Monday, August 14, 2017 9:02 am
As the twelve-year feisty rule of Liberia’s 24th President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf winds down, the West African country, still reeling from a near two decade civil strife, may yet be enmeshed in the woods, writes TONY IYARE
No doubt Liberia’s outgoing President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 78, who got a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 will savour some quiet leave after quitting office in her Fish Market plum villa, located in Sinkor, Monrovia, Montserrado County with some air of ecstasy, fulfilment and freedom which has not been the lot of her predecessors.
Former President Charles Taylor must be gnashing his teeth in jail as he groans through his 50-year incarceration handed down by the World Court at The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. Ex-Military Leader, Samuel Kanyon Doe was virtually cut to pieces as the country got embroiled in war while President William Tolbert was smothered on his bed in the wake of the 1980 coup. Only former Vice President, Moses Bla, who had a two-year stint after Taylor’s departure and died peacefully at his home in 2013, left unscathed.
Also presiding over an unbroken 12-year rule, which will see her seamlessly handing over to another civilian leader in January, 2018, is enough to make Sirleaf, whose tenure has been dogged with feisty relationship with her country men and women, to dance lame on the streets of Monrovia.
At inauguration in 2006, not many envied the burden of the then 66 year old grandmother to restore order to an almost broken down Liberia. The country which had just emerged from the brinks of civil strife was in shreds and the massive requirement of its rebuilding efforts was daunting. Sirleaf says in an interview with Newsweek, “We found a totally collapsed economy, dysfunctional institutions, lack of proper laws and policies, low capacity, and a value system upside down”.
The statistics of many areas of the country’s social life was frightening. According to an Appraisal of psychosocial interventions in Liberia, published by interventionjournal.com in 2007, social facilities – water supply, health care, schools, electricity, etc had broken down.
Massive illiteracy and unemployment were put at 85 per cent respectively while agricultural production of cash crops (rubber, palm oil, coffee, and cocoa) as well as food crops (rice, cassava, grains, beans and plantains) had a serious setback or “have been completely abandoned, creating malnourishment and lack of export income”. The industrial sector went comatose.
Sexual violence was prevalent amidst the abrasive rein of different militia groups with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimating that between 50 – 60 per cent of the population (women, children and men), have been victims of rape, gang rape, and sexual slavery to sexual mutilation and torture.
Liberia also witnessed the near collapse of state structure as what was working in the country was run by non-governmental organisations, churches and faith based organisations or organisations of the UN family (United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), (UNDP) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)). With over 200,000 people killed in the second stanza of the war, the country also faced the grim task of demobilising the militia lords and their footmen which included 15,000 child soldiers.
Thanks to the deft management of Africa’s first woman president, Liberia has made some steady progress. It has at least been put back on its legs. From a country with a paltry annual budget of $80 million by 2006 when she assumed leadership, it is salute to the sagacity and brinkmanship of Sirleaf, a former World Bank and UNDP expert that the budget rose to $649.7 million in 2012/2013 and is now close to a whooping one billion dollars.
She’s constructed several roads across the country and got the international creditors to write off the debt of Liberia. By 2010 her administration got a deal to cancel the country’s $4.9 billion debt under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative with financial reforms approved by the World Bank and IMF freeing more resources for public services.
The country’s GDP grew by 6.9% in 2011 against 5.6% in 2010 and 4.6% in 2009. Annual rate of inflation which was 17.5 % in 2009 had dropped to 7.4% in 2010 while inflation averaged between 7.3 % and 7.5% in 2011. The reserve at the Central Bank which was mere $5 million had climbed to $600 million by 2012. She also struck a deal with the Chinese to build another university.
The government cut a $1.5 billion iron ore concession agreement with Arcelor Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel maker, renegotiated the agreement with Firestone Rubber Company, negotiated another $2,6 billion iron concession with China and concluded a $112 million energy contract with Buchanan Renewable Energy.
But the downside is that these gains are largely made up of donor funds as Liberia still grapples with an economy that has hardly recovered from 15 years of internal bloodletting and skirmishes. Its donor dependency is steeped in awry bile. This ensured that the economy is ensconced in neo liberal policies dictated by Sirleaf’s former bosses at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international finance agencies.
Encapsulated under the Government and Economic Management Assistance Programme (GEMAP) with its neo colonial undertone, these policies have conspired to wrack the country on her knees, rendering the people prostrate. Whether this excruciating social cost which has reined the country on the edge will not result in another blow out in future is yet to be seen.
In spite of her efforts to court foreign investors and development partners in the area of agriculture and forestry, mining and offshore oil exploration which by 2010 amounted to $16 billion, much of the country’s infrastructure remains decrepit. The industries have hardly returned to the vibrancy of the pre-Civil War years in spite of restoring electricity to Monrovia and surrounding communities through the Emergency Power Programme (EPP) phase 1 and 2.
There are also eight power projects underway to restore and expand power supply to much of the country. Hopefully the West African Power Project (WAPP) being funded by the World Bank at a cost of $200 million with transmission lines to four countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire will further boost the country’s power supply to 18 towns in Maryland, Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties.
But the significant gains made by 2013 were almost wiped out by the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Some say her social engineering in the areas of Education, Health Care, Power, Water Supply and Security Sector Reform has also not had any significant impact on the people.
Many say Sirleaf, who rode to power in the wave of the mass movement for peace by Leyman Roberta Gbowee, a social worker who in 2002 organised other local women for regular prayers at Fish Market, has hardly justified that popular support.
The historic efforts of these women under the aegis of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace had a significant impact in not only bringing the warring militia groups and Taylor to the negotiation table, ending the war in 2003 but ensuring the victory of Sirleaf who had acquired fame as a strong critic of Doe and Taylor.
Before this move both the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), had engaged Taylor’s army in a war of attrition, pushing the country perilously into the abyss.
Gbowee who was joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 with Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni democracy activist and resigned her job as head of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), says Sirleaf has not done enough to address poverty in Liberia.
“In her first term she developed infrastructure. But what good is infrastructure if people don’t have food to eat? The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there’s no middle class”, she says asking Sirleaf to sack her sons from government as a way of warding off charges of nepotism.
Liberia under Sirleaf is the first country in West Africa to endorse the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (LEITI) which makes it mandatory for all earnings in the sector to be publicly declared and the Freedom of Information Act which has led to the flourish of many newspapers, broadcast stations and community radios, Despite this, the Sirleaf administration has had a not too gloomy relationship with the media over her policies. When once she visited one of the frontline newspapers, The Public Agenda, she and the editors were locked in hot words.
What appears to be some blight on Sirleaf’s perceived glowing record and may eventually mar her chances of winning the highly prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize for Leadership in Africa is the absence of a strong will to tackle corruption which is rife in Liberian society.
Also Sirleaf’s endorsement of Charles Taylor via her contribution of $10,000 to his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) at the insipient stage of the movement’s onslaught, make her culpable in the later bloodletting that engulfed the country.
Early in her rein, Sirleaf who made fighting corruption, described as “public enemy number one”, the kernel of her maiden speech in 2006 became enfeebled as corruption took firm hold of her administration. She simply played the ostrich as wheelers and dealers who operated below the table milked her government.
Reports of glaring cases of corruption against senior government officials even by high profile international agencies were largely ignored. Even with the setting up of the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) to regulate prevalent bribery surrounding the award of many contracts, the public posturing to matters of corruption by the Sirleaf government was often dismissed as ‘floor show’. Transparency International says corruption “remains endemic and permeates most sectors of the society”.
Many corruption related reports both from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LCC) and the General Auditing Commission (GAC) which indicted many senior officials of fiddling with millions of dollars of donor funds, according to a May 29, 2016 story by The Analyst published by AllAfrica Global Media titled Liberia: Backlashes – Will There Be Any Biting From GW Report, have been gathering dusts on the shelves.
It therefore drew the ire of many when last year, her administration moved against the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler, regarded as number three man in government, Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, Varney G Sherman and some other senior officials indicted over the damning report by the London based group, Global Witness.
They were promptly arrested and brought before an anti-corruption task force headed by former Chairman of the opposition Liberty Party, Fonati Koffa who was then recently nominated by Sirleaf as Minister of State without Portfolio.
Global Witness had reported that the officials benefited from huge payouts in 2010 by the London based Sable Mining Company which was facilitated by Sherman in order to circumvent the country’s public procurement law. A sum of $75,000 dubbed as ‘consulting fees’ was paid to Tyler while $50,000 went to Morris Saytumah, presidential aide and cabinet minister in charge of concession negotiations.
Another sum of $50,000 also went to Richard Tolbert, former Wall Street banker who headed the National Investment Commission which is key to granting licences and setting terms for foreign investors and $10,000 to Willie Belleh, chairman PPCC charged with investment agreements with the Liberian Government.
The report by Global Witness also claimed that $20,000 was paid to the Invincible Eleven, a football club where Tolbert was president while a separate documents showed that half a million dollars in payments went to ‘Bigboy 01’ and ‘Bigboy 02’ whose identity the report was unable to establish.
Accusation of nepotism dogs the appointment of three of Sirleaf’s four sons and other relatives in strategic positions. Robert is head of the state oil company and a senior economic adviser, Fumba is head of the National Security Agency while Charles is deputy governor of the Central Bank.
In particular reference to Robert Sirleaf who is chairman of the board of the state owned National Oil Company of Liberia, Gbowee says, “This is wrong and I think it is time for her to put him aside”. He’s a senior economic adviser, and that’s well and good, but to chair the oil company board – I think it’s time he stepped aside”, she told the BBC.
Although the damning decision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009 to ban Sirleaf, a former Finance Minister under Tolbert and 50 other political figures from politics, for their role in the war that put Liberia asunder, was observed only in the breach, it threw massive specks on her image.
Many say she cannot be exculpated from the atrocities of the different militia leaders who put Liberia on the brink. It’s not surprising she’s been unable to take any hard stance against some of the militia leaders now angling to replace her at the Presidential Mansion.
That’s why some perceived the Nobel Prize she bagged four days to the 2011 election more as part of the international conspiracy to foist some Hobson’s choice on what had turned out as her not too enviable rule.
Iyare, a Communications & Development Consultant lives in Lagos. You may also be interested in these related pieces by this writer: Liberia: Can Mama Ellen fix it?
First Published in The Guardian, Lagos of Thursday, January 20, 2006, Pp 51; This Day, January 30, 2006 and re-published in two serials under the Scorpionflakes column in the Daily Times of Tuesday, January 23, 2007. Pg 48. Vol 1, Issue No 7 and Tuesday, January 30, 2007. Pg 48. Vol 1, Issue No 12.
Liberia walks the GEMAP trap
Published in Daily Times of
Friday, December 1, 2006. P 9.
Vol 1, Issue No 1.
Liberia: Neither White Nor Black
Published in Next on Sunday
Sunday, May 10, 2009.
Liberia: Sunset for Ellen Sirleaf?
Published in The Guardian,
Sunday, August 2nd, 2009.