Ex-President Sirleaf Decries Weak Institutions in Liberia, other Fragile States


Washington – Former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has alarmed that weak and non-existent institutions are the shared variable of all fragile states, including Liberia.

Delivery the keynote address at the Center for Global Development Monday, President Sirleaf said  Liberia’s historic presidential transition in January of last year was more than a change of administration – it was a transfer of power to the people whose rights are protected through the established institutional accountability, marking the first peaceful transfer of presidential power in Liberia in 75 years. 

Madam Sirleaf averred that Liberia’s success will depend upon the continued strengthening of weak institutions and combating endemic corruption and patron-clientelist politics, which are the most formidable barriers to making democracy work. “These ills must be fought with all tools available; they must be made stronger than the individual.  There is no substitute for this in Africa or anywhere in the world.” 

The former President said that it is clear that transference cannot be imposed but rather, must be demand-driven by citizens empowered through civic education, decentralization of government and democracy practiced at the community level. “The only sustainable power must come from the support of one’s people. While the club of legacy leaders grows smaller, the damage they inflict moves beyond borders and across continents. Love of country is about letting go.”

Madam Sirleaf said overseeing the transition of one democratically-elected government to the next was one of her proudest accomplishments as President. “Indeed, my most proud accomplishment is that after decades of violent conflict, the power in Liberia now rests where it should – with the people, who must assure that it is grounded in the rule of law and upheld by institutions.”

Nevertheless, the former President said, , Liberia remains a fragile state because institutions are still young and being tested, and resources remain scarce. “Nations in a state of fragility, particularly post-conflict nations, need special attention and support. We ask that supporters and partners remain focused on Liberia so the country can continue its emergence as a post-conflict success story.”

While improvement in African governance requires political inclusion, Madam Sirleaf said it is important to identify the barriers-to-entry into political society and break them down, one-by-one.  “Democracy must devolve from a single event, into the institutionalization of a process that provides access to all of its participants.”

One such barrier, she says, exists within political parties themselves. “Political parties are organized by patronage and patriarchy. We must take on constitutional reforms to address malpractice and inequalities. Campaign finance law is essential; in many African nations unregulated monies pollute a political system to a point where the voter will become unrecognizable. Quotas can be used to address inequities for women, the youth and considered for the disabled, but must be phased out over time.”

The former President said it is worthwhile to note that over the last two decades, sub-Saharan Africa has boasted some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in women’s political representation in national legislative bodies. 

According to the Brookings Institution, the number of female legislators on the continent grew from 9.8 percent in 1995 to 23.2 percent in 2016. In comparison, Europe, excluding the Nordic nations, comes in at 24.3 percent and the Americas at 27.7 percent.

Explained Sirleaf: “We see the same in Rwanda under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, which boasts the highest percentage of women legislators in the world due to a quota system imposed to address historical inequities. And in the Mo Ibrahim Index, Rwanda registered the sharpest rise in broad-based economic reforms. But, as President Kagame has said, this also requires support and action by an enlightened citizenry. I might add a citizenry ready to take responsibility and participate individually and collectively in the nations’ development.” 

She said while it is important to celebrate the increasing number of women holding elected office and participating in the democratic process, much remains to be done. 

“As we applaud our progress, let us take a hard look at the work that remains to be done, because these barriers are stubborn; they fight back to keep women and other change makers down. Many are prepared to take on this fight. Indeed, this evening let us honor all the warriors, men and women who are battling for women empowerment and a more equal world.”

Sirleaf, the 2017 winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which honors  Achievement in African Leadership,  said the call for a more participatory and democratic society is made more achievable through education which is the great stabilizer of a society. “Look at the American example: A major component of the civil rights struggle focused on the right to quality education, where pioneer and trailblazer Thurgood Marshall achieved victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic ruling of Brown Vs. the Board of Education. America was made more equitable and stronger by that ruling.”

She added that the fight for the future of Africa is also in its classrooms. “And here too, the Mo Ibrahim Index sounds an alarm. The education scores of more than half of African countries are getting worse, meaning in the past five years children are receiving less education and teaching is of a lower standard. When you look at the numbers, this does not come as a surprise. Today, just 10% of official development assistance from OECD countries is allocated to education in Africa, and many African nations have great difficulty meeting the UNICEF goal of 20 percent of state budgetary support for education.”

The former President said she is grateful that CGD continues to be a platform for building U.S.-Liberia ties.