The view from the ground.

The Men Who Would Be Queen

Can anyone unseat Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf?


MONROVIA, Liberia — "Monkey still working, let baboon wait small," reads a banner hanging prominently over bustling Broad Street in central Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The message might seem opaque to outsiders, but in this politically obsessed country, the meaning is quite clear. The "monkey" — a traditionally clever animal in Liberian folklore — is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asking voters for another six-year term to continue the work of rebuilding this shattered West African state from the ravages of more than a quarter-century of dictatorship and civil war. The "baboon" — or, "ugly baboon" in some variations of the slogan — represents Liberia’s fractured opposition movement.

While Liberia is often depicted in the international media as West Africa’s great post-conflict success story, the country’s politics remain bitter, divisive, and remarkably personal. In a busy political year for Africa — roughly half the countries on the continent are holding national-level elections this year — Liberia’s, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 11, bears watching as both a measure of the country’s stability and as a referendum on one of today’s most intriguing world leaders.

Africa’s first elected female head of state is well known and highly respected in the United States, to an extent unmatched by any recent African leader not named Mandela. She’s a frequent visitor to Washington — President Barack Obama calls himself an "extraordinary admirer" or her work — is a ubiquitous presence on most-powerful women lists, wrote a well-reviewed memoir, has yukked it up with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and was this year’s commencement speaker at her alma mater, Harvard.

Sirleaf’s presidency has brought the country international respectability, slow but steady economic growth, and the longest period of peace since a military coup in 1980 that put in place dictator Samuel Doe’s corrupt government and eventually devolved into the fratricidal civil wars of 1989-1996 and 1999-2003. Her pitch to voters is simple — her "area" is development: "The construction of roads throughout Monrovia, clinics, schools, and hospitals in this country, that my area…. Back are light and water when there was none, and now you can open a pump in your house, that my area. Rebuilding Liberia’s image with the international community and bringing back to Liberia those partners of ours who left this country, that my area," she told supporters at a recent campaign rally. She describes the country as "eight years into a two-decade process of recovery and development." But that process has often been excruciatingly slow.

The former World Bank official’s international profile has helped bring in investors like ArcelorMittal and Chevron — the latter attracted by recently discovered offshore oil reserves — and had billions of dollars of the country’s debt written off, but results have been slow to reach most Liberians, who, ranked 162 out of 169 on the U.N. Human Development Index, are still among the world’s poorest people.

Even in Monrovia, most residents and businesses have to rely on generators for electricity — this city of more than one million people has no working traffic lights — and outside the capital, paved highways are still few and far between despite a highly publicized road-building campaign. There are few reliable statistics, but even Sirleaf’s staunchest supporters put the unemployment level at 55 percent. Liberia remains dependent on a U.N. peacekeeping force of around 10,000 troops for its security, and the U.N. mission’s mandate has been extended twice.

Sirleaf has made tackling corruption a centerpiece of her presidency, but the commission set up to deal with the problem has been criticized for a lack of independence and prosecutorial power. The president has also raised eyebrows with the appointment of her sons to plum jobs at the Central Bank, National Oil Company, and National Security Agency. The 73-year-old has also faced criticism for her decision to run again this year, despite having pledged to serve just one term.

Most controversially, Sirleaf has ignored a recomendation by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that she herself helped set up, recommending she be banned from holding public office for 30 years because of her activities during the 1980s raising funds for warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, now on trial for crimes against humanity at the Hague. Sirleaf describes this support as "paltry" and says she distanced herself from Taylor once she became aware of the extent of his human rights abuses.

All of which is to say that Sirleaf, despite her high international profile, is hardly invulnerable. Between 25 and 30 political parties are likely to contest this election, but only two are thought to have a real chance of unseating the president: the Liberty Party, led by attorney and former senator Charles Brumskine, and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by former justice minister and diplomat Winston Tubman. A recent online poll showed Brumskine’s ticket narrowly edging out Sirleaf with all parties running, but showed Sirleaf as the heavy favorite in a second-round runoff. A runoff will be called if none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a likely scenario given the number of parties running.

A fourth candidate not to be ignored is former warlord Prince Johnson, who despite being implicated in thousands of deaths during the Liberian Civil War, including the videotaped torture and execution of former President Samuel Doe, is currently a senator with a substantial base of support in his home county, Nimba.

But Tubman, nephew of Liberia’s longest-serving President William Tubman, has one significant ace in his deck: his running mate George Weah, a former international soccer star and the country’s most famous man by a long shot. (In U.S. terms, it’s something like Robert Kennedy Jr. running on a ticket with Michael Jordan.) Weah was the runner-up to Sirleaf in the 2005 election and actually won the first round of voting, though he was widely criticized for his lack of governing experience and education. He’s attempted to rectify the last charge by traveling to the United States to earn a degree in business administration from the for-profit Devry University in Florida. The idea is that the combination of Tubman’s resume — a degree from Harvard Law School and a stint as a U.N. special envoy to Somalia — and Weah’s mass appeal can power the ticket past the political juggernaut of Sirleaf’s Unity Party.

In an interview with Foreign Policy last month at his campaign headquarters in an unadorned office building in downtown Monrovia, Tubman described what he saw as the fundamental problem holding the country back.

"What has plagued Liberia is the disunity between Congo people [the descendents of the freed American slaves who founded the country in the 19th century] and country people [the indigenous Liberians, politically disenfranchised for most of the country’s history]. I’ve seen it up close because I’m part country and part Congo…. After the country has suffered this huge setback because of the war, which I did everything in my power to stop, and all the killings, we need to go back to address that basic divide…. If we don’t, once the U.N. troops leave, it could easily come back." Tubman, a member of the country’s elite political class like his rivals Sirleaf and Brumskine, sees his partnership with Weah, an indigenous Liberian who "for a long time saw things the old way," as the first step of bridging this divide.

Tubman, a former official in Doe’s government who spent most of the war years out of the country, frames his differences with the president less in terms of policy than biography, saying that he would do "many of the things she is doing," but his "credentials, to get things done, are better than hers." These "credentials" go back to Sirleaf’s controversial support for Taylor during the war.

"When the war was raging, she … was legitimizing those atrocities — people who were killing, disemboweling pregnant women, cutting off limbs — instead of saying ‘stop that, this is your own country,’ she supported that. People in the international community support her because they’re contrasting her with Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, but she sponsored Charles Taylor."

Brumskine, speaking to Foreign Policy at his house in the Congo Town area on the outskirts of Monrovia, also felt the international community was missing the real Sirleaf. "The Ellen Sirleaf that you portray in the United States is not the one we know in Liberia," he says. "We give to her that she’s a historical figure — the first woman president of our country, the first female leader of an African nation, but it ends there. People in the United States don’t realize that Ellen cannot resolve the fundamental issues because Ellen is part of the problem. Ms. Sirleaf has been involved in just about every war this country has had. She cannot reconcile our people."

Like the president, Brumskine was once a supporter of Taylor and served as head of the Liberian senate under his presidency. But his relationship with the president soured and he fled into exile in 1999 — as he puts it, "I realized the government was no longer acting in the interests of the people." Today, Brumskine is promising to reduce the powers of what he says has become an "imperial presidency."

"There is a provision in the constitution that requires the president to sign off on every expenditure," he says. "Right now, if you are a political adversary of the president or perceived as one, and do contract work for the government, when it’s time to get paid and the payment bill is sent to her for approval, you don’t get paid and there is no legal recourse."

Naturally, given the historic nature of Sirleaf’s presidency, her opponents can’t avoid the issue of gender entirely. Sirleaf has been widely lauded for public campaigns against sexual assault and for female literacy, as well as for appointing a significant number of women to government posts. But Tubman denies that the president has delivered the goods for Liberian women.

"Women aren’t rushing out to support her, they aren’t saying, ‘you can’t push a woman out,’" he says. "She hasn’t really improved the lot of Liberian women. She only makes that claim among foreign audiences. All they’ve done is have seminars, rather than having a more constructive, practical working approach to get women more involved."

Sirleaf and her supporters have been equally harsh in describing her opponents. She has urged voters not to put the country in the "hands of those who can contribute and will contribute nothing to our people." Her son James, general manager of one of the country’s largest banks, has said that Liberia under Tubman and Weah would be a "failed state" rife with "rampant fraud, abuse, and corruption … at the highest echelons of political leadership."

When asked if he expects a free and fair election, Brumskine replied, "That’s the easiest question you’ve asked. It cannot possibly be, without a direct intervention from God." Brumskine alleges that Unity Party loyalists in the National Election Commission have gerrymandered Liberia’s voting districts in Sirleaf’s favor and that media outlets loyal to the president have falsely accused him of holding unauthorized campaign rallies. The accusations are difficult to verify, but the potential for fraud certainly exists. The National Election Commission recently discovered that more than 10,000 people had registered to vote more than once in the upcoming elections.

This year’s first major test of Liberia’s electoral system will come on Aug. 23 with a national referendum on a series of proposed constitutional amendments. If the referendum passes, it would, among other changes, push back the date of the presidential vote by a month. The CDC is calling for a boycott of the referendum to protest what it sees as the pro-Sirleaf bias of the National Election Commission.

Elections are always a tense time, especially for a country with Liberia’s history of political violence. The more than 3,000 refugees who are still living in Liberia having fled post-election violence in neighboring Ivory Coast are another stark reminder of the potential consequences of a disputed result. The CDC’s chairman was recently attacked by angry party members during a disputed primary vote. 

Brumskine says the Liberty Party’s conduct following the 2005 election demonstrates that Liberia has reached a point where candidates can lose without resorting to violence, but says the easiest way to prevent post-election chaos would be a "free, fair, and transparent election."

For all that this election is about shaping Liberia’s uncertain future, it’s hard to avoid the sense that it’s also the swan-song of a generation of Liberian political leaders. The three main candidates in the race were among the top four finishers in the 2005 race (Weah, the vice presidential candidate, being the fourth); all were educated in the United States, spent years living in exile, and served in the administrations of previous presidents who were eventually executed or arrested.

Critical as this election may be, it could pale in comparison to 2017, which will likely also be the first vote conducted without U.N. troops providing security. The real test for the next six years may not be whether Sirleaf can complete her process, or whether a new president takes the country in another direction, but whether young Liberians — the generation that grew up during the war rather than the one that got the country into it — can develop a new class of political leaders to help the country finally escape its violent past.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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