West Orange man to return to Liberia, run for president

James Gonmiah
James Gonmiah

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange is already well-known as the former home of Thomas Edison in addition to a host of other significant figures, but it may soon be recognized as a residence of a future president.

The township’s own James Gonmiah is currently readying his campaign for a presidential run in his native Liberia, which will hold its election in October 2017. Gonmiah has yet to officially declare his candidacy — being about halfway finished with fulfilling Liberia’s requirements to run for president — but he hopes to get on the ballot by the end of August. And he is looking forward to launching his campaign, because he believes he has a plan to turn his country’s troubles around.

“Liberia can do better,” Gonmiah told the West Orange Chronicle in a July 25 phone interview. “But we cannot just sit and criticize. We have to do something to bring a meaningful change to our people. We have to go out there and roll up our sleeves and let them know that we can have something better than what we have had for the past 20 years.”

Gonmiah, who earned national respect as a broadcast journalist in Liberia covering the presidential palace before relocating to the United States amid political violence in 1986, said a key way to make his homeland prosperous is to start putting the country’s abundance of natural resources to use for its people. Though Liberia is rich with resources including iron ore, diamonds, gold, timber and rubber, the country remains underdeveloped and its people are lacking. According to UNICEF, 83.8 percent of the Liberian population lived below the international poverty line of U.S. $1.25 per day between 2007 and 2011. The reason for this, Gonmiah said, is that the Liberian leadership exports the resources to other nations rather than putting them to use within its own borders.

If elected, Gonmiah said he would first review all national contracts to make sure that they are in the best interests of the population at large rather than just a few in power. He said he would also use the country’s natural resources as needed to improve the lives of Liberians. For instance, he said many schools are currently without desks despite the fact that Liberia has an abundance of forests. Instead of shipping its own timber to other countries, he said he would make sure it is used to benefit the nation’s citizens.

“We have enough resources in Liberia to make us self-sufficient in everything we need,” Gonmiah said. “We don’t need financial aid from the Western countries or from China or from all these places. But we want to be able to be treated on an equal level. If we can encourage investors to invest in our resource development, that would help us.”

Attracting investors will be a boon to the Liberian economy, Gonmiah said, because the nation currently does not have the means to process its own raw materials. He said bringing in outside investors would allow Liberia to open factories within its borders rather than having to send raw materials outside the country. And that would put many Liberians to work, he said.

Yet Gonmiah also knows that attracting international investors is unlikely if they do not believe Liberia is safe. And the country is on shaky ground. Two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 left approximately 250,000 people dead and the country struggling to recover; United Nations peacekeeping forces only recently turned over the security reigns to the Liberian government in June. Additionally, Liberia has only had one president since the fighting ended — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — leading many pundits to wonder, now that Johnson Sirleaf has hit her two-term limit, how smooth the presidential transition will be.

Gonmiah has ideas about how to make Liberia more stable, though. If elected, he said he would try to pass a law bringing the country closer to the United States’ federal system of government. Though Liberia has a three-branch government like the United States, the potential candidate said too much power has been given to the president, which has led to “rampant” corruption. His law would allow county superintendents and city mayors to be elected by the people rather than appointed by the president. He said he also will make sure that utilities — such as the water and electrical systems — are privatized and that the country has a free press that can bring corruption to light.

As for security, Gonmiah said he would work to establish a policing system based on the one in the United States, one that includes a national police force in addition to local departments within counties and cities. He said he would ask for help from law enforcement experts to set up the new police system.

Above all, Gonmiah said he would rely on his Christian faith in making all decisions. Though he would never repress any religion, he said he would call on his country’s 85.5 percent Christian population to repent for the sins of past few decades because he believes that is the only way the country will heal. And he would encourage his people to practice Christian morality in order to put an end to the corruption he said has plagued the nation for too long.

“If we are to govern as believers, then we should make sure things like corruption don’t exist,” Gonmiah said. “Corruption hurts the people, the citizens of the country. It means one person is taking everything and the rest of the people are getting nothing. My faith in Jesus Christ prepares me better for the situation Liberia is facing right now.”

A little more than a year ago, Gonmiah’s faith led him to his decision to run for president. Pastor Greg Boyle of the Unconditional Love Christian Fellowship Church said he first suggested the idea to his congregant and recalled that Gonmiah was shocked because he had been told once before to run for office. The two prayed together before Gonmiah began his mission.

With Gonmiah now almost ready to announce his candidacy, Boyle said he is glad his congregant chose to follow through with the decision. The pastor is no stranger to the problems plaguing Liberia since Unconditional Love has two sister churches in the country to which it sends aid monthly. And he said the nation needs a “wonderful man of God” like Gonmiah to be in charge.

“We should do what we can to bring God’s will and God’s kingdom to Earth,” Boyle told the Chronicle in a July 21 phone interview. “I believe that by changing the leadership of that nation to have real Christian leadership, it will release tremendous blessing.”

Of course, no one thought it would be an easy path to the presidency. As Gonmiah explained, there is a lengthy process just to legally declare one’s candidacy in Liberia that involves registering one’s own political party and establishing offices in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. And that costs money — including a minimum $10,000 deposit.

But Deacon Roy Jensen said the Unconditional Love congregation is behind Gonmiah. Over the past year, Jensen said the church has reached out to private contributors and held small fundraisers in order to help pay for the election costs. He said it hopes to hold a more elaborate fundraiser to officially announce Gonmiah’s presidential run.

While even Jensen admitted that it seemed like a “pie in the sky idea” to him at first, the deacon said Gonmiah would not be the first person to defy the odds.

“God is about raising up the least likely candidate,” Jensen told the Chronicle in a July 22 phone interview. “Moses was probably the least likely candidate. He was a slight man who spoke with a speech impediment, and he was shy and afraid. He didn’t think that he had what it took to lead the (Israelites) out of Egypt. But God chooses the candidates He thinks can do the job.”

Gonmiah said he does not know how much money has been collected so far since it is spent on election costs as soon as it comes in. But he said he appreciates the support of his congregation as well as the 20,000 people who have joined Friends of James Gonmiah groups throughout Liberia. He said his American wife, Cass, and their five children also are firmly by his side as they prepare to return to Liberia later this year — they previously lived there in 2005 while doing humanitarian work — because they know how much the presidential campaign means to him.

And having the chance to serve his country as president means a lot to Gonmiah. Though he moved to the United States years ago, he has regularly returned to his homeland since the civil wars ended to do charity work. To serve his people as their leader would be something else entirely, he said.

“It would be an honor because I love this country,” Gonmiah said. “This country has a lot of historical greatness that it has departed from. It would be an honor for me not only to be president, but to direct our people to see new things and realize the potential of the country.”