The Train Is Creaking To Halt: Exit of Liberian President


January 2018 is fast waning. The sun is sliding behind winter’s gray shroud: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will hand over the baton of leadership to her successor.

This peaceful transition, if uninterrupted or not halted by ongoing political intricacies regarding the October poll, which some say was marred by fraud and gross irregularities, maybe the first experienced in over seven decades.

Pres. Johnson Sirleaf, whose record is well positioned in the pages of history books and on the marble slabs of monuments as the first elected female president in Africa, leaves behind a trail of records that are both rapturously commendable and heavily detestable. 

A corrupt, poor and hungry nation – Abundant resources and vast inequalities. Broken systems, lamed institutions, and tainted characters. Historians will spend years writing Liberia’s journey under her 12 years rule.

Through the vicissitudes of time, books will be replete with fascinating narratives about Ellen’s otherwise heroic life, but for Liberians at home including me, we will never shilly-shally from delving into the failures; of course we will not also turn blind eye to the successes, most notable of all, the clearing of nearly $5 billion in debt relief.

With the resilience of Liberians, peace was maintained but there still exists a chronic division among tribes, and the “native-congo” debate, due in part to the failure of the state to reconcile the people during the fresh post-war era. 

When she took office, Liberia was a glut experience of rife poverty and economic carnage. Sirleaf’s election was a vaunted boost for the global feminist movement.

The world made a solemn pause to celebrate the fact that out of a continent, where women were considered creatures of a lesser god, a woman has risen to the majestic height of meeting feminine force with masculine force; that out of a country, where women were the victims of societal dehumanization and denied participation in the affairs of the state including voting right, now has a woman as its president.

The development world was a scene of success and bliss because one of its darlings had been elected – the woman they had absolute trust in; who they assumed would have built Liberia in the twinkling of an eye. A Harvard graduate and globally acclaimed economist. The politics were well played – a win for the global political order. 

When “Grandma” (as I and many other Liberians would call her as a show of filial piety) was inaugurated, people’s faces became billboards of hopes – an unrestrained clamoring call for better living conditions.

Whether it was in the kitchens of Monrovia or the farmlands of villages, the people’s thirst for change was in mammoth display evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people – young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled – who were glued to their radio on January 16, 2006.

So too I was tied to the news alongside my mother, though I was much younger. For the first time, we heard the “Iron Lady” spewing spicy words, declaring, “Corruption, under my administration, will be the major public enemy”. Nothing better could have redeemed, re-energized and resuscitated optimism other than when she said:

“We will work to ensure that when our children say “papa na come”, papa will come home joyfully with something, no matter how meager, to sustain his family.”

More than a decade later, papa has come home, but he has been coming as a hungry, frustrated, hopeless yet worthy man, who cannot feel his family; he is an epitome of misery and agony.

Papa has come home, but papa has lost respect in his family because papa cannot provide basic support for his wife and children. Was this the joyful “come home” Madam Sirleaf spoke about back in 2006? Chimerical contrasting. 

Sirleaf’s two terms end in barely two months. As she exits, corruption has gained a prouder place in her administration. It is so deeply entrenched in the government that she gave it different names: ‘public enemy number one’, ‘vampire’ and ‘cancer’. 

Corruption became truly cemented when the President appointed one of her sons to spearhead the state-run oil agency, National Oil Company of Liberia. Under his watch, oil giants including ExxonMobil and Chevron struck deals that culminated into a whopping sum of money said to be over $125 million, and about two years after he had left, the company went down the drain – it financially collapsed. 

The litany of corruption cases is far bemusing for a rock star, who enjoys the confidence of the international. The confidence is so high to an extent that even in the midst of growing corruption scandals, donors find pleasure dishing out, in other words wasting millions into a system that falls short of accountability, nursed by a deficit of integrity and culture of impunity.  

I wouldn’t have agreed more when someone once said that pouring more money into broken systems may only fund more inefficiencies, and I suppose that explains why there still remains systemic loophole despite the billions that have been injected through foreign investments. 

Corruption is her administration’s legacy. Had funds meant for the health sector been properly used and disbursed, Salome Karwah, a Liberian health worker who was featured on the cover of Time magazine as a fighter in the 2014 Ebola epidemic, would not have died in childbirth complications.

Nearly 12 years after, the Lady Mandela as some had nicknamed her during the years of her first term is now the victim of her people’s choler and criticisms. While statuses may be erected in other countries in her memory, the thought of building one in Liberia will suffer backlash and may seem impossible.

Our problems today cannot be chalked up simply to events of the past. Countries like Rwanda and Vietnam have success stories we can emulate. As Madam President departs, she leaves behind a nation that is a danger to itself.

Abraham Keita, Liberian Activist