The Tearing Down of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The ghosts of Liberia’s civil war are stalking the country ahead of this week's election — and threatening the complicated legacy of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.
MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will leave office in January as one of the most celebrated African leaders of recent memory — outside of Liberia, that is. The first woman elected to lead a government in Africa, she has presided over a period of peace and economic revival, secured nearly $5 billion in debt relief, and looks set to do something that hasn’t been done in Liberia in seven decades: peacefully transfer power to another elected leader.
But while Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and darling of the development world, can expect a warm welcome at Davos or the Concordia Summit, she is surprisingly unpopular at home. So disliked is she that on the eve of Liberia’s Oct. 10 general election, her own vice president, Joseph Boakai — who is vying with 19 other candidates to succeed her — has tried to distance himself from Sirleaf on the campaign trail. “If you park a race car in the garage for 12 years, it gets rusty,” Boakai said at a recent presidential debate. Left unsaid was the fact that he’s been parked right there beside the president for all 12 of those years.
Few would have anticipated such a fall from grace in 2005, when Sirleaf’s historic election seemed to promise a new beginning for a country all but destroyed by more than a decade of civil war. But crucial aspects of Liberia remain much as they were back then: Most people are mired in poverty, the health care and education systems are in shambles, and roads and electrical grids are only starting to be rebuilt.
Sirleaf delivered modest, incremental gains when what her supporters expected was a dramatic reversal of their fortunes overnight. To some degree, she was responsible for fueling those outsized expectations. In 2006, she declared corruption “Public Enemy No. 1,” only to preside over a notoriously corrupt administration. Then in 2011, while running a re-election campaign built around “The Liberian Promise,” her then-finance minister boasted, “[W]e’ll be on a trajectory to becoming a middle-income country in the next 10 or 15 years.” (That seems highly unlikely: in 2016, GDP per capita was still just $455.)
The bevy of unmet promises, coupled with events beyond Sirleaf’s control, including a devastating Ebola outbreak and the collapse of commodity prices, have not just dimmed the president’s star; they have created an opening for the ghosts of Liberia’s past — the very men who tore the country apart during a war in which one in 10 Liberians was killed — to make a comeback in this year’s election. Among the candidates for president are warlord-turned-preacher and senator Prince Johnson, who in 1990 was videotaped torturing former President Samuel Doe, and Benoni Urey, who has admitted that he helped convicted war criminal and former Liberian leader Charles Taylor siphon funds from the country’s shipping registry to pay for arms. Jewel Howard Taylor, Taylor’s ex-wife, is running for vice president alongside George Weah, the former international soccer star who is one of only a few candidates untainted by the war. But rumors abound that Taylor is issuing directives to the campaign from his jail cell in the United Kingdom, where he is serving a 50-year sentence for crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, and Weah has admitted receiving at least one call from the incarcerated war criminal.
The latest poll shows Weah and Boakai, the other front-runner, running neck-and-neck, each with about 28 percent of the vote. This has sparked mild panic among some Liberians, international donors, and investors that Taylor could have an invisible role in the next administration. Howard Taylor further stoked those fears at a recent rally, where she pledged to keep the promises — including to rebuild wrecked infrastructure and create jobs for young people — made by her ex-husband’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) back in 1997. “Because of what happened in our government and the abrupt closure and arrest of former President Taylor we were not able to fulfill those promises,” she said. “The NPP is now strong, and so we want to call all of the NPP stalwarts across the length and breadth of Liberia to come on board and help us win these elections, we will put that agenda back on the table.”
Liberia seems to be racing backward instead of forward, and for that Sirleaf bears some of the blame, her critics say. In an interview with Foreign Policy in her modest office in Monrovia, the 78-year-old president seemed to share some of those critics’ disappointment in her tenure. “I underestimated the low level of capacity. I also underestimated the cultural roots of corruption,” she said. As a result, she admits that Liberia is not where she hoped it would be when she took office in 2006. But Sirleaf says her critics underestimate the magnitude of the task she took on. “I don’t think people understand the awesomeness of the destruction of this county — its institutions, its infrastructure, its law, its morals,” she said.
The devastation Sirleaf inherited when she took office in 2006 was certainly stunning. Two decades of dictatorship and civil war had brought the country to its knees: Anyone with the means had left, infrastructure was decimated, and half of all Liberians were displaced, either internally or in neighboring countries. To begin to address all of these problems, Sirleaf had a budget of just $80 million in her first year in office.
But the Harvard- and World Bank-trained president had allies in the West who were eager to make Liberia a development case study. The Oxford economist Paul Collier signed on as an advisor, as did former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Africa Governance Initiative. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and Humanity United made big investments in training government officials and rebuilding institutions, as did foreign governments, which poured $1.1 billion in foreign aid into Liberia in 2015 alone. Sirleaf also courted Bono and Bill Clinton, who lavished praise on her at every opportunity, burnishing her international image as a champion of democracy and development. The message was clear: Liberia is open for business.
And it was. In poured major international investors hungry for commodities like iron ore and rubber. And as commodity prices soared, so did Liberia’s fortunes. From 2011 to 2013, the country’s economy grew at an annual rate of more than 8 percent.
But even during the boom years there were concerns about corruption. In Sirleaf’s first term alone, more than 20 government ministers were accused of corruption by the country’s independent corruption watchdog, the General Auditing Commission, but not one of them was prosecuted. (Sirleaf claimed they couldn’t stand trial at the time because the judiciary was too weak.) In her second term, the corruption watchdog Global Witness found that 20 of the country’s largest logging contracts had been entered into illegally (most had been marred by graft). And a succession of scandals have rocked her administration in recent years, the latest involving Varney Sherman, a lawyer who used to head the president’s political party, who is on trial for allegedly paying more than $950,000 in bribes on behalf of her client, the British extractive firm Sable Mining, in order to secure an iron ore concession.
Perhaps the president’s biggest misstep was to appoint three of her sons and one of her sisters to key government posts. The most important of those posts was at the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), which was headed by her son, Robert Sirleaf, until 2013. He presided over record exploration deals with the super majors Chevron and ExxonMobil that netted more than $120 million for the government, but a cloud of suspicion settled over him when NOCAL collapsed in 2015, two years after he had departed. Nothing was ever proven, but many Liberians believe the money went into his pockets. “Was it a mistake?” Sirleaf said of her decision to appoint Robert. “I stand by it. I take the criticism for it. I think it’s unfair, but yes, there is a thing about nepotism and we all try to respect it. I needed someone I trusted in that space and when all the audits are available they’ll realize he was judged wrongly.”
Sirleaf alluded to the hypocrisy of any American official raising questions about nepotism in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, when his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump both hold senior advisor roles in the While House. “I don’t hear the criticism of the U.S. Here was someone who came to work to try to make a poor country better while over there you’ve got…” she trailed off. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
But regardless of whether it’s an unfair double standard, the steady drumbeat of corruption allegations has taken a toll on the president’s popularity and left her party and her vice president, to whom she has given only lukewarm support, in a much weaker position going into this election. “I think a lot of Liberians embraced the pledge to curb graft but now look back with disappointment that the political will has just not been there to bring accused corrupt officials to book,” said Rodney Sieh, the managing editor of the Liberian newspaper FrontPage Africa. “Some inroads have been made, but a corrupt judicial system has made it difficult.”
But the biggest blows to Sirleaf’s reputation were delivered by events far beyond her control. The collapse of commodity prices in 2014 reduced government revenues by 12 percent the following year, and the subsequent Ebola outbreak did even more damage. More than 10,000 people were infected with the virus between 2014 and 2015, and nearly 5,000 died. International companies scaled back or shut down entirely. Local companies that were unable to meet their obligations to international investors also closed their doors. The economy contracted by 0.5 percent in 2016.
The economic downturn has proved a fertile climate for candidates peddling the kind of divisiveness that defined wartime politics in the 1990s. From behind the pulpit of his church on the outskirts of Monrovia on a recent Sunday, Johnson delivered a fiery defense of his murder of President Doe to rapturous applause. In an interview with FP after his congregants had trickled out, he launched a blistering attack on the freed black settlers from America who founded the country in 1821 and whose descendants have formed the ruling Americo-Liberian elite ever since. “They divide themselves,” Johnson said of Americo-Liberians. “They live all over the country but they don’t speak one dialect in 170 years. How can you have a nation 170 years and our leaders only speak English? Is that unity? Or is it that our native languages are so inferior? We need a leader who speaks our language.”
This kind of rhetoric from politicians with ugly wartime records has roiled Liberia’s restive youth; many have promised violence if their candidate does not win. Sirleaf’s critics say the return of Taylor’s allies to the political scene is the president’s fault — a result of the widespread belief that her weakness on corruption was designed to protect her family and associates from prosecution after her presidency. “She is resolute in using state power and resources to undermine, dismantle, and even crush democratic and integrity forces in the 2017 elections,” said Aloysius Toe, a longtime democracy activist jailed by Taylor and a candidate for the legislature on presidential candidate Alexander Cummings’s ticket. “Even if it means the return of Taylor’s ghost.”
No candidate is likely to reach the 50 percent threshold required for an outright victory, so a runoff between Weah and Boakai or Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive whose campaign has exceeded expectations, looks likely. Charles Brumskine, another ally of Charles Taylor, could also squeak into the second round. “Liberians need a change!” Johnson thundered from his pulpit. Sadly, the only thing on offer to voters seems to be a return to the bad old days.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Prue Clarke is the co-founder and president of New Narratives, an organization supporting independent African media and is the director of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s international reporting program.