Liberia’s Sirleaf faces tough poll challenge


When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia’s president four years ago, even close aides admit neither she nor anyone else realised quite how hard it would be to rebuild their devastated country from scratch.

Africa’s first female president will stand for re-election next year, when Liberians will be asked to vote on her record on delivering development in a nation ranked 169 on the UN Human Development Index, out of 182. Her challenge is tough.

Sirleaf took office in January 2006, vowing to end corruption and mend a nation torn apart by a war that left infrastructure ruined and a generation of child soldiers traumatised.
“At the time Liberians were listening to her promises, none of us realised there are just so many challenges in a post-conflict environment, challenges that can interfere with your plans no matter how lofty,” Justice Minister Christiana Tah told Reuters.
“That’s the reality we have had to face.”

In an effort to rekindle the economy, her government has made huge efforts to charm investors, especially mining companies attracted to Liberia’s iron ore deposits, resulting in commitments to $10 billion dollars in investments last year.

It also bought back $1.2 billion of debt in 2009, and is on track to have much of its remaining $1.7 billion debt forgiven.

Chinese firms have rebuilt roads and renovated buildings.
“If you look around, you will see the improvements,” Sirleaf told Reuters at the launch of a Chinese mining project. “If you talk to people, yes, we still have a lot of unemployment but many people now have begun to benefit from the level of development we have brought.”
“She can fix them”

Many Liberians agree. On the streets of Monrovia, flanked by faded colonial-style buildings, the optimism is palpable.
“The roads in the cities are better, more people can find work, teachers in schools are good. We still have problems but she can fix them,” said Yatta Dibo, 41, a soft drink seller.

Yet while the upbeat mood that accompanied Sirleaf’s election persists, she faces challenges to her authority.

A report last year by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to investigate war crimes, recommended she be banned from office for 30 years for backing the rebellion of former warlord and President Charles Taylor.

She admits she funded Taylor but says she was misled and she has declined to comment on the TRC’s suggestions, which the committee cannot enforce but which parliament can enact.

The government is weighing prosecuting some people named in the report for war crimes, but it will be hard for Sirleaf to back that call then ignore the one that she be barred.
“There is no credible argument for non-implementation of the report. Those arguing against the report, it’s out of fear or interest,” TRC president Jerome Verdier said.

Prosecutions risk upsetting a power balance that has stuck largely by co-opting former warlords, some of whom have Senate seats. One of those recommended for prosecution, Prince Johnson, is a senator and plans to run for president himself.

Sirleaf will also face former football star George Weah, whom she narrowly defeated in the 2005 race, and who appeals to the poor, many of whom feel left out of the recovery.

More than three quarters of Liberians are jobless.
“They’re only helping the rich,” said Sunnyboy Dapay, an unemployed graduate.
“They don’t care about the common people.”

Opposition parties are looking to capitalise on such notions and on perceived slowness in efforts to fight graft.
“They postured but didn’t act against corruption,” Israel Akinsanya, head of candidate Charles Brumskine’s party, said.

Diplomats worry that it is only the UN mission, the second largest in Africa after Democratic Republic of Congo’s that is holding up security, from peacekeeping to basic policing.
“The warlords are waiting to kick off again. The only thing holding it together is the UN,” a Western diplomat said. “They want to leave but there’s not been much capacity building.”

Then there’s the risk that charges against Taylor, in the Hague for allegedly stoking Sierra Leone’s war, won’t stick.
“If Taylor came back, it would be serious. He still has a lot of support,” the diplomat said.

Yet few doubt that Sirleaf can win next year’s election.
“People can see what she’s done and compare it with before. They know electing someone else would be a mistake,” Deputy Commerce Minister Frederick Norkeh told Reuters.

Pic: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia