Liberia's Election: Hard Times for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen JOHNSON-SIRLEAF
Despite virtual rock-star status around the world, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is far less popular in her home country—where the vast majority of people live on less than $1.25 a day. Alex Majoli / Magnum for Newsweek

No one could blame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf if she hated to leave New York after this year’s U.N. General Assembly opening. Outside her home country, the Liberian president is Africa’s most admired public figure since Nelson Mandela. Her inauguration in January 2006 made her the continent’s first woman head of state in modern times, and for Liberia it marked a decisive shift away from 23 monstrous years of civil war and upheaval—more than a generation of coups, ritual cannibalism, drugged-up child militias, and wanton slaughter. As president, Johnson Sirleaf has received numerous international accolades, including America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But back home in Liberia, the atmosphere is far less cordial. As she runs for a second term as president, the 72-year-old Johnson Sirleaf has been booed and heckled. Her first term has been one long cascade of corruption scandals, and critics of her administration say they’ve been attacked, intimidated, and offered bribes. No one accuses the president of being personally responsible for any of these abuses, but she has clearly been let down badly by many people she trusted. In fact, although Liberia has no credible opinion surveys to predict the election’s outcome, many political analysts believe Johnson Sirleaf could lose, particularly if balloting goes to a second round after the Oct. 11 vote. Some Liberians have actually threatened violence if she’s reelected.

The president tells Newsweek she didn’t realize just how broken Liberia was before she was sworn in. Taking a rare break from campaigning at her Monrovia office, a visibly weary Johnson Sirleaf says it’s taken longer than she expected merely to begin rebuilding a functioning state. “We found a totally collapsed economy, dysfunctional institutions, lack of proper laws and policies, low capacity, and a value system upside down,” she says. Liberia had just $80 million in annual revenue, almost no infrastructure, and a foreign debt load almost seven times the national budget. The educated elite had long since fled to America, and those who stayed behind were hard put to survive, never mind attend school.

Nevertheless, the complaints go far beyond Liberians’ anger at crooked officials and impatience with the pace of reconstruction. Crime is a particular concern—especially rape, which was at epidemic levels during the civil war and continues to plague the country. Worse, the rate of sexual violence against children is said to be rising. At a tiny, rundown rape clinic on the outskirts of Monrovia, three in eight victims in the first half of last year were under 12. One in 10 was under 5. On a recent morning, a 3-year-old arrived with her parents. Her mother told staff that the toddler had been assaulted by a 13-year-old and two 6-year-olds. The girl’s father was shaking with rage. Police demanded that he pay them before they would investigate, but he had nothing to give. In one highly publicized case, a mother who reported the rape of her 12-year-old daughter was beaten by police and jailed for three days.

And yet the president seems at a loss for any way to stop the assaults. Her government has enacted tough laws and set up special police units to tackle crimes against women and children. There’s even a separate court to try rapists. But thanks to judicial and police bungling, only five accused rapists have been convicted nationwide since she took office. “We passed the rape law,” Johnson Sirleaf says. “We made rape an unbailable crime. That is crowding our jails, too. Then we get another complaint that our jails are overcrowded.” (An Amnesty International report last month charged that Liberia’s overcrowded, crumbling prisons violate the inmates’ human rights.) To Johnson Sirleaf’s critics, the rape crisis only strengthens their accusations that she’s too much of a technocrat, unable to solve problems that don’t respond to spreadsheet analysis.

Another ugly controversy centers on Johnson Sirleaf’s past ties to her predecessor, Charles Taylor. It was Taylor who launched Liberia’s first civil war to topple the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Samuel Doe in 1989. (A master sergeant in the Liberian Army, Doe led a coup that overthrew the country’s civilian president in 1980.) Johnson Sirleaf, who was jailed and forced into exile under the Doe regime, initially supported Taylor but soon turned against him. By then it was too late: more than 200,000 Liberians would be killed before domestic and international pressure finally persuaded Taylor to step down in 2003.

Shortly after taking office, Johnson Sirleaf set up a South African–style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the abuses and atrocities that took place during those years. Three years later, the commission submitted its report, which listed 50 Liberians as having been “associated with former warring factions,” and advised that they be “specifically barred from holding public offices, elected or appointed, for a period of thirty (30) years.” One was none other than the president herself—but she swept that recommendation aside, saying it was a question for the courts to decide. That didn’t sit well with her critics, and neither did her recent decision to run for reelection after previously vowing not to seek a second term.

Those disputes aside, however, Johnson Sirleaf deserves credit for some stunning economic achievements. The Harvard-educated (Kennedy School of Government, 1971) president used her credentials as a former World Bank and Citigroup economist, along with a mighty dose of charm, to persuade Liberia’s creditors to write off nearly all of the country’s crushing foreign debt. International investment in industries like oil exploration, iron ore, and palm oil has soared from nothing to $19 billion, much of it from emerging economies of India, Brazil, and China. Government revenue has grown 400 percent.

But so far those economic strides have done little to help most Liberians. Though donors have restored some roads, schools, clinics, water, and power, nearly nine in every 10 Liberians still live on less than $1.25 a day. Liberia’s oil, gas, and mining industries produce few jobs. Unemployment is at 80 percent. Amara Konneh, the president’s minister for planning and economic affairs and one of her closest confidants, insists that the situation will change if Johnson Sirleaf is reelected. He promises to create 20,000 new jobs annually by diversifying the economy into energy and manufacturing. “You’re going to see the Liberian Promise,” he says. “Improved health-care-service delivery, a booming oil industry, cities connected by an improved road network—we’ll be on a trajectory to becoming a middle-income country in the next 10 or 15 years.”

Liberians like Marie Toe say they can’t wait that long. At a Monrovia public market, perched on a stool behind a table piled with dried deer meat, she says she had big expectations when she voted for Johnson Sirleaf last time—and now she’s angry. Toe is one of Liberia’s ubiquitous “market women.” Poor and uneducated, they sell whatever they can grow, make, or find. (Johnson Sirleaf likes to remind voters that her own grandmother was one of them.)

Toe says her husband died in the war. Now she and her six children live in a vacant building with no running water or power. They take shifts in the market rather than go to school. The fact that Johnson Sirleaf has made primary education free and compulsory means nothing to Toe. It’s simple: her children work or they starve. Mothers like Toe are most angry about a recent fivefold hike in the price of the Liberian staple, rice. Toe blames the president. “I won’t vote for her,” Toe says. “I don’t have food to eat.”

The anger among Liberia’s women is cause for serious worry in the Johnson Sirleaf camp. The president has often credited women with her second-round victory over international football star George Weah in 2005. More than half the voters in that election were women—the highest female turnout ever recorded in an African election. Johnson Sirleaf knows she’ll need those women again if she’s going to win this time.

It’s no help to her chances that many voters, male and female, are disgusted by the corruption that has been rampant among members of the administration. Johnson Sirleaf promised to make graft “the major public enemy” and backed the creation of independent watchdogs, but not all of her aides seem to have received the message. Since she took office, 21 members of her government have been sacked for improperly profiting from their positions. Scores of others have been accused but managed to keep their jobs.

Chief among the administration’s critics is Liberia’s former auditor general John Morlu. He became a hero to many for his dogged pursuit of crooks in the government—but after four years of public clashes with Morlu, Johnson Sirleaf fired him. Morlu says the president’s mistake was to set the bar too high. In a country consistently ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world, her cleanup campaign was almost guaranteed to fail. More than once the president has been overheard wondering if there’s anyone she can trust. That hard-taught suspicion has led her to appoint four members of her own family to high-ranking executive positions—which has only added to the criticism.

No fewer than 15 candidates are running against her, including another individual from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s list, former warlord Prince Johnson (no relation). The top challenger is Harvard-trained lawyer Winston Tubman, the 70-year-old nephew of William Tubman, often called the Father of Modern Liberia. The uncle served as Liberia’s president from 1944 until his death in 1971, but 70 percent of the population is under 30, far too young to remember him. The real crowd pleaser on Tubman’s ticket is his running mate, the former footballer Weah.

In 2005 Weah ran at the top of his ticket, and he actually beat Johnson Sirleaf in the first round before losing to her in the runoff. Although Liberians view him as a man of the people (in contrast to the worldly Johnson Sirleaf), political analysts say the voters ultimately concluded that he didn’t have enough education for the job. Weah hasn’t wasted time since then; earlier this year he returned to Liberia with a degree from Florida’s DeVry University. His triumphant parade shut down the capital. But just to stay on the safe side, his advisers talked him into taking a back seat to Tubman.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor is casting an ominous cloud over the campaign from his cell in The Hague. A verdict is expected by the end of the year in Taylor’s nearly four-year-long trial at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, where more than 50,000 people died in an 11-year battle for the country’s diamond fields. (So far the Liberian government has refrained from seeking his prosecution for atrocities committed in Liberia.) Despite his tainted record, Taylor still has considerable support among Liberians, and his word just might sway the vote. It was no surprise when Newsweek encountered his daughter recently leaving Tubman’s home in Monrovia, and Tubman proudly announced he had won her father’s endorsement in vote-rich Nimba County.

Still, memories of Taylor only encourage many other Liberians to support Johnson Sirleaf. If nothing else, they say, she has brought peace. On a recent Saturday an overflow audience of as many as 40,000 people gathered in and around Monrovia’s 15,000-seat Antoinette Tubman Stadium (named for William Tubman’s first lady) for the launch of Johnson Sirleaf’s campaign, dancing and singing her campaign theme: “Monkey still working. Let baboon wait small.”

Many in the crowd were former combatants who credit Johnson Sirleaf with turning their lives around. Sylvester Jaygbay, 28, says he was out of work and angry when he voted against her in 2005. “I was nowhere,” the ex-combatant says. But Jaygbay says Johnson Sirleaf’s support for public education rescued him. He finished high school and studied sociology at the University of Liberia. Now his management job at a private security firm pays for his modest apartment and electricity to keep the lights on, allowing him to put away $10 a month for his 4-year-old son. “If it weren’t for her, I would be on the street, using drugs,” he said. “The type of hope she has brought to our lives—they’ve been totally transformed.”

Many others aren’t so lucky. An estimated 95 percent of Liberians under 20 are jobless. Some jumped at an offer of $500 to serve as mercenaries in neighboring Ivory Coast earlier this year. U.N. leaders say it’s “probable” that former combatants will threaten Liberia’s government when the 8,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission begins a drawdown, likely next year. For Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Liberia, the threat of failure persists.