Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Reflections on an Enduring Legacy

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Introduction

Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s performance as president has left an enduring legacy, both tangible and intangible. I set out to appreciate her contributions at the end of her presidency. Noteworthy, my goal is not to assess her performance.  

By Dr. Emmanuel Dolo, Contributor

What is an enduring legacy? It is the long lasting tangible and intangible contributions that a person makes, which have the potential to alter the foundations of society throughout its life cycle.

The Post-War State Inherited 

The EJS administration inherited a totally collapsed socioeconomic and bureaucratic fabric. It was the most difficult economic situations the country has ever endured. The country had gone through massive deaths, physical destruction, and human displacement. Brain drain had reached an unprecedented peak. Liberians had sacrificed and suffered extreme physical and psychological hardships. All that they wished for was to migrate to nearby and other nations for refuge. Education, health, infrastructure, public safety, rule of law and other institutions were functioning as the shell of themselves. This was a pariah state, made fragile by the presence of militants from the various warring factions that fought in the civil crisis. These remnants of the warring factions had gotten absorbed in how to function within a criminal economy characterized by drug smuggling, drug abuse, armed robbery, coercion, blackmail, prostitution, etc. The social problems created by prolonged war included pervasive unemployment, underemployment, poor marketable skills, learned helplessness and the scarcity, even an absence of aspiration among the youth, many of whom had been armed participants in the war or grossly affected by it. The demobilization and disarmament program administered by the Transitional Government and later by the new government and its International Partners had failed to rehabilitate the war-affected youth significantly. Most had no stake in society. Moreover, the bureaucratic culture that her government inherited was rooted in endemic corruption, and thus served as a major obstacle to good governance. 

EJS’ Enduring Legacy 

As president, EJS’ special ability as a person, which invited and attracted international attention and involvement in the recovery of the war-torn state stood out quite remarkably. Clearly, no one can take this from her. It played a major part in the nation’s recovery, especially the debt forgiveness of more than 4 billion US dollars fulfilling the HIPPIC Completion Point, which made the nation credit worthy again after decades of instability. 

The thousands of miles of paved roads in cities as well as the highways, (Buchana-Ganta) and the Somalia Drive to Redlight projects, renovations of the RIA, JFK, the Monrovia Port, the hydro and many other tangible development impacts will be there for a long time requiring sporadic repairs in the future. Now, it takes 3 hours from Monrovia to Ganta, which took nearly 6 hours previously and a little over 1 hour from Monrovia to Buchana which took 4 hours previously. The introduction of the West African Power Pool, which has electrified Ganta-Harper and soon to reach Gbarnga are milestones worth touting as well. The anti-graft institutions, although faced with some challenges have given Liberians deep appreciation for transparency and accountability as anchors of good governance

The most enduring of her legacies are the intangible ones: freedom of speech, the aspiration that she has baked into women and girls, which has now broken the proverbial glass ceiling, manifested so well by her election as the first female president and during her administration the election of the first female vice president of Liberia. Add to this, the prospects of an enduring democracy, manifested by her willingness to serve her constitutional terms, the management of the transition, and the fact that she has given Liberians a democracy to look forward to. This is a country that was operated in grave uncertainty, and she has given Liberians hope that democracy will withstand the tests of time. 

She also removed the moral stain on the character of Liberia as one strongly entrenched in dictatorial rule. EJS deserves special recognition for her impact on professionals like me and other colleagues who had no political or familial ties to her, but provided an opportunity for us to partake in public service. EJS addressed two important crises in Liberia’s national life. She restored civil society, specifically multiparty democracy, even with its shortcomings, and led the national, even the international fight against an unknown enemy – Ebola and won, characterized by her peers worldwide as a heroine. She also maintained a stellar foreign policy, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and other international awards. 

The Future

Our newly elected leaders will inherit such challenges as maintaining an inclusive governing system and the difficult task of making sure that the country never retreats into its despotic past. They will also encounter endemic corruption, high unemployment, fragile peace, as well as longstanding class, ethnic, and gender divides, coupled with a challenging education system, as well as still evolving law enforcement and healthcare systems. Rehabilitating public trust will require increased investment in accountability and transparency to change the dynamic.

The international security infrastructure built by the UN and others are now left to be managed by Liberians. The new government will have to invest in making the security sector more effective and efficient. Liberians now have very low tolerance for conflict that assuring us that there will not be a recurrence of war to undermine the intangible contributions made to Liberia’s recovery by the EJS administration. Hopefully, the Weah-Howard-Taylor administration will come up with interventions that would build on EJS’ achievements and in the end, fundamentally change the nation’s socioeconomic foundations, thus having multiplier effects on livelihoods, peace, and stability.  

Conclusions

It is customarily easy to judge from the outside without appreciating the nature of the country that the EJS administration inherited, mainly the difficulties associated with governing a failed state. It will be exceptionally heartwarming to witness the democratic transition of a lifetime, which as a young student activist joined my peers to advocate for. Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on this occasion of the end of your presidency, we owe you a huge debt of gratitude for dismantling some of the tough barriers that stood in the way of setting Liberia on a durable path to democracy.  Farewell Madame President. Thank you. When our history books are written about this era and preceding ones, you will receive notable mention.     

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