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Ellen John Sirleaf: A Controversial Laureate?

October 11, 2011

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo credit: Alex Majoli / Magnum for Newsweek

*This piece was first published on Real Clear World on Tuesday October 11th, 2011 in the Morning Update and then published again on Al Jazeera Opinion on Wednesday October 12th.

**For those who have already seen this piece, here is an older post reflecting on my field work experiences in Liberia and The Vice Guide’s show about the country.  And while I’m at it, here are two posts on some fascinating studies on gender inequality. The first one is about work done by Duflo et al. and India’s reservation policy. The second post is on the research of Noordewier et al. and the economic effects of using married vs. maiden names. Enjoy!

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Widely admired and celebrated abroad, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has an international profile that is the envy of many a public figure. Awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize has only cemented her celebrity status on the political circuit. Yet unlike her fellow co-winners Leymah Gbowee (also of Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (Yemen), “Ma Ellen” has a past linking her to a violent rebel movement, and since 2006 she has led an administration plagued by corruption. Even though she has been received with adulation overseas since she was first elected, she has always gotten a much tougher reception at home. These contrasts will be brought into sharp relief on Tuesday as Liberians return to the polls for national elections and Sirleaf fights for her political life.

In Liberia, people on the street used to call Sirleaf a “warlord,” citing her association with Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. This was because Sirleaf was once the International Coordinator for the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), raising money to oust former strongman Samuel Doe from power. During the civil war, NPFL fighters perpetrated horrific atrocities and staged violent spectacles, the aftershocks of which are still felt today.

For her part, Sirleaf has admitted in her memoirs and in testimony to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she supported Taylor through the 1980s but claimed not to have known his true intentions. She said that she had been “fooled” by him and had publicly asked the NPFL to end the civil war. And while she did eventually break her ties with Taylor, most Liberians still believe that she played a more active role in the NPFL than she has so far admitted to.

This is important because the Nobel Committee’s citation specifically mentioned “non-violent struggle” and “peace-building work.” Even though this commendation was referring to her support of women’s rights during her tenure as president, her past links to Charles Taylor and the violence perpetrated by the NPFL should not be glossed over in the post-Nobel period.

Sirleaf’s administration has also been consumed by one corruption scandal after another during her six years in office. Twenty-one members of her government have had to resign for corrupt behavior, and still others have been accused but kept their jobs. Problems with corruption are not in themselves surprising, as corruption runs deep in Liberia’s political system. It permeates the police force, the courts, the business community and even the education system.

As president, Sirleaf has very publicly made the fight against corruption a top priority, but in doing so, she has had to work against the grain of her society’s institutions. Although it may be difficult for a Western audience to appreciate this, the fact that she has not been rocked by a corruption scandal herself is remarkable in itself. This is a marked change from every single one of her presidential predecessors. In the context of Liberian politics, remaining corruption- and scandal-free is itself a significant achievement.

Just as important is the fact that Sirleaf has allowed a culture of open political discussion to emerge. It is now possible to publicly criticize the president and her administration without fear of reprisal. She has even passed a law to protect whistleblowers. These are remarkable changes, shifting the post-war dynamic of the country away from violence and toward dialogue (rancorous though it may be).

This is not to say that Sirleaf’s record on transparency and accountability is spotless. She has parted company with Auditor-General John Morlu, the strongest and most competent anti-corruption advocate that Liberia has ever seen. And she has appointed four members of her own family into executive positions and broken her own promise to remain a one-term president. These decisions do not bode well for her next presidential term, should she be re-elected in Tuesday’s election.

Still, none of these experiences take away from her advocacy efforts on behalf of Liberian women. Her focus on women’s rights began on day one of her presidency when she discussed the taboo issue of rape in her inauguration speech. Although a significant proportion of women had been sexually assaulted during the civil war, rape was still seen as a private matter. Confronting this problem so frankly and starkly on such an important occasion placed women at the center of her presidency.

Sirleaf subsequently set up special courts to prosecute sexual assault cases, hoping to encourage victims to press charges against rapists in a country where $2 is often enough to buy a woman’s silence. Not surprisingly, these courts have not been successful in prosecuting rape cases. But Sirleaf still deserves credit for laying the foundation for a change in attitudes towards women. The fact that the president herself has admitted to being a victim of attempted rape and a survivor of domestic abuse has opened up a space for dialogue where none existed before.

So despite her complicated past and the significant problems of her administration, Ellen, as she is referred to in Liberia, has still had an extraordinary first term as president. When she was elected in 2005, she inherited a broken and violent society, a crushing debt burden and a devastated infrastructure. Since 2005, society’s wounds have slowly been healing, the debt has been virtually eliminated and the country has been gradually rebuilding from the ground up. Substantial challenges still remain, especially with extreme poverty and a youth unemployment rate of 70-80 percent.

Is she a saint? No. Did she deserve the Nobel Prize? Absolutely.

In the words of fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, “She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

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I was interviewed on BBC News Channel about Liberia’s Nobel Prize winners on Friday, October 7th, 2011.

I was also interviewed by Radio France Interationale about the inclusion of Winton Tubman in Ellen’s cabinet on Tuesday, January 17th.  The discussion begins at 8.30.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 7:16 pm

    I don’t disagree with this characterization of the 2011 prize, but it is not an unambiguous victory for women. I’ve been having a debate about this with the Norwegian Nobel Institute; my critique of this year’s prize and their response is at http://curtrice.wordpress.com

  2. February 17, 2013 7:27 pm

    Why has there continued to be high levels of corruption under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s watch? Put another way, why have measures introduced, including an Act establishing the anti-corruption agency and the public procurement process being unable to curb the rate of corruption? Why have even the GAC audits, which Mr. John Morlu asserts have had medicinal value for corruption proven quite resistant? The answer to these questions is “Who knows you.” As a nation, we have not gotten away from personal ties and personal loyalty being the driver of public transactions. Even if you want to start a business, the formidable barrier that you face is loyalty to a patron to turn a blind eye to acts that would bend or break the law. You gave complete devotion to the patron, and he or she gives you on a continuum, their blessing, goodwill and/or immunity from criminal investigations. These networks which were parts of the True Whig Party legacy and passed down to the Doe and Taylor administrations have not been amenable to change under President Sirleaf. The exclusive clubs of old that were tightly closed to those outside of the President’s social networks have gained new lease on life. Again, Liberians are divided into “friends or foes.” These were the environments that cultivated a repressive society in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and practically ate at the core of the social fabric, rarely sparing anyone when the war came. It is easy to call this kind of analysis “alarmist” if you are a beneficiary and not one of the destitute people scavenging for food and place to sleep in Liberia. The breakdown of interpersonal trust and cohesion has to be a matter of concern for everyone of conscience.

    • February 22, 2013 12:54 am

      Well said Aisha. There are many reasons that make corruption difficult to uproot and patronage networks is undoubtedly one of them.

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