the executive fear Jones is using the program to nurture his potential political quest but attempts to cut the scheme from Jones and the CBL could present a public relations nightmare for Sirleaf and the UP who could be seen as taking bread from the working class in their quest to get back at the governor.
CLLR. VARNEY SHERMAN
Sherman, is no doubt one of the more experienced political animals in Liberia today. Relations between him and Sirleaf have soured in recent years over political differences, the direction of the ruling party and a number of other issues.
Ironically, Sherman, a one-time critic of Sirleaf later became her strongest support and was the architect of the merger that bonded the Liberia Action Party and the Liberia Unification Party with the UP. Following the coalition between Sherman's LAP and Sirleaf's UP, Sherman contested and won the Chairmanship of the new Unity Party with widespread speculation that he was preparing to serve as Vice Presidential candidate to President Sirleaf ousting Boakai in 2011. Sherman's purported quest did not materialize as Boakai maintained his Vice Presidential post. Following the 2011 elections, Sherman fell out with President Sirleaf as appointments in government were done unilaterally by the President without the input of the party.
Today, Sherman enjoys the support of the majority of the party while Sirleaf's ties to partisans have gone south. Angry partisans of the ruling UP believed to be supported by Cllr. Sherman staged a protest against President Sirleaf for failing to appoint partisans to key positions in government. Sherman is said to have joined the UP in line for succession of President Sirleaf come 2017. Amid reports of early retirement by Sirleaf, Sherman could make a case for succession.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Sherman presents perhaps the most complicated dilemma for Sirleaf as the glue holding the UP together. An early retirement by Sirleaf could open a window for Sherman but the million-dollar question remains, would Sirleaf feel comfortable leaning on an old nemesis? Trust issues could also pose issues for Sherman.
While many remain concern about Sirleaf's health, early retirement remains an option but certainly not a foregone conclusion. Looking to bolster her legacy, Sirleaf appears unprepared to relinquish power and allow someone else to take the credit even at what her critics say, the expense of her health. She made that much clear in a July interview on state-radio, LBS when she declared: "Let them sit down there! You think all of the work I've been doing to make sure the roads get built - from Redlight to Gbarnga, from Gbarnga to Ganta, from Ganta to Zwedru, from Zwedru to Harper, from Gbarnga to Konia], from Konia to Mendicorma, to Vahun, to Belleh Yallah; to bring the lights; to bring all those things there. I finish working hard, and the real thing coming now, you think somebody else coming to say, 'O, I the one who... I worked for it! "