The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf (along with Liberia's Leymah Gbowee and Yemen's Tawakul Karman) for
championing women's rights, four days before a presidential election, must
count as one of the most political acts in the history of the prize. It
would be hard to imagine the prize being awarded to a sitting American or
European leader less than a week before an election.
This prize also shows the enormous gulf between international perceptions of
Liberia's "Iron Lady" and the more critical view that many Liberians and
West Africans have of her six years in office and past political record. Her
main opponent in the election this week, Winston Tubman, said Sirleaf did
not deserve the prize, describing her as a "warmonger".
Tubman, a former United Nations (UN) technocrat, former justice minister and
the nephew of a former Liberian president, is considered the strongest
challenger to Sirleaf. His vice-presidential running mate is the wildly
popular former football superstar, George Weah. Another candidate is Charles
Brumskine, a former president of the Liberian senate and previous ally of
former warlord-president Charles Taylor. The most colourful presidential
candidate is Prince Johnson, a Liberian senator and former warlord, who
infamously made a video of deposed autocrat Samuel Doe having his ears cut
off, before Johnson killed him. Johnson is now a born-again Christian.
Sirleaf fears that unemployed youths will be recruited by warlords to
restart the country's civil war, which raged for 11 years, until 2003, with
250 000 fatalities. The stakes in these elections are high for both Liberia
and West Africa. An 8 000-strong UN mission in Liberia guarantees security
in the country amidst its still-fledgling national security institutions and
in the face of continuing ethnic and religious tensions.
Instability across the border in Côte d'Ivoire remains a serious concern
following recent post-election violence there. Liberian mercenaries were
involved in the Ivorian conflict, which spilled 160 000 refugees into
Liberia. Guinea also remains politically unstable, even as Sierra Leone
continues its fragile recovery from a decade of civil war.
Liberia is thus precariously located at the epicentre of a volatile Mano
Sirleaf became Africa's first elected female head of state in November 2005.
Under the leadership of the 72-year-old "Ma Ellen", Liberia has made some
impressive progress. The country's external debt of $5.8-billion has been
largely forgiven. About $16-billion in foreign direct investment has flowed
into the country. Some infrastructure has been repaired. An inherited budget
of $80-million has been quadrupled. "Ghost workers" were purged from
ministerial payrolls, saving $3-million a year.
Yet many of Sirleaf's domestic critics have questioned her somewhat
messianic and sometimes selectively ruthless approach to leadership. In July
2009, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended
barring Sirleaf, along with 49 other people, from holding public office for
30 years because of her support for Taylor at the start of the Liberian
civil war in 1989. Though Liberia's Supreme Court subsequently declared the
TRC's recommendation unconstitutional, Sirleaf's allies sought to demonise
the commission, thus damaging the fragile process of reconciliation in a
reckless act of spitefulness.
Determination to succeed
But in what was clearly the biggest misjudgment of her career (and one that
still haunts her), Sirleaf helped raise $10 000 to support Taylor's rebel
movement, which launched a war against Doe's brutal regime in December 1989.
She went to visit the warlord in his bush hideout in 1990. Taylor, recently
tried for alleged war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, later claimed that
Sirleaf had been the international co-ordinator of his movement from 1986 to
The problems inherited by Sirleaf's administration clearly overwhelmed even
her incredible determination to succeed. In Liberia's economy, historically
dominated by rubber and mining, unemployment stood at 95% six years into
Sirleaf's presidency, while foreign aid of $425-million exceeded the
country's $370-million annual budget. Former combatants were not being
provided with jobs quickly enough, leading to instability and crime.
A 2010 United States state department report criticised the government's
continued failure to tackle corruption. More devastatingly, in December
2010, the Berlin-based Transparency International's Global Corruption
Barometer named Liberia the most corrupt country in the world.
Sirleaf had to fire her information minister as well as her internal affairs
minister following reports of corruption. The fact that the latter is her
brother and that her son remains a presidential adviser, replicated the
nepotism she criticised in previous Liberian regimes.
With no legislative majority to work with, Sirleaf has argued that she could
not afford to alienate this branch of government with an anti-corruption
Damaging reports of the government bribing legislators have thus
proliferated. The president's criticism and firing of the combative auditor
general, John Morlu, (who completed 40 audits and criticised the president
for not taking action against corrupt officials fingered in these reports)
and the smear campaign run against him by Sirleaf's associates, again
revealed a ruthlessness that contradicted her rhetorical attacks on the
"debilitating cancer of corruption".
Leaked email revelations in 2007 that Sirleaf's former public works
minister, Willis Knuckles, had solicited kickbacks and the implication of
her brother-in-law and legal adviser in this scandal caused further
embarrassment. Sirleaf dragged her feet before acting against associates
such as Harry Greaves, also accused of corruption.
She would later admit that she had not realised how deep rooted and
pervasive corruption was in Liberian society, suggesting a naive and
out-of-touch president who had perhaps spent too long in exile.
One of Africa's most accomplished technocrats, Sirleaf delivered the sixth
Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg in 2008, eulogising the South African
Nobel Peace laureate and praising his successor Thabo Mbeki's vision of an
"African renaissance". The title of her 2009 memoir, This Child Will Be
Great, was taken from an old man's prophecy and modesty is certainly not one
of Sirleaf's qualities.
Her father was a member of the oligarchy that ruled Liberia from 1847 until
1980. At 17 she married a man whose mother was from a prominent
Americo-Liberian family and had four sons with him. She worked as a
bookkeeper and, when her husband went to study in the US, enrolled at
Madison Business College.
Sirleaf left her husband when he became abusive. She joined Liberia's
finance ministry and enjoyed a meteoric rise after obtaining a master's
degree from Harvard University.
Though a public servant Sirleaf openly criticised government corruption
several times rather than resign before going public. Increasingly sidelined
in the William Tolbert administration, she joined the World Bank in 1973,
travelling to East Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, thus greatly
expanding her horizons.
She showed a consistently impressive determination to succeed, to master her
brief and improve herself and her capacity for hard work was beyond doubt.
Sirleaf returned home to the finance ministry in 1975 and was made finance
minister four years later, eight months before the Doe coup.
Inexplicably, she agreed to work for a regime -- as president of the
Liberian Bank for Development and Investment -- that had killed 13 senior
officials (including six of her former Cabinet colleagues) as well as the
president she had served. She eventually criticised the regime's excesses
publicly, before returning to the World Bank.
Sirleaf then became the first African female vice-president of Citibank,
travelling across Africa from her Nairobi base.
She referred in another critical speech in the US in 1984 to Doe's regime as
"idiots". This predictably landed her in detention on her return to Liberia,
as the insecure autocrat became increasingly paranoid. She was sentenced to
ten years' hard labour. Following international pressure she was released
and won a seat in the Liberian Senate in 1985, a seat she refused to take up
in protest at the fraudulent American-backed election that kept Doe in
power. After a failed coup in the same year, Sirleaf was jailed again and
her unwavering faith and indomitable courage were evident during these
trials and tribulations. She was released from jail and escaped abroad to
work for Equator Bank in the US, and later the UN Development Programme.
Sirleaf has criticised historical American economic exploitation of Liberia,
but as president, she has been widely perceived as being too close to
Washington. After the outbreak of the Liberian civil war in 1989, she called
for American intervention -- which didn't happen -- and criticised the
Economic Community of West African States's Ceasefire Monitoring Group,
arguing, without any evidence and contrary to all military logic, that the
force could have ended the fighting in Liberia much earlier. Her portrayal
of Ecomog is rather unflattering, considering the incredible sacrifices
involving more than 500 fatalities during seven years of lonely
peacekeeping, which saved many Liberian lives.
As African governments vociferously opposed the presence of US military
command in their territory Sirleaf, as president, again displayed her fatal
attraction to Uncle Sam: uniquely, she called for the command to be located
in her country, opportunistically and short-sightedly demonstrating greater
faith in American arms than in Liberian institutions.
Campaigning against Taylor in the 1997 presidential elections, Sirleaf was
seen as elitist and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Liberians.
This resulted in a crushing defeat: she won only 9.5% of the vote, with
Taylor triumphant in a landslide 75% victory.
The slow pace of change in the past six years has made Liberians wary of
Sirleaf's lofty rhetoric. She has already broken her promise to serve only a
single term, thus spurning the example of her professed hero and fellow
Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela.
Given the timing of this award and her political track record, the ennobling
of Liberia's Iron Lady can only be regarded as highly controversial.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict
Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the
Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts.
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Received on Fri Oct 14 2011 - 11:49:15 EDT