Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Moving into a new order in the new year

By: Lindsay Barrett/

sirleaf-300x206Liberia’s long and painful journey back from the brink of destruction imposed by war and political mismanagement will take on new significance in 2017 as Africa’s first elected woman President Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf prepares to stand down and hand over to a new leader at the end of her second tenure.

Although she is a septuagenarian (she will turn 79 next October) and can arguably be said to have completed a long political career at the pinnacle of power she has so far shown no inclination to simply disappear into the mists of history. She is believed to be working actively to support her Vice President Hon. Joseph Nyuma Boakai to succeed her as President as well as to strengthen the role of women in the affairs of her nation. In spite of this many observers say that rather than manipulating a transition she is creating the circumstances for a truly competitive contest for leadership that will reflect the genuine wishes of the people.

As a consequence some Liberian political operatives claim that she is not actually supporting her Vice-President but focusing on the creation of a new order of political control as the core objective of her legacy. Over the eleven years of her Presidency so far she has had to face down many critical challenges, the most notorious being the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In addition to this Liberia’s economic fortunes have been battered by adverse global circumstances.

The major mineral resource on which a substantial proportion of its foreign-currency revenue depends is iron ore. President Johnson Sirleaf has worked hard to ensure that the country’s negotiations with foreign investors in the mining sector will enhance benefits accruing to the national economy from the exploitation of the nation’s prolific iron ore deposits. Even though global prices for the resource have suffered a down-turn in recent years she has insisted that Liberian exploitation must reflect the nation’s expectations and desire for growth and rehabilitation.

The iconic American business magazine Forbes has adjudged her success in this wise to be surprisingly positive. It has suggested that a major legacy of her tenure in office will be the fact that she has enabled the effective and credible revival of that industry. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s experience as an international civil servant, and her credibility as an advocate of the rights of the under-privileged in Liberian society in her younger days have combined to add resonance to her role as a regional leader.

She is now the Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State of the ECOWAS Commission for 2016, with her tenure ending in March next year. In this largely ceremonial position she has still managed to give the impression that she is working for the masses of the people of the wider community. Her commitment to a free and fair electoral process in her own country has been reflected in her encouragement of the principles of freedom of speech and respect for human rights throughout the West African region. In the meantime closer to home many Liberians hail her for her definitive and principled stand on building lasting democratic institutions after a divisive civil war and several decades of political delinquency.

While there are visible signs of dissent in the Liberian political arena and critical disenchantment with some of her policies at home have been expressed by some of her political opponents there have been little or no allegations of violations of the rights of any member of the Liberian populace. This is a remarkable development in a country where barely three decades ago tyranny and impunity held sway, and Liberia’s international reputation was synonymous with the dictatorship first of Samuel Doe and then of Charles Taylor. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf had built a substantial reputation for herself as an advocate and protector of the rights of the under-privileged long before it was even thought likely that she could emerge as Head of State and Government in Liberia.

In her tenure as President she has also displayed a profound sense of tolerance of criticism and an intuitive preference for selecting appointees whose talents and abilities are based on performance rather than on politics. Even so she has stepped on toes in the society and many of her opponents in earlier contests have begun to limber up for a challenge to anyone who is eventually touted as her heir. Vice-President Boakai is regarded as being the most likely candidate for that role so far and as a result some of those who wish to undermine his chances of success have targeted elements of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s record in office for criticism. In addition to this they have characterised the Vice President as being slow and somewhat hesitant in his reactions.

However the truth is that his deep loyalty and cautious adherence to the policies and strategies of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s administration have largely been driven by pragmatism and met with proven success. His leading role in the fight against the Ebola virus proved the wisdom of his cautious but deliberate manner. As an argument in favour of his succession his careful and reasoned maturity is a powerful asset especially when pitted against Liberia’s record of excitable and adventurous leaders in the past. A number of those who have already thrown their hats into the ring, even though official campaigning has not commenced, show signs of being opportunists who are harking back to the old days of irresponsible ethno-centric politicking.

This is a tradition that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has fought against all her life and as she prepares to stand down at the end of her constitutionally limited tenure there is hardly any doubt that she will not want a return to the bad old days. While the cry of change that has proven so attractive all over the world is certain to prove tempting to the Liberian electorate many people in that country are wary of a return to the economic profligacy and communal division that so many of those who want to succeed Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf are offering.

While Vice President Boakai represents the continuation of the status quo in some ways he can also be said to represent the change from the old ways that Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s record in office strove to maintain. To that extent the rumours of her support for her number two man suggests that continuity of her development programmes and the direction of her administrative priorities are among the legacies that Liberians are contemplating as they prepare to elect her successor. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s major challenge now is to ensure that the new order that her election represented twelve years ago is not aborted when she oversees the baton change next year.

Source: The Sun Online

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