Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Is Ready for Retirement

She won the Nobel Peace Prize and steered her country through the Ebola crisis. But the Liberian president’s proudest achievement will be peacefully giving up power.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrives at Indira Gandhi International Airport for the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on October 27, 2015. India is hosting an unprecedented gathering of Africa's leaders as it ramps up the race for resources on the continent, where its rival China already has a major head start.  AFP PHOTO/Sajjad HUSSAIN        (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrives at Indira Gandhi International Airport for the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on October 27, 2015. India is hosting an unprecedented gathering of Africa's leaders as it ramps up the race for resources on the continent, where its rival China already has a major head start. AFP PHOTO/Sajjad HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — She was the first woman in Africa elected to lead a government and the second to win a Nobel Peace Prize. But Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is most proud of the fact that next year she’ll be the only ex-president of Liberia enjoying a normal retirement. “That hasn’t happened to us in so many years,” she told Foreign Policy in a recent interview in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The record for retired Liberian leaders is grim. Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, while Samuel Doe, Taylor’s predecessor, was tortured and decapitated on camera during Liberia’s bloody 1989-2003 civil war. Before that, President William R. Tolbert Jr. was disemboweled in his bed during the coup that brought Doe to power. (The most promising precedent is probably Moses Blah, who served as a placeholder president for just two months in 2003 and lived out his last days in Liberia before dying of natural causes in 2013.)

But the days of grisly palace intrigue are long past, according to Sirleaf. Despite a devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014 that claimed more than 4,000 Liberian lives, crippled the economy, and set the country back years in development terms, the president says the upcoming election will be the “defining moment” for Liberian democracy. “This will be the first time in 30 years that a democratically elected president will turn over to a democratically elected president.”

It’s an achievement that is becoming increasingly rare in Africa, where leaders in Burundi, Rwanda, Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all defied term limits or appear to be doing so. Freedom House, a think tank that tracks governance around the world, reports that the percentage of countries in sub-Saharan Africa it rated as “free” or “partly free” has slipped from 71 percent in 2008 to 61 percent this year. But Sirleaf says she doesn’t think democracy is in recession in Africa.

“Overwhelmingly there have been people who have stuck with the constitutional limits and have given up. Four of them are not following the rules — maybe more than four, I grant you. You will find one or two or three more,” she said, cautioning that in places like Rwanda, “this is the people’s choice.”

Many would dispute that characterization of Rwanda, where the government’s harsh suppression of dissent makes it difficult to know what the people would choose. Perhaps less controversial is Sirleaf’s view that democracy cannot easily be turned back anywhere in the world. “It’s too deeply entrenched in the society now. It’s too deeply endorsed by the young population all over the world,” she said.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges as Liberians head to the polls next year. The U.N. peacekeeping mission is drawing down, leaving the country’s corrupt and abusive police force in charge of securing the election. Meanwhile, some of the ghosts of Liberia’s civil war have already re-appeared before the vote, which is scheduled for October 2017. Prince Johnson, who drained a Budweiser as he watched his men mutilate Doe in 1990, has declared his candidacy to succeed Sirleaf. So has Jewel Taylor, the former wife of Charles Taylor. (Both Johnson and Taylor serve in Liberia’s senate.)

Sirleaf, who says she doesn’t plan to endorse any of the candidates vying to succeed her, demurred when asked if there is anyone who should be disqualified from running on account of their conduct during the war. “It’s too late for that,” she said. “Most of [them] have already been elected by their people. And at this stage, having been elected, they have been positive forces, despite their backgrounds.”

The president herself raised $10,000 to support Charles Taylor’s insurgency in 1990, a deed for which Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended she be banned from politics. The ban was never enforced, and Sirleaf proved to be a steady hand at the wheel, winning accolades from human rights advocates and attracting investment from abroad. Before the Ebola epidemic, the economy was expanding at more than 5 percent per year, despite persistent corruption scandals and allegations that the poorest Liberians saw few if any of the benefits of this newfound prosperity.

But Ebola ended all talk of progress. “The gains were erased in terms of growth and in terms of some of the services that we were providing,” said Sirleaf, who was frank about her government’s initial failures as it tried to contain the epidemic. “We took a rather militant approach in the early days,” she said of her decision to seal off entire slums as the country descended into panic. “But we were wrong, clearly, because it led to the death of a young person” who was shot dead by Liberian security forces as he tried to break a government-imposed quarantine.

The government shifted course after its initial blunders, lifting neighborhoodwide quarantines and accelerating efforts to educate communities about the disease. In the end, Liberia was able to contain the outbreak more quickly than Sierra Leone and Guinea, the two other countries hardest hit by Ebola. But the damage to Liberia’s economy was already done. Growth plummeted to 0.4 percent in 2014 as commerce ground to a halt and foreign investment dried up — costing the country an estimated $240 million in GDP losses through the end of 2015. The economy is growing again now, but the president estimates that it will be five more years before Liberia is back to where it was in 2013. “So it was devastating; there’s no question,” she said of the Ebola epidemic. “It’s going to be a tough climb back.”

It will be tougher still because donors have already begun to lose interest in Liberia now that the crisis is over. The country needs help rebuilding its shattered health sector, training new doctors and scientists, and building infrastructure to improve service delivery in rural areas. Sirleaf says that foreign aid hasn’t been as “effective” or “sustained” as she’d hoped. “When a crisis is over, memories are short, whether you’re dealing with Louisiana or whether you’re dealing with Sierra Leone or Liberia,” she said.

Despite waning international attention, Sirleaf says Liberia is better prepared to handle future outbreaks of Ebola. “What we faced in 2014, we faced as something we didn’t know. We’d never experienced that before. It was terrifying,” she said. Now the country has a battle-tested response mechanism and health workers who are better trained and equipped. The government is also doing more research and working with international partners to develop vaccines. “We’re setting up a health institute — something like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) — that’s going to do its own research. I can’t say to you that, yes, we’re 100 percent prepared. No, but we’re confident that we’re able to control the virus.”

Sirleaf isn’t sure exactly what she’ll do after her term ends next year, but she knows Ebola recovery will be part of it. “I expect that I will be called on in the international community to share some of the experiences of leadership, the challenges, the progress, particularly the rebuilding of a country that had been so devastated,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I also tell people that I’m preparing to go on the farm. And so I’m building a farm, and I think I will take a lot of solace in that.”

Does she think she has a shot at the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the multimillion-dollar prize for ex-presidents created by the Sudanese telecom billionaire of the same name? “Of course, we all think about it,” she says of the award, which is supposed to go to former heads of state who demonstrated exceptional leadership and, perhaps most importantly, quit after their constitutionally mandated terms. “Maybe I stand a chance of getting the Mo Ibrahim Prize, but it’s not that. I think the biggest prize that one gets, frankly, is just to be appreciated by one’s people.”

Photo credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

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