Sir­leaf’s pres­i­den­tial score

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her­self was ac­cused of nepo­tism — in 2012 she chose her son, Robert Sir­leaf, to head the Na­tional Oil Company of Liberia, and two other chil­dren were given se­nior gov­ern­ment posts.

Pre­dictably, Robert’s ap­point­ment pre­cip­i­tated a storm of crit­i­cism from the pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents, but also, more sur­pris­ingly, from some of her friends. Even fel­low No­bel lau­re­ate Gbowee re­signed in protest from her po­si­tion in charge of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion.

“Her sons are on the board of oil com­pa­nies and one is the deputy gover­nor of the cen­tral bank. The gap be­tween the rich and poor is grow­ing. You are ei­ther rich or dirt-poor; there’s no mid­dle class,” said Gbowee.

John­son Sir­leaf didn’t take the crit­i­cism kindly, re­spond­ing to Gbowee with a tongue-lash­ing of her own. And she re­mains de­fi­ant. “Was it a mis­take? I stand by it. You know, I stand by the de­ci­sion I took.”

She said her son was qual­i­fied and that she hopes the au­dits will be made public soon to show that he has been falsely ac­cused of cor­rup­tion.

But she did ac­knowl­edge that there was some va­lid­ity to the ac­cu­sa­tions of nepo­tism.

“Yes, there is some­thing about nepo­tism and we all have to re­spect it, we all try to re­spect it. But now, the un­fair part is that this takes place in many other African coun­tries. Liberia is not the only one. Hmm? So why? Why Liberia? Why crit­i­cise Liberia at all? Why [not] crit­i­cise the United States. I don’t hear the crit­i­cism of the United States,” she said.

When John­son Sir­leaf took of­fice, she be­came Liberia’s first woman pres­i­dent and the first woman pres­i­dent in Africa. It was a glass ceil­ing­shat­ter­ing mo­ment, and was driven by strong sup­port from Liberia’s women. In the 2005 and the 2011 elec­tions, women around the coun­try ral­lied to­gether to reg­is­ter and vote her into power. Mo­bilised mar­ket women in par­tic­u­lar played a big role.

“I was elected be­cause of their de­ter­mi­na­tion and their com­mit­ment and so one of the pil­lars of my ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plat­form was to pro­mote the par­tic­i­pa­tion and the em­pow­er­ment of women and I think we have done that,” said John­son Sir­leaf.

Although her elec­tion and sub­se­quent poli­cies em­pow­ered women, they also gave crit­ics another rea­son to crit­i­cise her pres­i­dency.

“I think women’s is­sues is where we tend to be strongly crit­i­cal of her be­cause of the sym­bolic na­ture of her pres­i­dency,” said Lak­shmi Moore, the in­terim coun­try direc­tor of Ac­tionAid In­ter­na­tional.

Not that achieve­ments were not made: dur­ing John­son Sir­leaf’s time in of­fice, rape was made il­le­gal for the first time and, this year, Liberia is to fi­nally pass a Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Bill.

But Moore and others say that not enough has been done, such as legally ban­ning the tra­di­tional prac­tice of female gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion. There is also con­cern from women’s rights groups about how John­son Sir­leaf’s legacy will af­fect women af­ter she leaves of­fice, be­cause many peo­ple are dis­pro­por­tion­ately blam­ing the state of the coun­try on her gen­der.

“There is go­ing to be a backlash, es­pe­cially on women’s rights, be­cause of how her pres­i­dency is used to sort of high­light the in­ac­tions,” Moore said.

This backlash is al­ready ev­i­dent in the sleepy beach­side city of Harper, in the south­east­ern Maryland County. Eleanor Cooper, a trader, sits with two of her friends by the side of the main road. Be­hind them looms a large aban­doned man­sion — a rem­nant from Harper’s hey­day dur­ing the days of Tub­man, when Liberia’s elite built beach­side homes in the city.

In front of Cooper is a metal grate over hot coals on which she roasts mealies. Cooper, the bread­win­ner for her fam­ily, sells a roasted cob for be­tween 20 and 50 Liberian dol­lars (about R2.20 to R5.50). With her in­come, she only barely makes ends meet. Cooper said the cost of liv­ing has gone up. Life sell­ing mealies and pro­vid­ing for her fam­ily is hard and she blames this on the fact that the coun­try has a woman pres­i­dent.

“It’s a man I want,” said Cooper, when asked whether she would vote for another female can­di­date. “Now a woman in the chair, now the prices are high, high, so I not vot­ing for no woman.”

De­spite her frus­tra­tion, Cooper said she feels more em­pow­ered. She is pro­vid­ing for her fam­ily and said she feels that she can stand up to her hus­band.

Not ev­ery­one shares Cooper’s con­cerns about women lead­ers. In a clut­tered down­town mar­ket in Mon­rovia, Re­becca Ka­ley said that John­son Sir­leaf had won her over. Sit­ting among other women who, like her, are sell­ing dried bush meat, Maggi chicken broth cubes and sweet potato leaves, Ka­ley thinks back to 2005 when she first heard that a woman was run­ning for pres­i­dent.

“You know, woman not get strong heart. I was afraid. I will not vote for her,” she said. But she changed her mind in 2011, and gave the pres­i­dent her vote. “Ellen regime made us strong,” said Ka­ley. “Made a woman strong.”

Sir­leaf said she plans now to step away from lo­cal pol­i­tics. She’s con­sid­er­ing an of­fer of a fel­low­ship from Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity in the United States — “to make sure I stay alert, in­tel­lec­tu­ally alert, pro­fes­sion­ally alert” — and will try to spend more time on her farm.

She also wants to sleep and to read all the books she hasn’t had time to read, es­pe­cially the ones writ­ten by other pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters. “I want to be able to read those books. And then com­pare their life story with mine, [with] my ex­pe­ri­ence as pres­i­dent.”

Like the rest of us, it sounds as though John­son Sir­leaf is also com­ing to terms with her own legacy.

“Ellen regime made us strong,” said Ka­ley. “Made a woman strong”

Suc­ces­sors: Supporters (left) of for­mer foot­ball star Ge­orge Weah are happy he will run for pres­i­dent again, af­ter los­ing to Sir­leaf in 2005 and 2011. Sig­nif­i­cant in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenges re­main (right), for the next in­cum­bent. Mo­bilised mar­ket women (be­low) played a role in elect­ing Liberia’s – and Africa’s – first woman pres­i­dent. Pho­tos: Marco lon­gari/AFP/Getty Images

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