The dog days of the UN travel ban behind him, Benoni Urey is still haunted by his ties to former President Charles Ghankay Taylor but judging from his earlier pronouncement and political maneuvering, his supporters say, the Taylor tie could actually prove to be an asset, rather than a liability for the millionaire businessman who has made it quite clear that he will be a contender and a force to reckon with in the 2017 presidential race.
Urey is featured prominently in this month's New African Magazine, which asks the question: Liberia's Next President?
The magazine's cover story features interviews with Urey and some of his supporters as he makes his case for the Liberian presidency. Preying on the growing perception that the ruling Unity Party government has been weak on corruption and governance, Urey is counting on his business successes in his quest to separate himself from the rest of the pack. "At this Point in the life of our nation, we need somebody with the requisite experience and know-how to run the country. I have worked in several governments. I have both political and business experience. I have the requisite education, and I have been able to show that I can use all of these things to run the country," Urey says.
Many political observers add that Urey's financial muscle could make him a formidable opponent in what is expected to be another wide field of contenders in a sea reminiscent of the 2005 race which featured 22 politicians vying for the top prize.
Urey explains that he acquired most of his wealth from his investment in LoneStarCell/MTN and his farm in Careysburg where he is said to have the fourth largest rubber plantation in the country. He is currently a majority shareholder and head of the board.
Urey dismisses the much-held perceptions that he attained his wealth from his time as head of the Liberia Maritime Authority. " Some people claim that my wealth came from when I was the commissioner for maritime affairs. That is totally incorrect."
Urey says there has been at least three audits conducted since his departure from the maritime bureau and he has not been held by any. "The government of Liberia sent auditors to audit the maritime programe when I was Commissioner. VOSCON audited me, and the European Union also audited the maritime programme. In all the audits, they found that the Maritime Bureau rather owed me money, but they have not been honorable enough to pay me what the Maritime Bureau owes me, and you ask why I haven't commented on it. But never has the international community accused me of any financial impropriety while I was at the Maritime Bureau. What you are hearing is all empty political talk."
In fact, Urey insists that much of the wealth he has acquired came after his departure from the Maritime Bureau. "Well, I did start a poultry farm when I was Commissioner, but most of what I have acquired over the years came after my days at the Maritime Bureau. After I left the Maritime programme, I started my GSM company, LonestarCell Communications, in which I now jointly own 40 percent shares. That has been the primary source of my wealth and income, and whatever I have had from LonestarCell has been re-invested wisely to reach where things are today."
Urey insists that he acquired his wealth through hard work. "I started my poultry farm during the Taylor administration. At that time we were the only poultry producers in Liberia. "We were selling eggs. We were growing pepper. We had cattle. We had a fishery programme. That's where my wealth started from. Then after Taylor was removed from power, I devoted my time and energy to my business, and from there it grew and grew.
Adds Urey: "I have never been accused by anybody, not by the Liberian government or the international community or any credible institution of any financial impropriety, never! When I left the Bureau of Maritime Affairs, there were three audits done - and all of them cleared me."
The United Nations Panel of Experts which had previously been on Urey and other former associates of Taylor agreed, recommending Urey's removal from the travel and assets freeze ban late last year.
The Panel went as far as validating Urey's prowess for the presidency, suggesting that Urey clearly has the resources and the leadership capacity to command support and undermine peace and security in Liberia if he chooses.
"The Panel attempted to investigate Urey's extensive assets to determine whether they are being used to support groups seeking to destabilize Liberia and the sub-region. Urey's assets have not been frozen or fully disclosed.
The Panel also erased fears that Urey could use his resources to destabilize the nation when it said, it did not find any information scold suggesting that Urey was involved in activities that would destabilize Liberia and the sub-region."
Urey currently serves as the Chair of Lonestar Communications Corporation, which is one of the largest taxpayers in Liberia. He owns 20 per cent of the company's shares through a PLC Investment Limited, a Liberian company that is in turn owned by IDS and Nexus -- two other Liberian companies established in 1989 with anonymous bearer shares, the Panel added. The Panel added that Mr. Urey's business activities, and the profits gained from them, would appear to suggest that the civil conflict in Liberia would have a significant negative financial impact on him.
Addressing concerns from many that the Taylor connection could hurt his prospects for the presidency, Urey states: "Like any other Liberian, I worked for the government of Liberia under President Taylor. But one has to understand that everybody in Liberia worked under Taylor. Perhaps because of my proximity to him, they might say something, but what does that amount to?"
Urey acknowledges the connection but says it doesn't change his commitment to his country. "There were other people who worked under Taylor and were close to him as I was, and they are now holding important public positions in this country, either as senators or senior senators, judges, senior civil servants, and senior members of the Legislature and ministers in the present government. They have all been given opportunities to serve this country again after their time with Taylor. So why should it be different when it comes to me?"
While many see the Taylor factor as a liability for Urey, others say it could be Urey's Americo-Liberian heritage that could be a deterrent with Liberians likely to settle for an indigenous Liberian to succeed Sirleaf.
Urey acknowledges the issue and says it is one of those areas previous and current leaders have failed to tackle. "They have not united this country, to the point where in the age and time people are still preaching ethnicity. It is total foolishness."
Animosity between descendants of the Americo-Liberians, who emigrated from the United States of America and those born in Liberia heightened since independence in 1847. The arrival of Samuel Doe on April 12 1980 ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule. In recent years, the ties have improved through inter-marriages and religious crossings. Nevertheless Urey explains that his roots is not all Congau or Americo-Liberian. "It is difficult to look at me today and say I am a Congau man, but all my life I grew up as an indigenous person. I have never been a member of the elite ruling class. I speak Kpelle. My father had three wives, two of them were Kpelle and one was Congau. I have uncles and aunties who have never spoken a word of English in their lives. And they are my relatives. So how do you judge somebody like me."
Urey says the divide issue will be a major priority for him if he cinch state power. "These are some of the areas we will tackle when I am elected President.. We have to look at ourselves as Liberians, and not as Kpelle, Gio, Congau, Mandingo, etc., because it is divisive for our country. It doesn't help this country."
Besides addressing the divide, Urey is hoping to set himself apart from the rest of the pack. "When it comes to nationalism and love for the country, a lot of the candidates who are likely to run for the presidency don't love the country. They love what they can get out of the country. All of them come here and go, their families live out of Liberia. They don't live with the Liberian people. But I have been here with the Liberian people, I have felt their pain, I have shared their joys. I have seen them at their worst, I have seen them at their best. I have been with them, I have worked with them. The other aspiring candidates have not. They don't know what it is to be poor. I know what it is to be poor because I came out of a predominantly poor family."