Liberia: Lessons learnt after moving the poster child of death and destruction in the right direction

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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

For all of the challenges of corruption and dependency that afflict Liberia, it is too easy to forget the long road the country has travelled this century. In the 1997 election Charles Taylor campaigned on the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” Citizens voted for him in a landslide because they feared that he would restart the civil war if he lost.

But governance and consistency of its application make a big difference. The message from Liberia is clear. It is possible to turn apparently hopeless cases around.

During the 12 years (2006 to 2018) of my two-term government, the economy averaged above 7% annual growth. Per capita income rose from $80 at the end of the second civil war in 2003 to $700, though the population increased by nearly 50% to just under 5 million. Life expectancy rose from 53 to 61. A once “failed state” could take over essential tasks. In the 2017 elections to succeed me, the opposition won, so Liberia could join the limited club of countries where elections produced a peaceful transfer of power.

I campaigned for democracy for many years, building credibility, and it was heart-warming that the world acknowledged what we had been through with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

To get Liberia moving in the right direction took determination. I kept a whiteboard next to my desk to remind me of priorities, timelines and goals. We had to focus scant resources on things that matter. The first priority was to keep the peace after two decades of war. The second was to restore basic services. Third, we had to restore the nation’s reputation and creditworthiness. Liberia was the poster child for death and destruction on every TV around the world.

There are things I might have approached differently. The first concerns capacity. Our civil service comprised the warring factions. While some meant well, many had no qualifications. But it was difficult to get rid of them since this was their sole income. Integrity was the next challenge. I made bold statements about corruption without realising the extent to which it had become part of the culture. This was worsened by the familiarity of our society, where people would expect things from family members.

One of our biggest challenges was dependency. Many people had spent a lot of time in refugee camps. The way they were given shelter and food disempowered them. They got to a place where they felt entitled. But this dependency was not just concentrated at the lower end of the ladder. It became a way of life, more than the social sharing of any African society. This has led to unacceptably high salaries at some levels.

If we did it again, I would caution people “to do the hurt early”.

These challenges of capacity, integrity and dependency were reflected in just about everything that we did, whether promoting the private sector, dealing with communities, or finding capable ways of applying rules and procedures. All of this related to the challenge of education of the youth and the public. While social media provided a tool to get the message across, it was too sporadic, too fragmented, too focused on day-to-day matters. To get things to change, outsiders have to sometimes take account of people’s priorities and allow locals to take the lead.

Doing this in a democratic environment made it more difficult. Any attempt to develop in a faster, authoritarian way could have been a trigger for conflict. We could not suppress the freedom to get things done. It was not easy to implement a democracy in such a broken society. But democracy was driven by the people’s demand. It was a demand that was welcomed from my perspective.

I had wanted one term. But the things I wanted to complete were not finished at the end of that first term. Civil society was the key driver of democracy. The legislature was not that supportive of the democratic process as they were mainly focused on retaining their own interests. My biggest surprise was how devilish they were, my own party included.

From our side, probably there was not enough consultation with the people and too much focus on getting things done. We needed to take a step back, attend town hall meetings, talk about how we go into conflict and explain how we are going to get out of it.

Liberia’s lesson is distinct. Consistency is key to recovery. Don’t avoid the difficult things. Plans require matching resources and timelines with political will. Change is possible, even if it takes time. DM168

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and is a Nobel laureate. She is the founder of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Centre for Women and Development and is a board member of the Brenthurst Foundation. This article was originally published in the Daily Maverick (South Africa) on September 28, 2020.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! Some of the mistakes of your 12 year rule in Liberia were; the hiring of unqualified Liberians from the Diaspora and offering them very high salaries, the passing of “brown envelopes” to bribe the legislature to pass concessionary agreements that were not in the best interest of the country. Your failure to muster strong political will to take action on recommendations of investigative committees set up by you to probe into wrong doings by your underlings, and your running of a nepotistic government; your son Robert Sirleaf ran the National Oil Company (NOCAL) to the ground, but you couldn’t do a thing about it, because he was your son, so you took the blame for it, but that was not your personal money that was misappropriated, but the Liberian peoples’ money.
    Even though you told the Liberian people that “corruption” would “be public enemy #1”, but corruption became rampant in your government, because you lack the political will to take concrete actin to curb corruption, because your own hands were in the cookie jar of corruption.
    You declare that the education system was “a mess”, but took no concrete steps to tackle the mess; instead of hiring someone who was a seasoned educator to robustly attack the “mess” in the education system, you hired a former group home employee to clean up the mess in the education system of the country.
    In summary what you did in Liberia for 12 years was to run one of the most corrupt governments in the history of the country, as your government squandered over 2 billion US dollars poured into the country by our international partners. You did not only stop there, but you made sure to help elect an inept government that would not audit your misrule in Liberia. Aren’t you ashamed that after 12 years everything is falling apart in Liberia? Had you set up a good governing system, a good education system, and a solid infrastructural system, the living condition would not be this bad after just 3 years after you madam president.

    Tolo Bonah Corfah

    • It is a good thing that she is dying from old age, and knowing what country she is leaving behind. Not even the tested idea of her grandchildren living in that country makes anymore sense to her. Tested idea ? Remember the oil conference once held under her regime, where her grandson was one of the keynote speakers of the day ? The grandson that had no kind of knowledge or was never trained, educated was chosen by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to be a keynote speaker on the country’s oil blocks and development. It is a good thing that she is dying from old age knowing what kind of country she is leaving behind. Not the kind that she had in mind for her grandson. But to her credit, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did not put her financial resources in structures, as did Samuel Doe, Tubman, Tolbert or Taylor. She put hers in the banks around the world. Like she once said, her children have no reason to work . They are self made . She actually said that in one of her boasted statements about how successful her children are . She actually said that, and was quoted by Frontpageafrica. But it is a good thing that she is dying from old age, knowing what kind of country she is leaving behind for them. It is a good thing.

  2. Unfortunately!

    Always the case for Africa, yet you were schooled in one of the most prestigious universities on planet earth.
    I wish I had been your professor then; I would have been saddened to read your regrets as a Harvard graduate.

    It did not take Paul Kagame of Rwanda a PhD or master’s degree from Harvard to know that the core problem for his country was education. And so, upon his ascension to power, he immediately established law and order and tackled upfront this pernicious African “identity mole”. Being a Tutsi himself, a people who were bruised during the genocide, Kagame did embark on selective education and empowering, he made way for all the children of Rwanda to compete on equal footing irrespective of ethnic background or religious affiliation.

    But you, Ellen, decided to educate and empower your people ALONE (as always from the race you come from) and those who would say “Yes Sir” to you, and so some hypocritically came on board to corner you and get what they could get. Why should you be surprised that people within your political party were also sometimes unreasonable and wicked? By the way, did you have a political party in Liberia called Unity Party? This party was founded by Edward B. Kesselly, and one of the first elected members was Joseph Boakai who open up to you, yet you screwed him up of his party; always outsmarting others – the best you retained from Harvard!

    I know Ellen to be a member of the Liberian Action Party. Why did you go away from the party?
    Oh, you did not want the ghost of Jackson F. Doe to haunt you, right? You heartlessly ordered the execution of that old man because he was earmarked to lead a transition after the death of Samuel K. Doe.
    Knowing fully well that if Jackson F. Doe were to become the interim president then, all the combatants, majority from Nimba, could have laid down their arms and give peace a chance and so you told you pekin Charles Taylor to get rid of him. God is waiting for you before His throne to ask you many questions, Madam!

    Do not worry, Madam! We knew you could not help Liberia but for the sake of peace, I could have voted you myself for the first and second terms. Get all the accolades from the world that groomed you, but those bestow by Heaven could have been preferable.

    We, the true children of Liberia, will build a nation decreed on Christian principles where love will abound, and moral probity will be the core value of leadership in a new Liberia.

    May God appease all afflicted souls this day!

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