, MONROVIA, Liberia, Dec 26 – Liberian presidential candidate George Weah’s running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor began life in politics as first lady to former warlord leader Charles Taylor, but has since established a formidable political reputation in her own right.
Howard-Taylor was a surprise pick for vice-president on the ticket of the footballer turned politician, as many expected her to run for the top job herself.
Her National Patriotic Party (NPP) was formed in 1997 by members of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) — Charles Taylor’s rebel fighters — to allow him to run for president in hopes of ending a civil war that began in 1989.
She married Liberia’s most powerful warlord just before he was elected in 1997 by a population weary of conflict, and was granted a divorce in 2006, while Taylor was living in exile in Nigeria with another woman.
Howard-Taylor’s political career began in earnest when she was elected in 2005 as a senator in Bong County, the nation’s third most populous county, and has since built an image as a resilient hard worker in Liberia’s male-dominated politics.
– ‘Become her own person’ –
“The first thing I’ve done is to believe that I am able to make the changes I talk about,” she told AFP in a recent interview.
“I have made promises I have fulfilled in education, healthcare and infrastructure development, and so I hope over the past 12 years Jewel Howard has become her own person working for peace, working for prosperity and working for development,” she added.
Her NPP party agreed to form a coalition with Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) in 2017, on the condition Howard-Taylor could run as vice-president.
No matter what she does to distance herself, Howard-Taylor’s proximity to Taylor remains a talking point, and in a nation where the ex-president is still revered by many, her presence seems to have been an asset for Weah.
The former AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain football star won just 10.7 percent of the vote in Bong County when he stood for president in 2005, but in the first round of voting in 2017 his share of the vote shot up to 40.6 percent.
However Weah was expected to take a hit in Grand Gedeh county, a traditional stronghold for supporters of Samuel Doe, the president Taylor overthrew in a coup.
And although Weah’s numbers did drop from 88.3 percent to 74.9 percent, he still remains a clear favourite in the area despite running with Howard-Taylor at his side.
The long-delayed run-off vote between Weah and Vice President Joseph Boakai will take place on Tuesday.
– ‘Very thin line’ –
“I think it’s unfair for people to assume that because she has kept the Taylor first name that she hasn’t built her own political empire,” noted Liberian activist and scholar Robtel Neajai Pailey.
But some say she can never separate herself from her past alliances.
“Her name is Jewel Howard-Taylor, so it has a very thin line between the separation as a first lady and a separation as a senator, for the fact that most people (here) still owe Charles Taylor so greatly,” said Uriah Mitchell, head of programmes and production at Radio Gbarnga in Bong County’s capital.
Taylor is currently serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in a British prison, although he was convicted of funding rebel groups in Sierra Leone, not the recruitment of child soldiers, killings, rape and pillaging of which he is accused at home.
Questions remain over how much Howard-Taylor knew of her husband’s crimes, as she was studying and working abroad during his rebel years before he was elected president.
She is now estranged from Taylor, though she has admitted staying in contact with the father of her two children.
Howard-Taylor has also opposed war crime prosecutions in Liberia, which has never prosecuted rebel leaders from crimes committed during its back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003.