She sta­bilised her coun­try after years of con­flict and epi­demic. So who (and what) will follow? Colin Free­man re­ports from Monrovia

The National - News - - WORLD NEWS -

If the size of a pres­i­dent’s tro­phy cab­i­net is any mea­sure of suc­cess, then Ellen John­son Sir­leaf will be a hard act to follow.

The de­part­ing Liberian leader has re­ceived all man­ner of awards and lau­rels dur­ing her 12 years in of­fice, in­clud­ing the No­bel Peace Prize, the US Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom – Amer­ica’s high­est civil­ian hon­our – and eight hon­orary de­grees, among them awards from both Yale and Har­vard.

As Africa’s first elected woman pres­i­dent, Ms Sir­leaf man­aged to be all things to all men and all women: fem­i­nists lauded her work on women’s rights, celebrity aid ac­tivists such as Bono cham­pi­oned her war on poverty, and in­sti­tu­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund praised her han­dling of Liberia’s war-rav­aged fi­nances.

All of which means that her de­par­ture will in­evitably leave a gap – not just for Liberia’s five mil­lion peo­ple, but for West Africa as a whole. The Sir­leaf “halo” shone well be­yond her own bor­ders – putting the spot­light on a long-ne­glected and un­der­de­vel­oped re­gion, and set­ting prece­dents that have made it a bea­con for democ­racy on the con­ti­nent.

In Jan­uary, for ex­am­ple, it was Ms Sir­leaf, along with fel­low West African pres­i­dents, who per­suaded Gam­bian dic­ta­tor Yahya Jam­meh to step down when he lost elec­tions. Thus was the kind of cri­sis that used to keep the re­gion in con­stant civil war averted.

The grand­mother also had pow­er­ful fe­male sup­port­ers such as Hil­lary Clin­ton, as was proved when she asked for mil­i­tary help dur­ing the 2014-2015 Ebola cri­sis. At a time when Amer­ica was still wary of any “hu­man­i­tar­ian” mis­sion to Africa – its ef­forts in So­ma­lia 20 years ago ended in the “Black Hawk down” de­ba­cle – the ar­rival of 3,000 troops within weeks told its own story.

“She (Ms Sir­leaf) had a net­work that was use­ful dur­ing the likes of the Ebola cri­sis,” said Jonathan Gant, a se­nior cam­paigner with watch­dog group Global Wit­ness. “As the pres­i­dent’s ten­ure ends, those use­ful ties, which have helped bring sta­bil­ity and aid to the re­gion, can only loosen.”

Although ranked among the best lead­ers in the world by

Time and Newsweek, Ms Sir­leaf has not achieved univer­sal praise.

Many fem­i­nists said she did not ad­vance their cause much

Ellen John­son Sir­leaf took over a coun­try that did not have the pre­con­di­tions for democ­racy NIC CHEESEMAN pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham

as she could have done – fail­ing to back calls, for ex­am­ple, on min­i­mum quo­tas for women MPs.

The cred­i­bil­ity of her drive against cor­rup­tion and nepo­tism also took a hit when she ap­pointed three of her chil­dren to se­nior gov­ern­ment jobs.

But even her staunch­est crit­ics con­cede that in sim­ply sta­bil­is­ing Liberia after a quar­ter of a cen­tury of coups and civil war, she achieved the near-im­pos­si­ble.

Cre­ated in 1847 as a home for freed Amer­i­can slaves, Liberia as­pired to be a model for Africa, but made many of the same mis­takes.

Early set­tlers lorded it over lo­cal tribes in much as the same way as white colo­nial­ists had done, creat­ing ten­sions that erupted with a bloody coup in 1980 against Wil­liam R Tol­bert Ju­nior, the Americo-Liberian pres­i­dent.

His suc­ces­sor, Sa­muel Doe, was in turn killed a decade later dur­ing the anti-gov­ern­ment up­ris­ing led by war­lord Charles Tay­lor, who plunged the coun­try into a 14-year civil war that killed at least half a mil­lion peo­ple.

As such, the gov­ern­ment that “Ma Ellen” in­her­ited in 2005 was bank­rupt, trau­ma­tised, and held to­gether largely by United Na­tions peace­keep­ers and aid agen­cies. The for­mer World Bank econ­o­mist proved adept at woo­ing the lat­ter, while also pur­su­ing suf­fi­ciently sound eco­nomic poli­cies for gen­er­ous debt re­lief from west­ern cred­i­tors.

“Her record in some ar­eas, like gen­der and equal­ity, might not be as good as some had hoped, but many of these are long-term struc­tural is­sues which she couldn’t solve alone any­way,” said Nic Cheeseman, pro­fes­sor of democ­racy and de­vel­op­ment at Bri­tain’s Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham.

“She took over a coun­try that did not have the pre­con­di­tions for democ­racy, with a his­tory of war, a lot of ex-fight­ers, and a gov­ern­ment with very lit­tle money. You have to give her some credit, if not per­haps 10 out of 10.”

A fi­nal mea­sure of that suc­cess has been to or­gan­ise a set of peaceful elec­tions to choose her suc­ces­sor. But while who­ever takes over will in­herit a coun­try that is no longer at the risk of col­lapse, they will still face for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges.

The health ser­vice is still in post-Ebola re­cov­ery mode, and so too is the econ­omy, with youth un­em­ploy­ment at around 85 per cent.

With Liberia now off the crit­i­cal list, even the most com­pe­tent suc­ces­sor to Africa’s “Iron Lady” is un­likely to en­joy the same ac­claim.

Rather than be­ing feted on the in­ter­na­tional stage, they may have to set­tle for be­ing just an­other leader of just an­other small African democ­racy.

In the view of Liberia’s long-suf­fer­ing cit­i­zens, that should be achieve­ment enough.


Ellen John­son Sir­leaf’s pres­i­dency pulled Liberia away from a painful his­tory of vi­o­lent up­ris­ings to­wards peace

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