Tough Challenges Loom for Liberia’s Leader

AP Photo/Richard Drew
By Lauren Meryl Williamson

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is no stranger to political challenges, but the 72 year old is about to have her leadership tested even further in this final year of her term. 

Thousands of Cote d’Ivoire refugees are fleeing into Liberia’s territory, burdening its resources and pressuring its politics. Meanwhile, the international community awaits a verdict on the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of heinous war crimes for arming rebels that killed and maimed Sierra Leone civilians during that country’s civil war. Many Liberians hold Taylor responsible for similar atrocities in Liberia, and seeing him brought to justice is a benchmark in the Liberian reconciliation process.

As Africa’s first – and so far only – female head of state, Sirleaf has had the arduous task of administering reconstruction policies for Liberia after it endured civil war from 1989-2003. During the inner turmoil, hundreds of thousands were killed and the economy was devastated. Since taking office in 2006, Sirleaf has overseen five years of fragile stability, which may be wholly disrupted if the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire continues.

Since Cote d’Ivoire’s contested presidential election of November, armed conflict has swept the country. Laurent Gbagbo, the losing candidate who claimed election fraud, has sent gunmen to oppress supporters of former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who is recognised as the true president by the international community. The United Nations reports that close to 400 people have been killed and as many as 75,000 have fled into neighbouring Liberia.

The refugees are without adequate food, sanitised water, proper housing and medical assistance, according to Oxfam officials in the region. And Liberia, with most of its 4 million citizens living on roughly US$1 a day, has a fragile economy that cannot absorb the influx of displaced persons.

By night, the capital city Monrovia presents a vivid picture of Liberia’s staggering unemployment. Young girls, orphaned during the civil war, sell their bodies just to have money for food and clothes. Many other illicit dealings transpire in the large informal economy. Refugees who are not properly cared for may contribute to such shadow economies by engaging in similar dangerous behaviours and transactions in order to feed themselves and their families.

While Sirleaf’s financial shrewdness has given her a strong reputation among supporters at home and abroad, her economics degrees and Master’s education from Harvard may not be enough to solve this festering political predicament. During her Presidency, she has substantially reduced the country’s debts and improved foreign investor confidence by restricting annual borrowing to 3 per cent of GDP. Her macroeconomic policies, which include channelling funds into bespoke infrastructure projects that do not require fund renewal, have been applauded by the International Monetary Fund.

But perhaps it is time for her to look at more enduring projects that can offer permanent job solutions for Liberians. The problem she faces is that financing such long-term endeavours would contradict current austerity measures, which is Liberia’s only route to gaining international debt forgiveness and rebuilding its credit rating.

Sustaining formal sector employment is critical in reintegrating former Liberian fighters. Many of them undoubtedly find the situation in Cote d’Ivoire an enticement to revert to a lifestyle of seeking immediate payoffs, both psychological and physical. Aid organisations affirm this, warning that the influx of Ivoirians may be followed by an influx of arms into Liberia. And the agitation of grievances may be further compounded depending on The Hague’s verdict in the Charles Taylor case.

Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes for his dealings in Sierra Leone’s war; closing arguments in the case are set to culminate on 11 March 2011. In 2003, as Taylor entered political exile, he injected fear into the public saying, “God willing, I will be back”.

For Liberia’s continued reconciliation process, his return would be devastating as it could reenergise rebel factions. Even Western leaders want to thwart the possibility of his return. Wikileaked diplomatic cables indicate the US expressed willingness to have Taylor extradited for trial in the US, should The Hague trial result in his acquittal.

Taylor’s Presidency lasted from 1997-2003, roughly the last half of Liberia’s civil war years. Liberians believe he perpetuated and profited from the conflict, and face reminders of this on a daily basis. After seven years of wind and heat erosion, shallowly dug mass graves are beginning to surface. Children playing football stumble across bones. Beach goers discover remains jutting out of the sand. The community wants a reburial and dedicated victims’ memorial, with authentic excavation and identification of the bodies. Experts agree this is a necessary part of reconciliation. But again, Liberia does not have the resources to do this, a point confirmed by Sirleaf in an article for AOL News.

But beyond the domestic peace process in Liberia, Sirleaf still has to deal with the refugee situation. Interestingly, although Sirleaf briefly supported Taylor’s political career in the late 1980s, her public criticism of his administration forced her to flee the country. She took refuge in Cote d’Ivoire at one point.  Many Liberians also sought safety there during Liberia’s civil war years. To refuse Ivoirian refugees now would be political suicide and viewed as a great betrayal by its African neighbour. This prevents Liberia from taking a tough stance to contain the influx.

Fortunately, Sirleaf has a track record for facing challenges head on, as when she signed Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act last year – the first of its kind in West Africa – and when she set a national mandate for free and compulsory elementary education for children. It is no surprise The Economist called her “Africa’s Iron Lady”, and Newsweek named her one of 2010’s top ten leaders of the world. But Sirleaf’s political actions over the next few months must remain proactive if she hopes to maintain Liberian peace, assist neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire and secure her own re-election next year. It would be prudent for the international community to ramp up its aid and peacekeeping efforts in the region before Western Africa becomes mired in a contagious and brutal armed crisis. 


10 March 2011


The BBC interviewed President Sirleaf to commemorate International Women’s Day on 8 March 2011. To listen the interview click here.


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew


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