Sirleaf’s presidential score
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