Alexander Cummings, the former executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Coca-Cola Co., brings a host of credentials but also several challenges as a presidential candidate in the West African country of Liberia.
In his presidential bid, which he launched shortly after retiring from 18 years at Coke in March last year, Mr. Cummings faces at least 20 opponents seeking to replace President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the upcoming October election as well as questions about his status as a Liberian after living so many years abroad.
Mr. Cummings, 58, was born in Liberia, grew up in Monrovia, the capital, and attended a small Episcopal college before moving to the United States where he earned a finance and economics degree from Northern Illinois University.
Prior to coming to Atlanta where he received an advanced degree in finance at Clark Atlanta University, he moved back to Liberia to work at a bank.
According to press reports, Mr. Cummings has stressed his accomplishments in corporate America as well as his loyalty to his native country during the campaign, which he launched shortly after his retirement from an exemplary career at Coca-Cola.
He first joined Coke in 1997 as deputy region manager for Nigeria after serving in a variety of roles for the Pillsbury Co.
Among his career high points are his role as president of Coca-Cola’s Africa Group from 2001-08 during which he oversaw investments in marketing and infrastructure across 56 African countries and territories.
As president of the Africa Group, he also oversaw the creation of the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, implementing a continent-wide response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which supported prevention and awareness programs as well as establishing a healthcare program for Coke workers affected by HIV/AIDs.
In July 2008, Mr. Cummings was named executive vice president and chief administrative officer to consolidate oversight of key global corporate functions ranging from human resources to strategic planning, security and information technology.
Mr. Cummings has pointed out during his campaign that he is eminently qualified to oversee Liberia’s budget of slightly less than $560 million after having had the catbird seat for Coke’s annual revenues of more than $44 billion.
He has repeatedly stated his desire to serve in an inclusive manner the Liberian people who suffered 14 bloody years of civil unrest and hundreds of thousands of deaths until 2003 with the arrival of United Nations peacekeeping forces, which soon are to depart.
Muhtar Kent, Coke’s president and CEO, covered Mr. Cummings with praise in his farewell statements as a leader focused on growth and efficiency, who also “has a passion for our people and a vision for building sustainable communities as part of our local business.”
More recently, Segun Apata, the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation’s current chairman, called Mr. Cummings at a formal dinner in Atlanta Aug. 11, “the founding father of the foundation.”
“Both Africa and the Coca-Cola system thank him for his vision in establishing the foundation. The foundation is undoubtedly his legacy and we are indebted to him for giving the Coca-Cola system a powerful bridge to all communities on the African continent,” he added pointing to its programs and partnerships in water, youth empowerment and health initiatives.
“The greatest tribute the foundation can pay to him is to rededicate itself to achieving the greater good for the peoples of Africa.”
No doubt fortified by his career and a hefty retirement package, Mr. Cummings is facing a rowdy, competitive campaign during which he will have to overcome charges of being an outsider.
To counter questions about his commitment, he has cited his support in the midst of Liberia’s Ebola crisis to maintain Coke’s staff and operations in the country despite the disease’s impact on the bottom-line of the company’s operations.
Additionally, Coke opened during the health crisis a new bottling line at its facility in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, as well as a technical school in his name — Alexander B. Cummings Model Science and Technology School — which was praised by local officials for teaching skills providing the school’s graduates with access to jobs.
Since retiring, Mr. Cummings and his family have set up a family foundation — the Cummings Africa Foundation, which is focused on empowering and uplifting Africans in the sectors of education, health and agriculture.
Mr. Cummings also has affiliated with a political party — the Alternative National Congress — that he now leads.
He said in a YouTube interview with Front Page Africa online that he supports this breakaway party from the Congress of Democratic Change because of its “bottom-up” development platform, including initiatives to provide skills and create jobs, provide childhood education, invest in housing and infrastructure along with its support of the country’s agricultural sector.
While on the campaign trail, he especially stresses the importance of early childhood education, vocational teaching training and teacher education. He also has not shied away from answering questions about how he would deal as president with the issues of widespread corruption and nepotism.
During the interview, he said that he knew that this would be a “hardball campaign” and already had demonstrated his perseverance. “There are three working days in 24 hours,” he quipped, pledging to reach out to as many of the 4.5 million Liberians as he can.
Despite his best intentions, he faces an eclectic field with some of the candidates already having pressed their claims on the presidency for years. For instance, among the candidates is Joseph Boakai, the current vice president, who will stand on his government’s record.
Benoni Urey, a wealthy businessman who had ties to Charles Taylor under whose leadership Liberia became internationally known as a pariah state due to its use of blood diamonds and illegal timber exports to fund civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, is another candidate with whom Mr. Cummings will have to compete.
Also among the declared candidates is George Weah, the 49-year-old retired soccer player who was named by FIFA in 1995 as the best player in the world. Mr. Weah first ran for president in 2005 as head of a political party, losing to Ms. Johnson Sirleaf in the second round. In 2011 he stood as vice-presidential running mate on the ticket of Winston Tubman, the nephew of William Tubman, one of Liberia’s longest-serving presidents.
Mr. Weah’s viability as a candidate has been strengthened by his defeat of Ms. Sirleaf-Johnson’s son, Robert, in the 2014 election for a senate seat.
Not to be forgotten is Prince Yormie Johnson, a second-term senator, known for having led the insurgents who captured Monrovia in 1990 and oversaw the execution of then president Samuel Doe.
While Mr. Cummings credentials seem well suited to the presidency, he faces a number of personal challenges including the claim that after living in the United States for so many years and assuming U.S. citizenship he does not qualify for the post.
In the YouTube interview, he addresses the issue head-on. “I am a Liberian with a Liberian passport,” he says flatly. “And I’ll probably die a Liberian.”
Mr. Cummings has been cited for being an American citizen carrying a U.S. passport, an issue he does not address in the interview but has confirmed in other settings. Both his parents, like himself, were natural born Liberians.
The Liberian Constitution states that anyone running for public office should be a citizen of Liberia, but the question of whether the constitution prohibits a natural born Liberian who was naturalized in an other country and later regained Liberian citizenship can run for the presidency remains open.
In the interview, Mr. Cummings says that his attorneys have researched the issue extensively and he feels that his campaign is on solid legal ground.
A murky cloud hangs over the issue because former candidates that have run both for the presidency and the senate have had foreign citizenship.
When it was found out that they carried foreign passports, they denied the charges and were further charged in the face of the evidence with deception. Nevertheless, they were permitted to participate in the elections.
Atlanta has extensive ties to Liberia with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local universities playing an important role in stemming the Ebola crisis.
Cynthia Blandford, the country’s honorary consul based in Atlanta, has led the efforts of the University Consortium for Liberia including Southeast-based colleges and universities to spread educational opportunities there.
Ms. Sirleaf-Johnson has spoken at both Spelman College and Emory University, and Joseph Boakai, vice president and presidential candidate, has visited Atlanta institutions to strengthen ties with his country.