The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (along with Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakul Karman) for championing women’s rights, four days before a presidential election, must count as one of the most political acts in the history of the prize. It would be hard to imagine the prize being awarded to a sitting American or European leader less than a week before an election.
This prize also shows the enormous gulf between international perceptions of Liberia’s “Iron Lady” and the more critical view that many Liberians and West Africans have of her six years in office and past political record. Her main opponent in the election this week, Winston Tubman, said Sirleaf did not deserve the prize, describing her as a “warmonger”.
Tubman, a former United Nations (UN) technocrat, former justice minister and the nephew of a former Liberian president, is considered the strongest challenger to Sirleaf. His vice-presidential running mate is the wildly popular former football superstar, George Weah. Another candidate is Charles Brumskine, a former president of the Liberian senate and previous ally of former warlord-president Charles Taylor. The most colourful presidential candidate is Prince Johnson, a Liberian senator and former warlord, who infamously made a video of deposed autocrat Samuel Doe having his ears cut off, before Johnson killed him. Johnson is now a born-again Christian.
Sirleaf fears that unemployed youths will be recruited by warlords to restart the country’s civil war, which raged for 11 years, until 2003, with 250 000 fatalities. The stakes in these elections are high for both Liberia and West Africa. An 8 000-strong UN mission in Liberia guarantees security in the country amidst its still-fledgling national security institutions and in the face of continuing ethnic and religious tensions.
Instability across the border in Côte d’Ivoire remains a serious concern following recent post-election violence there. Liberian mercenaries were involved in the Ivorian conflict, which spilled 160 000 refugees into Liberia. Guinea also remains politically unstable, even as Sierra Leone continues its fragile recovery from a decade of civil war.
Liberia is thus precariously located at the epicentre of a volatile Mano River basin.
Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female head of state in November 2005. Under the leadership of the 72-year-old “Ma Ellen”, Liberia has made some impressive progress. The country’s external debt of $5.8-billion has been largely forgiven. About $16-billion in foreign direct investment has flowed into the country. Some infrastructure has been repaired. An inherited budget of $80-million has been quadrupled. “Ghost workers” were purged from ministerial payrolls, saving $3-million a year.
Yet many of Sirleaf’s domestic critics have questioned her somewhat messianic and sometimes selectively ruthless approach to leadership. In July 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended barring Sirleaf, along with 49 other people, from holding public office for 30 years because of her support for Taylor at the start of the Liberian civil war in 1989. Though Liberia’s Supreme Court subsequently declared the TRC’s recommendation unconstitutional, Sirleaf’s allies sought to demonise the commission, thus damaging the fragile process of reconciliation in a reckless act of spitefulness.
Determination to succeed
But in what was clearly the biggest misjudgment of her career (and one that still haunts her), Sirleaf helped raise $10 000 to support Taylor’s rebel movement, which launched a war against Doe’s brutal regime in December 1989. She went to visit the warlord in his bush hideout in 1990. Taylor, recently tried for alleged war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, later claimed that Sirleaf had been the international co-ordinator of his movement from 1986 to 1994.
The problems inherited by Sirleaf’s administration clearly overwhelmed even her incredible determination to succeed. In Liberia’s economy, historically dominated by rubber and mining, unemployment stood at 95% six years into Sirleaf’s presidency, while foreign aid of $425-million exceeded the country’s $370-million annual budget. Former combatants were not being provided with jobs quickly enough, leading to instability and crime.
A 2010 United States state department report criticised the government’s continued failure to tackle corruption. More devastatingly, in December 2010, the Berlin-based Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer named Liberia the most corrupt country in the world.
Sirleaf had to fire her information minister as well as her internal affairs minister following reports of corruption. The fact that the latter is her brother and that her son remains a presidential adviser, replicated the nepotism she criticised in previous Liberian regimes.
With no legislative majority to work with, Sirleaf has argued that she could not afford to alienate this branch of government with an anti-corruption crusade.
Damaging reports of the government bribing legislators have thus proliferated. The president’s criticism and firing of the combative auditor general, John Morlu, (who completed 40 audits and criticised the president for not taking action against corrupt officials fingered in these reports) and the smear campaign run against him by Sirleaf’s associates, again revealed a ruthlessness that contradicted her rhetorical attacks on the “debilitating cancer of corruption”.
Leaked email revelations in 2007 that Sirleaf’s former public works minister, Willis Knuckles, had solicited kickbacks and the implication of her brother-in-law and legal adviser in this scandal caused further embarrassment. Sirleaf dragged her feet before acting against associates such as Harry Greaves, also accused of corruption.
She would later admit that she had not realised how deep rooted and pervasive corruption was in Liberian society, suggesting a naive and out-of-touch president who had perhaps spent too long in exile.
One of Africa’s most accomplished technocrats, Sirleaf delivered the sixth Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg in 2008, eulogising the South African Nobel Peace laureate and praising his successor Thabo Mbeki’s vision of an “African renaissance”. The title of her 2009 memoir, This Child Will Be Great, was taken from an old man’s prophecy and modesty is certainly not one of Sirleaf’s qualities.
Her father was a member of the oligarchy that ruled Liberia from 1847 until 1980. At 17 she married a man whose mother was from a prominent Americo-Liberian family and had four sons with him. She worked as a bookkeeper and, when her husband went to study in the US, enrolled at Madison Business College.
Sirleaf left her husband when he became abusive. She joined Liberia’s finance ministry and enjoyed a meteoric rise after obtaining a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Though a public servant Sirleaf openly criticised government corruption several times rather than resign before going public. Increasingly sidelined in the William Tolbert administration, she joined the World Bank in 1973, travelling to East Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, thus greatly expanding her horizons.
She showed a consistently impressive determination to succeed, to master her brief and improve herself and her capacity for hard work was beyond doubt. Sirleaf returned home to the finance ministry in 1975 and was made finance minister four years later, eight months before the Doe coup.
Inexplicably, she agreed to work for a regime — as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment — that had killed 13 senior officials (including six of her former Cabinet colleagues) as well as the president she had served. She eventually criticised the regime’s excesses publicly, before returning to the World Bank.
Sirleaf then became the first African female vice-president of Citibank, travelling across Africa from her Nairobi base.
She referred in another critical speech in the US in 1984 to Doe’s regime as “idiots”. This predictably landed her in detention on her return to Liberia, as the insecure autocrat became increasingly paranoid. She was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour. Following international pressure she was released and won a seat in the Liberian Senate in 1985, a seat she refused to take up in protest at the fraudulent American-backed election that kept Doe in power. After a failed coup in the same year, Sirleaf was jailed again and her unwavering faith and indomitable courage were evident during these trials and tribulations. She was released from jail and escaped abroad to work for Equator Bank in the US, and later the UN Development Programme.
Sirleaf has criticised historical American economic exploitation of Liberia, but as president, she has been widely perceived as being too close to Washington. After the outbreak of the Liberian civil war in 1989, she called for American intervention — which didn’t happen — and criticised the Economic Community of West African States’s Ceasefire Monitoring Group, arguing, without any evidence and contrary to all military logic, that the force could have ended the fighting in Liberia much earlier. Her portrayal of Ecomog is rather unflattering, considering the incredible sacrifices involving more than 500 fatalities during seven years of lonely peacekeeping, which saved many Liberian lives.
As African governments vociferously opposed the presence of US military command in their territory Sirleaf, as president, again displayed her fatal attraction to Uncle Sam: uniquely, she called for the command to be located in her country, opportunistically and short-sightedly demonstrating greater faith in American arms than in Liberian institutions.
Campaigning against Taylor in the 1997 presidential elections, Sirleaf was seen as elitist and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Liberians. This resulted in a crushing defeat: she won only 9.5% of the vote, with Taylor triumphant in a landslide 75% victory.
The slow pace of change in the past six years has made Liberians wary of Sirleaf’s lofty rhetoric. She has already broken her promise to serve only a single term, thus spurning the example of her professed hero and fellow Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela.
Given the timing of this award and her political track record, the ennobling of Liberia’s Iron Lady can only be regarded as highly controversial.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts.