A Tribute to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia


Come January 2018, Liberians will be experiencing the first smooth transition of executive power in 73 years, when President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hand over power to a successor following a hotly contested runoff election between her VP, Joseph N. Boakai, and opposition leader George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change.

The transition brings to a climax 12 years of a leadership that saw Liberia evolved from the crucible of war to a nation that has regained its footing as a stable democracy. 

Despite a few developmental hiccups, due to the Ebola scare of 2014-15, and the fall of commodity prices on the world market that had a rippling negative effect on the country’s economy, the incoming President will have a pretty good developmental template to work off of.

A solid foundation has been laid. New institutions of horizontal accountability, or integrity institutions, as they are known locally by acronyms such as the GAC PPCC, and LACC, are now part and parcel of the Liberian political landscape; designed to rein in corruption and boost transparency in government. Will touch on corruption later.  

Human rights and freedom of expression are vigorously on display in Sirleaf’s Liberia. 

Newspapers in Monrovia, which has one of the highest ratio of newspapers per population in an urban city in Africa, have been licensed to give the news impartially without fear or favor.  

Radio commentators have also permeated the airwaves with their critique or support of government policies depending on their political persuasion. Yes, the new leader will find a nation on the mend, a far cry from the dystopic cesspool with an $80 million national budget that the Sirleaf-Boakai team inherited 12 years ago. 

No leader ever, in the history of Liberia, has had to face the near insurmountable challenges that the Sirleaf Boakai team faced in 2006; an emaciated population with over one million internally displaced, or within refugee settlements scattered throughout the sub-region, empty government coffers, lack of electricity and pipe borne water, no healthcare infrastructure to speak of, a country facing sanctions,  and security in the hands of the United Nation Mission To Liberia, better known as UNMIL.. 

I remembered visiting Liberia in late December, 2005 leading up to the inauguration of Africa’s first female President. The scars of war were all too visible; bullet pocked buildings lined roads with crater sized potholes.

It dawned on me that this was the Liberia that some elements of the Liberian elites in the US had written off as a failed state that needed the immediate imposition of UN Trusteeship. Fourteen years of an uncivil war had hardened the attitudes of Liberians who believed that  one of their own could not run the affairs of the country.

The East Timor and Kosovo trusteeships were the models touted for Liberia by the elites. Both countries had gone through a period of bloodletting which only abated with the intervention of the UN, and later trusteeship by that body. But the Liberian elites were not alone, this was a suggestion that was gaining currency amongst American policy makers, as well as leaders of US public opinion.  

In an August 17, 2003,  New York Times article dubbed ” An evolving idea for Liberia envisions UN trusteeship”,  the writer  Tim Weiner argued that stripping Africa’s oldest republic of its sovereignty and independence through a  trusteeship could provide the political and military architecture for rebuilding the fractured framework of society in Liberia, including the police, hospitals, schools, and government itself.

The country needed a reset to save Liberia from itself. The elites and opinion leaders were not totally off-kilter or being mean-spirited with their suggestion of Liberia as a UN protectorate, there were ample evidence that the country had the toxic ingredients that made the country a rich target for trusteeship. 

 Countless numbers of non-productive peace conferences between warring factions at the height of the civil war, and the eventual emergence of Charles Taylor, an international pariah as President, were graphic evidence that the country was on the verge of collapse and needed some sort of intervention, quickly. 

Enter Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Sirleaf, a one-time Finance Minister of Liberia under the regime of President William Tolbert, had extensive experience in international development finance with international agencies such as the World Bank and Citibank. 

So to say she had the specific technical skills to move the battered country forward, is an understatement.  The incoming President’s first order of day was to design a hierarchy of priorities to take the country off of financial life support.

That meant using her vast Rolodex of contacts in the various western finance organizations to negotiate Liberia’s multi-billion dollar debts that had ballooned due to interest and penalty charges during the country’s civil crisis.  

Consider this.  In June 2007, Liberia’s foreign debt totaled 4.9 billion dollars, equivalent to 700 percent of Liberia’s national income, by far the highest debt-to-GDP ratio among developing countries. That was the Liberian paradox in 2006. One of the few ray of hopes the country had was its newly elected President, who could ably navigate the landscape, and understood the complex language of development financing.

I remember dubbing the new President as Liberia’s business development or sales manager; her function was much like a sales manager who made sales calls to clients and potential clients. In her case, the clients were all overseas, so the calls were followed up with in-person visits. The President felt that the country was in such dire straits she would better make the presentation herself to the various international organizations holding the country’s debt.

Those visits also created the opportunity to meet with western captains of industries to make the case for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Yes, there were some critics within the vocal minority who railed against the President’s frequent travels abroad, but they were missing the forest for the trees.

That trip, besides negotiating debt reduction, and wooing investors, was also aimed at buoying the confidence of the relatively large Liberian Diaspora in the West.  She wanted this group to buy into her development plans…and they did in many ways.

Today all over Liberia, Liberians residing in the USA and other western countries have responded to the President’s invitation by building businesses and homes through the length and breadth of the country. It is also no accident that the “Ellen Effect”   is responsible for Liberia being one of the largest ratios of remittance per population on the planet. In fact, a third of Liberia’s GDP comes from remittances from its diaspora. 

Contrary to criticisms from some elements within the radical feminist community that Africa’s first female leader has done very little to uplift women, socially, economically, and politically, the facts, retrofitted by data, show that Liberian Women have been playing an assertive role in all sectors of society the past 12 years. 

A noteworthy example includes the election of 2017, which showed a hundred-fold increase in women, not only as voters but as candidates as well. Data from the National Elections Commission show that from Cape Mount County to Maryland, and all other counties in between, women were actively seeking to represent their various constituencies.  The critics, I believe, are losing control of the language of proportion.

Twelve years of a woman President cannot translate into automatic gains for women, especially in a post-conflict society replete with challenges and competing development priorities. The expectation that the President would have solved all women’s problem is implausible. But again, radical feminists tend to see the world in extremes, with them there’s no gray area or nuance; their aim is a reordering of society, no matter the progress regarding women’s rights..

Corruption remains enemy number one, as the President has reiterated over the years, and I will re-emphasize. But corruption, at least the Liberian version of it, has been around for over a century, and is not going anywhere soon, because of its ubiquitous nature; it is rife in Liberian homes, schools, churches, and wider society.

It is so endemic in Liberia that it has become an acceptable way of life. Male teachers trading grades for sex with teenage or underage girls, Pastors impregnating female members of their congregation, market women putting false bottoms within their rice cups to cheat rice buyers, husbands cheating on their wives and vice versa, and I can go on and on.  This bane is etched into the social fabric of the country.

There are integrity institutions, but the integrity institutions will need a buy-in from the people of Liberia, including the country’s law makers if they are to succeed. Only the legislative branch can stiffen the penalties for corruption within government, in consultation with the executive, but so far, the Legislative branch of government seems content with the status quo.

The Sirleaf government has left a fantastic platform and foundation for nation-building that the incoming UP or CDC government can build off of. But it remains to be seen the direction the new government will pursue, whether continuity, or a seismic shift in governance.

JM Cassell, Contributing Writer
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