FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

23 July 2014

Liberia: The 'Game Changer' - Ben Sanvee Looking to Unlock Montserrado

interview

Monrovia — Benjamin Sanvee, youth Advisor to former Liberian President Charles Taylor who was recently endorsed by the opposition Liberty Party as its candidate for the pending Montserrado County senatorial election, says he is looking to be a fighter at the Liberian senate if elected by the people of the most populous county. Sanvee says Liberians mainly people in Montserrado are looking for new trends and new ways of doing things and that is what he brings to the national table. In an exclusive interview with FRONTPAGEAFRICA Sanvee challenged perceptions from quarters that the county is owned by any political party, individual or politician judging from the shrinkage in votes from the 2005 election to 2011, vowing that he is not looking after names, but actively engaging the people of the county to elect him to the senate where he will be a fighter to work with the people to change things for the better.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Who is Benjamin Sanvee?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I always like to let people know that, first of all, I am a father, I am a husband, I am someone who deeply loves my country and I am a patriot. I believe that service is probably one of the greatest callings that one can have as far as serving one's county and one community. So I consider myself a patriot and I do know that love I this country to the extent that I am willing to serve. We will talk about the political side of things, but whenever people ask me this question; I always like to name those three things, being a father, a husband and a patriot because those are the things that define my life.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Why are you running to become senator of Montserrado County?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I am running not because I have had his long-held dream to become senator, I saw a moment, I saw a shock and I saw an opportunity for our people to start to see things differently, to elevate a conversation that prior to us entering this race was set in stone.

I am not running because I am looking for a job. I am running because I have a passion to serve. I have a passion to do what I do, I wake up every single day thinking about ways in how we can uplift our people, the ways in which we can help a market woman who is trying to remove herself from the current situation she is in to put herself in a better position. I am running because of that young man who is riding the motorcycle and does not have a future as far as where he goes from riding the motorcycle. I am running because, I know that my parents are depending on me, on my generation to be able to create and build a Liberia that they can retire in. I am running that there is a certain symbolism in my candidacy; that for the first time our people are summoning themselves to something greater than just the status co that because something is set in stone or conventional wisdom speaks toward this thing, so this is how it is supposed to be. So in essence from a policy standpoint, I have always said I intend to be a fighter in the Liberia senate; I don't consider myself a perfect human being. I will not be perfect senator, but I promise the people of this county that I will be a fighter to fight for the issues that will be able to uplift their lives.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What has been your involvement past and present with the people of Montserrado County?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I was born and raised here, I went to high school here, Cathedral High School had an opportunity, I got a blessing to travel to go and further my study in the United States, but of course a lot of people know that I served as National Youth Advisor to the former President of Liberia, former President Charles Taylor. During my tenure, you know it is a record that I am very proud because we worked tirelessly with relevant government agencies, we worked with young people. Our advocacy led to the construction of a school in the Borough of New Kru Town, our advocacy led to the renovation and construction of the former Bassa Community Academy. We worked hard with the Ministry of Education to implement the Assistance Enrollment Program that benefited close to 200,000 students, students from across this country.

Our advocacy and our recommendations led to the Liberian Government paying the WAEC fees for the first time for 9th and 12th grade students in public schools. I represented this country at numerous of conferences around the world, taking along with me delegations, in some cases 10 to 20 young people from across the political spectrum of this country. I have always said that I do not have a lengthy resume, but my resume doesn't overshadow the passion that I have for the service.

When I came from University, I started a nonprofit organization, I do not like to call it nonprofit because it is a political movement also, call the New Vision Park, what we did was he had this program call Team Liberia Fellowship where we trained young men and women into becoming community leaders how to build strong communities around systems that will be able to implement and uplift their lives and of course the highlight of what we did was in 2011 elections when we held the presidential and vice presidential debates and some legislative debates in certain counties, so my service has been one of passion, is one of my connection with the people of this county and I felt that some point my finger print were not been seen because it was deliberate advising the president, you give your advice and the President decides to implement or not. But those are some of the things that we have done and we will continue to do, I don't like to talk about scholarship, how many people I have on scholarship because those things, I am doing it not because I want to score political points, I am doing it because I believe that education is the foundation on which any society or any successful country should be built.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: During the time you served as youth advisor to former president Taylor, many will argue that there were no known youth programs, but instead youths were conscripted and forced into the ATU and other militias to fight, so how does that affect your candidacy?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, you know during my period, in fact, I served as youth advisor for 11 months and I think it was from 1998 to 199 because I was in the 12th grade after which when I graduated I had the opportunity to travel. During my tenure, I never heard of cases where young people were conscripted and in fact my ascendancy as youth advisor was based on the premise of me not being in agreement with what the government was doing on certain issues, but at that particular point in time, it was during that period, we did not have the war, I do know it happened after the civil war, sparked off again and it was something we were very vocal against. We registered our disagreement and were very vocal about the fact that the young people of our country should not be used toward fighting wars and pillaging and doing those things, but they should be used in a positive way and I believe that at this particular point in time mine message to a lot of young people is that we cannot allow our past to hold us hostage. Our past should not define what our future will look like, we will learn from our past so that we do not repeat those mistakes and I will continue to say that I am head focus on the future and what we can do as a nation to not make those mistakes, because we know where those mistakes got us.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Mr. Sanvee, the Liberty party has not done so well in Montserrado County during the past two elections in 2005 and 2011 in terms of legislative election. What difference can the party make with a Sanvee as its candidate?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, you know one of the interesting things of what had happened is that when we joined the Liberty party, we were very, very clear that we were going to go from a position of strength, prior to me joining the Liberty Party earlier this year, we had built a movement, the Team Sanvee movement which carved this whole candidacy, we have built a movement across the county, look some of the most inspirational stories that I have heard on this trail and that I am going to be communicating during this campaign are stories from young and old people who have stood up and have risen up to say, we believe in what you are saying. We believe in what this is about and we agree that this county deserves a fresh part, so when it comes to the issue of the Liberty party, you have to understand something, we may not have won as many seats as other political parties have won, but when you look at the numbers, demographic, there were places where Liberty Party candidates came third; where they came second and when you add all of those components together, that's why I believe that this county is not owned by any political party because the numbers speak differently. So, we believe that our candidacy coming on board provides an opportunity and the Liberty Party will work hard, to be able to build. We know that some of the things that we are doing have not been done before in Liberian politics. We are reaching out; we are doing things for the first time and people are noticing and saying you are doing something different.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Montserrado County is considered the stronghold of George Weah and the CDC, what gives you the confidence that you can make inroads in this county?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, no one is being naive enough to negate the fact that Ambassador Weah is an extremely popular figure, I have always said that I respect him, I believe he is someone who love this country like I do but we just have fundamental political differences. But again like I said, this notion that one political party, one politician, one political leader has a stronghold or ownership of an entire county, I believe that the facts does not add up. If you look at what has happened with the trend of electioneering across this country, you will see that there has been some shrinkage when it comes to the whole issue of numbers and where the CDC was in 2005 and where the CDC is today. So what we have done is not to focus on what the CDC is going to do, we are focusing on what we are going to do, how effective our campaign will be; that is it for us. We are going to take the message to the people and we are going take the fight directly to our opponents and let them know this is an election about the issues and it is not just going to be about who is popular, what they done before and many votes they had won in the past, because the key to this is that the mindset of our people is changing, there is a political shift happening in the county and we are going take advantage of that shift.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: This issue of privileged background has been up in the days and weeks leading to your endorsement by the Liberty Party. How do you hope to convince voters that you are one of them, you understand their plight, and you understand their frustrations and whatever?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: The fact of the matter is I do not believe that I come from a privileged background and I am not running away from it. I am not from a rich family, but I always tell people that I am from a family of hard workers. I am from a family of people who installed into me the principles and fundamentals of working hard and being honest in everything that I do and I am not going to apologize for that. I am not from a poor family, the reality is that when people work hard and that is the message that we need to send across to our people. That it is not ok for you to remain in the position that you are in but it is not also ok for society to create an environment where people cannot grow. That is why some of us are in this race; that is why when I say to you that I intend to be a fighter, that is what I mean because I was taught that you don't get things easily that when you get things easily, you don't appreciate it. That's why someone said to me why are you running now, you so young, you're 32-years-old, wait for the House of Representatives. My thing is, that is one of the reasons why we have a lot of deficiencies when it comes to leadership in our country because half of the people that were elected got elected just based on the fact that someone went into their communities, into their districts and put their hands in the air and somebody followed them. So in the end there is no appreciation of what the constituencies brought to the table. What I have said and I will continue to say is that my upbringing has defined me and shaped me into the man that I am and that is something I am extremely proud of. I have worked very hard in my entire life and I appreciate the upbringing that I have, the whole value that was instilled in me by my family and I believe that the people of this county are not looking for somebody who necessarily is someone who was born in a particular part of the county, they are looking for a fighter, they are looking for someone who will be able to help work with them to solve the problems.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: This issue of citizenship is one of the most talked about nowadays, you are one of many Liberians who had the opportunity to travel outside the country so many Liberians took up foreign citizenship because they needed to get good jobs and a better standard of living. Are you a Liberian, an American or have citizenship of both?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I am a bona fide Liberian and it was a decision that I made, I had the opportunity if I wanted to, to get US citizenship. But it was a decision that I made and I am willing to provide all disclosures to that, my issue is, for me it is something that I take very serious because our laws are very clear, the issue of dual citizenship, we can have that conversation, but as it stands today anyone who intends to seek elective office in Liberia, you have to be a Liberian citizen and I am one, I hold no other nationality apart from my Liberian citizenship.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let's look at the issue of the Robert Sirleaf candidacy. There are reports that he has been paying off some of the candidates that will be contesting the election. Has there been any offer(s) from Mr. Sirleaf or anyone asking you relinquish your quest?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, no I wouldn't say there was an offer, but I will say there have been conversations. You know in the political arena people have conversations, you talk, you reach out to one another, you get a chance to interact with one another, but in the end, look I am in this race, I have made it clear and I am sure that everyone is aware that when we started this process, we were committed to this process and we remain committed to this process. I am in this race, I said that I will not, not when people believe in me when nobody thought that there was even shock, here, so for me it is about validating what I believe in and making sure that we still the course, so, no I will not say offers were made, I will say conversations were held that I will not deny, conversations happened because in the end we welcome him into the race. I was one of the first persons, I think, I probably was the first person that picked up the phone and called him and thanked him when he made the decision that he was going to accept the petition. The reason I did that is because I believe it is good for our politics, we are competitors but we are not enemies. In the end when Robert Sirleaf becomes a Senator, he will be my senator, if I become senator, I will be his senator. The fact of the matter is that it is good for our body politics and we encourage everyone who wants to come, all we ask for is an honest and spirited debate on the issues, where our people can have an opportunity to make a clear decision on who represents them in the Liberian Senate.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: During your conversations with Mr. Sirleaf did he at any time make an offer asking you to back off from the race?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, no, I would not go as far as saying that. I will say of course he did say "at the end of the day, this is what it is". I am thinking about it, but Mr. Sirleaf did not. Like I said, I have a great degree of respect for him and all the other competitors in this race. We are all friends, we talk, in fact last night I was with Ali Sylla, we were talking, we were laughing; Ambassador Weah, I know him very well, so there is nothing different with that. In the end what I have said and will always say that come October 14 you will see Benjamin Sanvee and the Liberty party on the ballot. For me that is what it is and I think everybody knows that by now.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Is it true that you are rallying support against Ambassador Weah and Mr. Sirleaf before the NEC or the court for dual citizenship?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: No, I am not. I do not believe that I have ever said that.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Others believe that you are planning to do that either through some splinter groups or as Benjamin Sanvee to take complaints to the NEC challenging these guys citizenship?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Listen, I have been very clear on my position when it comes to this citizenship issue. I too have seen this purported passport of Ambassador Weah, I have seen all these documents, I am hoping that and I think I have said this before that these two and all other people being accused or whatever is defined as accusations and whatever it is, I believe that they are honorable people. I believe that they will do the right thing and follow the law of our country and at the end of the day what I believe needs to happen is that if there are evidence to show that someone is a US citizen or is citizen of another country, not necessarily just the United States, that person should not be running, it is just that simple, because our laws are very clear on that, but as it stands right now, I have no intention whatsoever to do that because like I said again, I have not heard from Ambassador Weah on the issue and I am waiting to hear from him. I think I said that in a response to this very FRONTPAGEAFRICA and I am waiting to hear from him. I am waiting to hear Mr. Sirleaf saying what he has to say on the issue and guess what I do believe maybe to solve this issue, we should go a step further, maybe we should show proof of our citizenship, maybe we should go a step further in trying to calm this situation down and that is something I am willing to do.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: If the two don't speak out and there is no complaint from any other source, would you accept them and go into the race?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Well, no, not in the face of evidence. If evidence is presented to me that is convinced that there are US citizens participating in this election, definitely than there is a need for us to take action. But like I said, as it stands right now these are allegations going on, people denying it and people are saying that they are not, but like said I want to hear from the horse's mouth and then you will be able to form an opinion or a decision about what you want to do.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: So do you have people looking for that evidence for you because they are not going to bring such evidence to you. For example Mr. Sirleaf is not going to bring his passport to you. Do you have people doing some work for you in the background to try to get these pieces of evidence for you?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: No, right now we are focused on building our campaign. Political parties are supposed to be filling their candidates' nomination to NEC, we are focused on building our campaign team, we are focused on reaching out to our people, continuing our awareness and when the campaign starts. We will go into the nitty gritty of it, but honestly, I am not aggressively out there. I don't have the luxury of time to do that, but again like I said if evidence is presented but I am not going to go out there to look for it.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: There are several names in the Montserrado race, prominent amongst them is George Weah and Robert Sirleaf. Robert Sirleaf has lots of money he's going to spend, George Weah is popular, and how are you going to counter the two?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: You know the interesting thing about this race is that or, I do believe money is necessary in electioneering. Yes, you have to print campaign materials, you have to do that, but I do not believe that the driving force in this race is going to be about money. If people's strategy coming in this process is to spend a lot of money and believe that they will buy people or buy their votes, I have news for them, because the reality is that the people of this county; I would dare say the people of this country, have realized that proper representation only comes up when they scrutinize and reach out and understand what their candidates can do, that's the bet that we have taken, the bet that we have placed and that the people of this county will make an informed decision at the end of the day. If you have your money to spend , I have said to people, no one will refuse money, you know I will, l will not be in the position to tell anybody to refuse money from people when they have money to give you, all I have said to people in whatever you do is that in the end, look at the issues, look at the candidates, look at our different plans and then make your decision, but at the end of the day popularity yes is needed, money yes is essential, but it will not be the only thing that will drive the voters to making a decision in this race. We have seen this so far because we have seen it so far, the fact of the matter is that Ben Sanvee, look I am not rich, I have always said it; but I am one of the top contenders so it is proven that mystery wrong in fact.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: So who do you consider your most feared rival in this election?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I don't take any one of the candidates for granted. The fact of the matter is that we are going to work hard. We are going to reach out to our people and we are going to win on the issues. For me, it is not about singling out one person, because I am not going to do that, what I am going to do is to draw the contrasts. I am hoping that all the competitors in this race will come up with their plans and debate the issues because in the end the people should be able to hear from us. They should be able to hear us explain the things we say we want to do, that's the debate I am willing to have liked yesterday. We are willing to start this conversation and continue to take this conversation, but one particular person I will never single out one particular person. You know why, because I believe we all have something we bring to the table, but in the end, it is about drawing that contrast from the people that is making that decision.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: If you have the change to look in the eyes of each voters how will you convince them that you are different from the current senator?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I have said over and over that for me this is not about saying all the right things and creating expectations that I know I cannot meet. I have said over and over that I intend to be a fighter and I intend to fight a good fight because on that Senate floor is a competition of interest and ideas. I do know that I have a passion to serve; I do know that I have some good ideas; I do not have a monopoly of ideas and monopoly of solutions, but what I will say to the people of this county is that what we represent in this process is a fresh start. We represent opportunities for our people to start to do things differently to start to see politics in a whole new demission. We represent a shock in the system; the fact that a Benjamin Sanvee is having this conversation and he is a top contender for this seat in itself speaks to the mindset of where our people are. So directly to our people, I say to them that I know you are frustrated; I know you are tired and some of you don't want to vote, but in the end, the only thing that can guarantee you a stake in this process is your vote.

So that's why I encourage them so even if you don't want to vote at the end of the day if you don't vote there still is going to be a senator, people will go out there and elect that person and that person will make a decision about your life for the next nine years, which by the way I think is extremely long and I believe we who are in this race must make a commitment that there is a need for us to reduce the tenure.

My message is simple. We represent a fresh start, we have new ideas, we are going to talk about the economy, education. We are going to talk about, most importantly, the symbolism of leadership, that when people decide when ordinary people come together extraordinary things happen; that when people decide and say you can do that's when we say yes we can do it. So my message is very simple it is not complicated it is not over the top, it is a message of inspiration, it is a message that yes with all of the frustration, with all of the despair that is going on around here, we will sit and we will say at the end of the day, it can still happen we cannot give up on Liberia because Liberia is the only country we have.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What kind of Lawmaker will Sanvee be?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Very progressive, very robust, very engaging. I will remain steadfast in my engagement with my constituency. I will remain steadfast in my engagement with stakeholders because it is a tricky role, it is a numbers game, but what I do believe is that Montserrado county presents a unique opportunity based on the importance of this county within our body politics, within our country the largest economy , the most populated county, so it is in my interest to proffer bills to be able to win support from my colleagues, for example when I am fighting for more subsidies for the University of Liberia, it is in the interest of the Bong County senator to support it because there is a Bong Student Union at the University of Liberia. There's a Grand Gedeh Student Union, so there's so many things that can happen, but again, it has to come from outside the box. Thinking it cannot be the same old way, the same old thing; it has to be something that people understand, that you know what at the end of the day this is about us. This cannot just be about the powers that be. How much money you make or what you do is how we can uplift the life of our people. So I intend to be very aggressive, but I intend to be very, very engaging and have access to our constituents.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Some believe that Sanvee sincerely knows that he cannot win Montserrado County but he just wants to go into the race to see what areas he is capable of pulling votes from so that in 2017 he can make a run as a Representative.

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Look, let me honest with you. I have heard that theory, that was the first thing people said when I decided to run and I told them, you know ask anyone who knows me, I am not suicidal, getting popularity in Montserrado county or Liberia is one of the easiest things to do. Probably, all need to say is President Sirleaf needs to resign, the next day the headlines will read, "Taylor former Youth Advisor calls for President Sirleaf resignation". I will be probably one of the most popular people in this country and county. The fact of the matter is that this is not a game to me. This is not something I am taking lightly because you know what that the people who believe in me, there are people who believe in what we are talking about. There are people who believe in what we intend to do so this cannot be a game this has to be something far beyond everything that we know that has been offered before.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How was your relationship with former President Charles Taylor before you left his regime and how was it when you were away because based on that fact, upon your return, there's this NPP you have not gone to the party of the man you served, how do you think about all the treatment that have been meted against Mr. Taylor?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: My relationship with President Taylor was very cordial it was a good relationship. I always tell people that I am proud of my record as Youth Advisor, did we agree on everything. No, in fact, my initiation or my entry into his government was based on the premises of me disagreeing with him, standing up at the Unity Conference Center and looking him in the face and telling him this is what you are doing wrong and I believe this is not supposed to be happening. But we did have a cordial relationship ok and at the end of the day I said this over and over, President Taylor has gone through a process, he has been sentenced and is going through a difficult period in his life. I know his family very well, I am very close to his family. I know Senator Taylor; his ex-wife is someone who I admire deeply. She's very close to me, I will even go as far as saying, we have a very, very strong working relationship and personal relationship as far as knowing where they have gone through as a family. I know all his children, but I will say, moving forward for me and I have seen what has happened over the last couple of years, I even think President Taylor will want me to focus more on the future, he will want me to appreciate. When he was leaving, he said I am leaving because I want Liberia to live. For me, I appreciated that because in the end it is because of some of that moment; some of those decisions that were made that today a Ben Sanvee can stand up to say that he wants to be a Senator. So in the end for me, I know it is a difficult thing for him. I know what he has gone through, but look we are headed toward the future and we know where we are going?

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Why Did You Not Join the National Patriotic Party?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: In all honesty, I had consultations with numerous political parties, including the National Patriotic Party but I felt that at this particular moment and I intend to stay a member of the Liberty Party. I am not a grasshopper, I don't jump from one place to the other, but like I said, what the Liberty Party presented to me was a political institution, that was very constructive when it comes to national leadership and how they engage national government. Liberty Party has lost two elections and I never heard them going into the bush to start a war. They are very constructive; they set a tone that other parties have emulated in our democratic space. So for me it was no disrespect to the NPP; it was no disrespect to the ANC or to any Political party. In fact, I reached out to all of them when I made my decision to say that I have decided to go this way. So it was nothing personal and it was nothing that comes from a negative place.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Some say you have not been active in the Liberty Party over the past years and coming to be endorsed as the party candidate for a county like Montserrado, many believe that it was a decision taken at the top and you might not get the support of Liberty Party Partisans in Montserrado County?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: Then those people, who are saying it, do not understand the level of commitment and level of excitement that our entry into the party had drawn. Our caucus that was held we received numerous endorsements. Look, the fact of the matter is that yes, I was not a member of the Liberty Party for the last ten years, but in the essence it was a mutual thing, it was a respect too. They understood what capacity, we were bringing to the party, and we respect the institution that we were going to be a part of. So for me, it is about what we do going forward. It is about building the institution making it stronger and like I said in the end, I believe that the Liberty Party has positioned itself as the alternative. We just need to continue to work that's why we are going to fight to win Montserrado. We are going to fight to win Bassa; we are going to fight to win as many counties as we can win because in the end, what will happen is that people will then see the Liberty Party as that alternative that they can go toward and our campaign is not just focused on Liberty partisans, we are a big tent and encouraging other people to come on board.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Is there anything we did not ask and you want to comment on in your final words?

BENJAMIN SANVEE: I just want to continue to inspire our people to alert our people that all hope is not lost; that this moment that our standing is a moment where people should summon their greatest aspiration and especially to my generation, the young generation or we have an opportunity to make history. We have an opportunity to do things differently. I know that there are things that going to be enticing. I know that there will be people who will try to scare you away and make you believe that oh yes you know what? The future is ahead. I say the future is today, the life expectancy in Liberia is between 65 to I think 68-years-old. I am 32 years old, so that by virtue of that, it means that I am no longer a young man if we were going by the life expectancy in Liberia. So that's why I say the future is today. But my final message is simple. We intend to have a honest conversation, we call for a peaceful election, I called on my competitors or would be opponents to engage in a spiritual conversation that our people will be able to make an informed decision. But I am excited and I look forward to the days and months ahead.

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