Tarnishing the Iron Lady of Africa

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may be the best president Liberia has ever had. But now even she faces criticism for failing to crack down on corruption.

Shaun Curry/WPA POOL/Getty Images
Shaun Curry/WPA POOL/Getty Images

MONROVIA—Drive through Liberia’s capital today and one of the first things you notice are the clusters of new construction developments dotting the city, including some extravagant-looking concrete mansions. Just seven years ago, Monrovia’s walls were riddled with bullets, parts of the town flattened in a rebel assault that forced out the country’s infamous dictator, Charles Taylor. By the time he left office for exile in Nigeria, Liberia had seen 14 years of conflict, and an estimated quarter of a million people had been killed — a significant cut of the country’s population which is today just 3.8 million.

But these days, Africa’s oldest republic is a darling of the donor community. And many believe the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, deserves most of the credit for the dramatic change. Sirleaf, the first female head of state ever elected in Africa, has won international adulation for stabilizing Liberia’s political economy and admiration from, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A former senior World Bank official, the Liberian president has persuaded the United Nations to drop sanctions on Liberia’s lucrative diamond and timber sectors, won IMF support for canceling the last of the country’s $4.9 billion external debt and increased the size of the national budget from $80 million in 2005 to $350 million today. Roads have been repaired in parts of the country and electricity restored to parts of Monrovia.

That’s the good news — and good it is, particularly given the starting point. But in recent months, Sirleaf’s untouchable image as the "Iron Lady," a moniker she earned during her hard years in opposition, has begun to tarnish around the edges. Critics, including members of her own government, have accused her of doing too little to tackle the country’s rampant corruption; Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that she be barred from public office for 30 years due to her fleeting support for Taylor, now facing war crimes charges in The Hague; and she has decided to stand for a second term despite having vowed not to when she first took office. These are far from the worst accusations one can imagine in a post-conflict state, but they have weighed on her reputation nonetheless.

Sirleaf is the first to admit that her promise of a "zero tolerance" approach on corruption, arguably Liberia’s biggest problem, was cut short by the political exigencies of winning support for her initial package of economic reforms. "The agenda before the legislature is so large that I needed to calculate where I put my weight. I have to cut my losses," she said in an interview with FP. She feared a legislative rebellion against her broader reform agenda if she tried to push through a number of anti-corruption laws too early on, she said. That’s one reason the 71-year-old Sirleaf has said she will need a second term: so she can finish the job of cleaning up government.

Sirleaf is certainly fighting an uphill battle; corruption has deep historical roots in Liberia, tracing all the way back to the republic’s founding. When the families of freed American slaves who returned to the continent to found Liberia in the 19th century failed to establish coherent governance, politics took its cues from other influences: the shady freemasonic lodges of the Americo-Liberian settlers and indigenous secret societies. Patronage and connections took precedence over procedure. And although those elite families saw their hegemony crumble when Samuel Doe seized power in 1980 in the wake of food riots, the old habits persisted and grew. Taylor’s rebellion ousted Doe, and in so doing destroyed much of the remaining fabric of Liberia’s government institutions. Then, Taylor’s presidency became a case study in kleptocracy and warlordism. By political necessity, the transitional government that followed, preceeding Sirleaf’s administration, was made up by many of those who made money during the Doe and Taylor years. Even some members of Sirleaf’s government retains shady figures from the past.

The effect is evident. In recent months, Sirleaf has had to sack a number of ministers amid a wave of scandals. Her justice minister was fired for soft-pedaling an important corruption case; her information minister was suspended this year for pocketing the salaries of fictional employees; and her minister of the interior (who is also her brother) was also recently forced to stand down over the disappearance of county development funds. Five ministries, including finance and mines, have now been put under the spotlight by auditor general reports highlighting the disappearance of millions of dollars of public funds. Aside from the most visible offenders, diplomats also point out that a number of political untouchables have burrowed into the bureaucracy, many of them from Americo-Liberian elite families.

Sirleaf’s defenders say the president is doing her best to keep her government clean, evidenced, for example, by the public sackings and her support for the audits exposing corruption. "We always knew there was a monster sitting in the dark room for years, with feces everywhere," says Augustine Ngafuan, Liberia’s finance minister. "But now the lights have been switched on by the audit, people are confused and think the mess has been created today."

Critics, however, say she is being selective with how she tackles corruption. One oft-cited example is a former public works minister, Luseni Donzo, who was removed for mismanaging public contracts — and then given as a job as a presidential advisor. Sirleaf’s sister and brother-in-law are also top advisors, and her son is the director of the national security agency. Finance ministry insiders said in interviews that 40 percent of the national budget is spent on government salaries, ministerial costs, and perks —  high-profile officials can earn over $15,000 a month in salary payments. Some of the extravagant mansions that have sprung up in Monrovia’s new found construction boom belong to well-connected political figures.

Frances Johnson Morris, the head of Liberia’s anti-corruption agency, which has struggled to prosecute many high-profile cases, says there are "some merits in the public perception that not enough is being done on corruption." Due to a lack of resources, a condition that afflicts most programs in Liberia, Morris spends the majority of her time on public awareness campaigns.

Vowing to finish the job if she wins her re-election bid, Sirleaf is now expanding her political base. She won less than 20 percent of the vote in the first round back in 2005, defeating the soccer star George Weah in a hotly contested second round of voting. This time around, she is making sure there is not a similarly close repeat. She recently merged her Unity Party with two other parties, though her detractors say she unduly pandered to elite families to pull off the new coalition.

Sirleaf has also come under fire from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, which last year published a report advocating she resign the presidency for her role in supporting Taylor’s rebellion. She has publicly apologized for her association with Taylor, but many Liberians still feel that her past makes her part of the problem rather than the country’s salvation. "My fear is that those who have shaped the politics of this country continue to play an active role, there will be a vicious circle of bad governance, corruption and human rights violations," says Jerome Verdier, the chairman of the commission.

All this comes as the United Nations, which currently has just over 8,000 peacekeeping troops in the country, is assessing whether to draw down its mission or stay on and bolster what many observers expect will be a second term in office for Sirleaf. Worryingly, a potential drawdown coincides with evidence — now circulating in diplomatic circles — that Liberia, like its neighbors in West Africa, could become a host for narco-trafficking with rogue members of the security services complicit. U.S. officials are said to be monitoring this closely.  

Yet even with these worries, Sirleaf still has a lot going for her. She has the support and goodwill of the donor and diplomatic community, which wants to see her win a second term in office. Liberians will be hoping that she can use a second term to impose state authority, make government work for the people, and free the country from the shackles of its past. Because in spite of the recent criticism leveled at her, Sirleaf is arguably the best president Liberia has ever had.

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