A stable Liberia tallies up Johnson Sirleaf’s presidential score

Just down the dirt road from where Anthony Chea stands, a group of children march in a line chanting, their faces decorated with white paint. Near them a handful of adults stand underneath a tent in which speakers blast traditional Liberian music. An older man dances by himself, steadily moving his body to the beat.

Campaign season before Liberia’s election in October has just begun and Chea and his fellow townspeople are getting ready for a visit from Alexander Cummings, one of the presidential candidates hoping to take President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s place in the executive office.

Chea lives in a small town in Grand Kru County. Although it 560km from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and the seat of political power, it is the condition of small towns in rural counties like Grand Kru that illustrate the mixed legacy of Liberia’s first woman president as she prepares to leave office.

He points to a nearby water pump installed by a nongovernmental organisation a few years ago. It’s one of the few in the town and it’s broken. He looks out at the bumpy road that runs through the centre of town and hopes the next president will do more for towns like his.

Chea and others in the town say the current government could have done more to develop the county. They want better roads, schools, healthcare and water. But Chea does credit Johnson Sirleaf for getting the process started.

“She alone cannot complete the process. Another person can come and complete the process,” he said.

Sirleaf will step down in January after serving two consecutive six-year terms in office. Her record is hard to pin down. She empowered women while, paradoxically, alienating them from politics. She healed some of the country’s civil war wounds, but critics say that political progress has come at the cost of unsustainable development, and that her rule has been characterised by corruption and nepotism.

Could she have done better? Maybe. But she could also have done much, much worse.

Elected in 2005 as the country’s first democratically elected leader since the end of its brutal civil war in 2003, Johnson Sirleaf inherited the difficult task of rebuilding Liberia’s decimated economy, ruined infrastructure and weakened institutions. Twelve years later, she is credited by politicians and laymen alike with maintaining the delicate peace, but she leaves office with many of her compatriots believing that she did not do enough.

Not that the criticism seems to bother her.

On a Thursday evening, Johnson Sirleaf sits at the head of a conference room table on the sixth floor of the ministry of foreign affairs on Monrovia’s main street, Tubman Boulevard. On the wall opposite her hangs a quilted map of the country, with all 15 county flags depicted in cotton.

“Well, I hope I can put it in simple terms,” said the 78-year-old head of state, speaking over the sounds of nearby construction. “That I will leave Liberia much better than I found it when I started.”

She began her career in politics in the 1970s during William Tolbert’s administration. He was killed by Samuel Doe in a coup d’etat in 1980 and, though many from his administration fled the country, she stayed and continued working under the new regime. But, before the end of the year, Johnson Sirleaf fled Liberia, fearing for her life after criticising Doe.

While in exile, stints with the World Bank, CitiBank and the United Nations Development Programme helped her to develop international connections. As president, she would use these and the reputation she had forged for herself in these circles to attract foreign investment and aid.

But Liberian politics were never far from her mind. Hoping to oust Doe, she controversially gave money to rebel warlord Charles Taylor at the start of the civil war. Later, she condemned him for his violent tactics. She also ran for office on several occasions, coming second in the 1997 presidential vote, which Taylor won in a landslide.

Finally, in 2005, with Liberians looking for a fresh face in government, Johnson Sirleaf was given her chance, winning the election in a run-off vote against football star George Weah.

Although that was just 12 years ago, Liberia then was a very different place. It was still emerging from a civil war notorious for its ethnic divisions, the use of child soldiers and an epidemic of sexual violence against women. Hundreds of thousands of people died and even more were left disabled or displaced. There was little electricity or clean water, and the few roads that had existed were destroyed.

[Liberia’s civil war used child soldiers, but these children playing in rural Grand Kru, while they may be poor, do not face such a future. (Joe Penney/Reuters)]

The condition of the country was even worse than the new president realised. She said she overestimated the country’s capacity — then, when she first took office, she was confronted with the reality of its limitations. She was forced to scale back her ambitions. “We did not reach the potential that I knew was possible and that I envisioned when we started,” she said.

With her finance and economics background, Johnson Sirleaf focused first on rebuilding Liberia’s economy. One of her biggest successes in office was in 2010, when she agreed to a $4.6-billion debt relief package from the International Monetary Fund. Liberia’s economy grew steadily during Johnson Sirleaf’s first few years in office, peaking at a 6% growth rate in 2013.

But then a new catastrophe struck in 2014. The Ebola crisis hit West Africa. Of the more than 10 000 people killed by the virus, nearly half were in Liberia. All progress came to a halt.

“Investors left, contractors left, our own citizens left the country out of fear. And that was followed by the sharp decline in prices of our two main exports, rubber and iron ore,” she said, gesturing animatedly.

Although the country has begun to recover, growth forecasts are now down to just 2% this year.

But Johnson Sirleaf is determined that it is peace, not Ebola or economic development, that will come to define her legacy. She said she prioritised peace above all in many of the decisions she made, even if it meant compromising on some of her development goals.

“Some of the things we did, some of the decisions we made was to ensure that the peace was there, because only peace would have enabled us to be able to do what we needed to do, no matter how short it is of the potential,” she said.

On that front, she has delivered. Liberia has avoided political conflict, and Johnson Sirleaf’s leading role in keeping the peace was recognised by the Nobel prize committee in 2011, who awarded her a Nobel peace prize along with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman for “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work”.

Johnson Sirleaf has been less successful in other areas. She had promised to wipe out corruption, but ran into a brick wall. “I also underestimated the cultural roots of corruption,” she said.

It didn’t help that the president herself was accused of nepotism — in 2012 she chose her son, Robert Sirleaf, to head the National Oil Company of Liberia, and two other children were given senior government posts.

Predictably, Robert’s appointment precipitated a storm of criticism from the president’s opponents, but also, more surprisingly, from some of her friends. Even fellow Nobel laureate Gbowee resigned in protest from her position in charge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Her sons are on the board of oil companies and one is the deputy governor of the central bank. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt-poor; there’s no middle class,” said Gbowee.

Johnson Sirleaf didn’t take the criticism kindly, responding to Gbowee with a tongue-lashing of her own. And she remains defiant. “Was it a mistake? I stand by it. You know, I stand by the decision I took.”

She said her son was qualified and that she hopes the audits will be made public soon to show that he has been falsely accused of corruption.

But she did acknowledge that there was some validity to the accusations of nepotism.

“Yes, there is something about nepotism and we all have to respect it, we all try to respect it. But now, the unfair part is that this takes place in many other African countries. Liberia is not the only one. Hmm? So why? Why Liberia? Why criticise Liberia at all? Why [not] criticise the United States. I don’t hear the criticism of the United States,” she said.

When Johnson Sirleaf took office, she became Liberia’s first woman president and the first woman president in Africa. It was a glass ceiling-shattering moment, and was driven by strong support from Liberia’s women. In the 2005 and the 2011 elections, women around the country rallied together to register and vote her into power. Mobilised market women in particular played a big role.

“I was elected because of their determination and their commitment and so one of the pillars of my administration’s platform was to promote the participation and the empowerment of women and I think we have done that,” said Johnson Sirleaf.

Although her election and subsequent policies empowered women, they also gave critics another reason to criticise her presidency.

“I think women’s issues is where we tend to be strongly critical of her because of the symbolic nature of her presidency,” said Lakshmi Moore, the interim country director of ActionAid International.

Not that achievements were not made: during Johnson Sirleaf’s time in office, rape was made illegal for the first time and, this year, Liberia is to finally pass a Domestic Violence Bill.

But Moore and others say that not enough has been done, such as legally banning the traditional practice of female genital mutilation. There is also concern from women’s rights groups about how Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy will affect women after she leaves office, because many people are disproportionately blaming the state of the country on her gender.

“There is going to be a backlash, especially on women’s rights, because of how her presidency is used to sort of highlight the inactions,” Moore said.

This backlash is already evident in the sleepy beachside city of Harper, in the southeastern Maryland County. Eleanor Cooper, a trader, sits with two of her friends by the side of the main road. Behind them looms a large abandoned mansion — a remnant from Harper’s heyday during the days of Tubman, when Liberia’s elite built beachside homes in the city.

In front of Cooper is a metal grate over hot coals on which she roasts mealies. Cooper, the breadwinner for her family, sells a roasted cob for between 20 and 50 Liberian dollars (about R2.20 to R5.50). With her income, she only barely makes ends meet. Cooper said the cost of living has gone up. Life selling mealies and providing for her family is hard and she blames this on the fact that the country has a woman president.

“It’s a man I want,” said Cooper, when asked whether she would vote for another female candidate. “Now a woman in the chair, now the prices are high, high, so I not voting for no woman.”

Despite her frustration, Cooper said she feels more empowered. She is providing for her family and said she feels that she can stand up to her husband.

Not everyone shares Cooper’s concerns about women leaders. In a cluttered downtown market in Monrovia, Rebecca Kaley said that Johnson Sirleaf had won her over. Sitting among other women who, like her, are selling dried bush meat, Maggi chicken broth cubes and sweet potato leaves, Kaley thinks back to 2005 when she first heard that a woman was running for president.

“You know, woman not get strong heart. I was afraid. I will not vote for her,” she said. But she changed her mind in 2011, and gave the president her vote. “Ellen regime made us strong,” said Kaley. “Made a woman strong.”

Sirleaf said she plans now to step away from local politics. She’s considering an offer of a fellowship from Georgetown University in the United States — “to make sure I stay alert, intellectually alert, professionally alert” — and will try to spend more time on her farm.

She also wants to sleep and to read all the books she hasn’t had time to read, especially the ones written by other presidents and prime ministers. “I want to be able to read those books. And then compare their life story with mine, [with] my experience as president.”

Like the rest of us, it sounds as though Johnson Sirleaf is also coming to terms with her own legacy.

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