President Johnson Sirleaf Stresses Continuity for Post-War Liberia

IRP Gatekeeper to Liberia Sunni Khalid reports on his recent trip in a week-long radio series for WYPR, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds"

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

January 12, 2011

Also appeared on WYPR, an affiliate of NPR

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The mid-day traffic moves in frenetic waves, up and down Broad Street, the main avenue in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. Fleets of motorcycles compete with the latest S-U-Vs and sedans. Long lines of pedestrians walk slowly along the roadside, while groups of boys hawk goods - all of them baking under the brilliant West African sun.

A few blocks away, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, sits at the head of a long table, wearing her trademark headwrap. Sirleaf is Africa's and Liberia's first elected woman president. On the wall is a large copy of the national seal, which depicts one of the tall ships that brought the first former African-American slaves who eventually founded Liberia in 1847.

When the 72-year-old Johnson Sirleaf was first elected in 2005, she declared she would serve only one term. But last year, she announced she would seek a second and final five-year term because she said her job was not yet done.

"We have come a long way, since 2006, when this administration, this government started, because what we met was truly dysfunctional system, collapsed economy, lack of credit worthiness, bad reputation for the country, a failed state, a pariah state, as we were all characterized. Today, I think we can say today that Liberia is functioning again."

A no-nonsense, Harvard-trained economist, Johnson Sirleaf's far different than her immediate predecessors. A barely literate Samuel Doe, a master sergeant in the Liberian army, staged a military coup in 1980, where President William Tolbert was murdered in the Executive Mansion. After installing himself as president and was voted into office in rigged elections. A few years later, was captured, tortured and killed by rebels during the country's first civil war.

Doe was eventually succeeded by former rebel Charles Taylor, who defeated Johnson Sirleaf in elections in 1997, by essentially threatening a return to civil war, if he was not elected. Taylor plundered Liberia's vast mineral wealth before he was forced into exile in 2003, as part of the peace agreement ending the second civil war.

About 8,000 UN peacekeepers remain in Liberia to keep the fragile peace. Johnson Sirleaf says the upcoming elections may be more important than those that brought her to power five years ago.

"The next election will be the defining event for Liberia's move toward normalcy and move toward sustainable peace. But that second election, which we all must do all we can to make sure it's free, it's fair, it represents the people's choice, after that, I think Liberia will be put on a irreversible course for democracy, development, peace."

Many of the physical reminders of the civil wars that raged here are gone. Bullet holes and shell craters have been patched and painted over. Roads are being re-paved. Bustling commerce has returned to downtown Monrovia, with new banks and hotels opening up. And foreign investment is pouring in.

Nohn Rebecca Kidau, a congresswoman from Ganta County, says the specter of dictatorial rule remains in Liberia. That's why she's among those who believe it's important for Johnson Sirleaf to win re-election.

"The reason I want her to be here now, and for her to continue for at least another six years, is that we are laying a new foundation for our country. The vision that she has for this country is on track and we want it to sink in for everyone to understand it. Before another person, who was not a part of the creation of it, comes on board at that time, the foundation will be solid enough to stand on it. You can even put a goat in the office of the president. [laughter] It will not crack. It's solid."

Mark Quarterman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who knows Johnson Sirleaf well. He says it's important that if the president is re-elected, she not attempt to change Liberia's constitution to extend her term.

"That first president question, whether it's Nelson Mandela, whether it's George Washington, you know, following the constitution, establishing the way the chief executive acts in the country, making it not regal but real for the people. And I think Ellen is very aware of that. And let's hope that it sticks. Let's hope that 30 years from now, people will say, Well, you know, our President is like this, or does these things, in part, because Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, this is how she did it.' And one key aspect of that is leaving office, in keeping with the constitution, which we saw so little of in sub-Saharan Africa. That's going to be crucial."

The current situation next door in Ivory Coast - where incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused demands by regional leaders and the United Nations to step down after losing elections - is a powerful reminder of what can happen when a country does not follow a clear constitutional path.

Which brings up another issue...

"We've seen it too many times, where the U.S. and the West just invests in one individual. And once that individual goes, so goes the investment."

Witney Schneidman is a former deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, who currently does business throughout Africa, including Liberia. He says Washington should make a long-term commitment to Liberia's institutions, regardless of who is in power.

"First, she's got to get elected, and that's only a couple more months, to show that she is the best one to continue to take the country forward. And then, she'll have a second term. And in that time, she will have to show that she's been able to attract the capital, educate her people, and do it in such a way that progress is irreversible."

"Two or three years?"

"Two or three years."

Mark Quarterman says memories of the past may give Liberia's future a little extra time.

"I think, in some ways, Liberia provides its own worst-case scenario. We saw what happened in Liberia. And Liberians have seen what happened in Liberia, a country that was poorly governed, governed for the benefit of a small elite, led to close to 20 years of violence and destruction. Liberia's seen that path and I trust that they don't want to follow that again."

Much of this will depend on the quality of Liberia's future leaders. Running against the incumbent this fall are Weah, the former soccer star, and a number of lesser candidates, most with little education and pasts tainted by Liberia's civil wars. Regardless of the outcome of the October elections, Johnson Sirleaf says her government has made a good start.

"I think we've placed the country on a path that only if it were someone, who wants to return us to militarism, or someone, who is just there for self-enrichment, or something like that, would just reverse everything, cause we've gone too far. Yes, we have some concern that the lack of continuity could undermine some of the things we've put in place, if the country went into the wrong hands, but we've got to leave that to the Liberian electorate. There's nothing we can do about that."

Liberians can only pray that she's right, but it may take the next presidential elections and, perhaps, the one after that, to see if she is.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He has reported this series, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds," on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP).