Liberia: The Challenge of Leadership

By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 29, 2011

The end of the year 2011 draws nigh. As we reflect on events shaping our country, we must admit that there were great and proud moments. It could be said that the country is slowly rising from the depths of self-destruction to international recognition; enjoying a certain goodwill extended by the comity of nations. It could also be argued that we owe this to the astute leadership of our President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. We must, however, hastily add that things weren’t so good sometimes.

President Sirleaf’s leadership style has been recognized and applauded the world over, especially in the United States and Europe, culminating into the reception of the Nobel Peace Prize. But on the home front persistent trouble brews, and the tension could escalate to more explosive violence, if not effectively managed or contained.

From the unfortunate events that marred the run-off elections, to the riots that nearly paralyzed Monrovia for a couple of days last week… the country stands at the edge of a dangerous zone; one tip could push the country into an abyss of darkness and self-destruction.

But how do we avert this pending catastrophe? That is the challenge to good leadership. The challenge faces the nation, especially Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who sits at the helm of leadership. Failure to seize the moment and steer the affairs of state right will be a detriment to the president’s legacy. On the other hand, her success will go a long way in validating her credentials and accolades.

To begin with, the president must pre-occupy herself with the challenge of keeping the nation together; especially since she just received the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize… much is expected of her. The Liberian nation is now under pressure to burst at the seams. Divergent political forces are pulling the nation every which way. Seemingly, everyone wants a part of the proverbial pie and no one is willing to compromise his perceived entitlement. Such a critical moment presents a great opportunity for the president to take a page out of history and demonstrate not just mere political maneuverability, but astute statesmanship. I recommend lessons from the political genius of Abraham Lincoln.

When Abraham Lincoln, an unsophisticated country lawyer who had spent just one term in Congress, won the election for the presidency, he knew he had a great task ahead of him. He knew that the task ahead of him, how to solve the political stalemate that faced the great nation, would require tireless and selfless devotion. As he left Springfield, Illinois to go to Washington, DC, Lincoln declared, “I am now public property.” He did not see himself simply as a Republican, though he was; he saw himself as an American, an American dedicated to the upcoming task of preserving the union.

So, how did Lincoln set about this great task? He began by putting together one of the most politically divergent cabinets any president had hitherto or since put together. He named his Republican rivals for the presidency to three top Cabinet level posts: Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury and Attorney General. But not only did Lincoln appoint his top Republican rivals to these high posts, he also appointed three Democrats to the cabinet as well. The posts of Secretary of Navy, Secretary of War (Defense) and Postmaster General went to Democrats.

In the national bestseller, A Team of Rivals, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes: “Every member of his administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln. Their presence in the cabinet might have threatened to eclipse the obscure prairie lawyer from Springfield.” Herein lays the beauty of the story: Though many thought that Lincoln might have been committing political suicide, it didn’t matter. What mattered most was that these great rivals could be used in service to their country. To deny them the opportunity was unthinkable to Lincoln.

Again, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes: “Later, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents. He particularly questioned the president’s selection of the three men who had been his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, each of whom was still smarting from the loss.

“Lincoln’s answer was simple, straightforward and shrewd: ‘We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.’”

Today, the Liberian union is threatening dissolution. The main opposition to the president’s party walked away from the elections run-off. (That is still a perpetually perplexing and boneheaded decision, in my opinion. But that will be the topic of another discourse). Candidates from the CDC (the main opposition) who won their seats for the Liberian legislature are planning to take their seats while the party officially boycotts the administration. Certain key members of the CDC are threatening to bring down the government; some see it as martyrdom. As the crises thickened last week, the government committed a fiasco: It failed to meet its obligation to pay students it had hired for part-time jobs. Meanwhile, threats and counter-threats fill the airwaves and cyberspace.

The crises in Liberia may not be as potentially devastating as the crises that faced the administration of Abraham Lincoln, which we know led to the US Civil War and the eventual assassination of Lincoln. On the other hand, they could have the potential to degenerate into wider crises; given the fragile state of the Republic, that should not be a chance we take lightly.

There is one advantage that Mrs. Sirleaf has over Abraham Lincoln. Her adversaries, her political opponents or rivals, are not better known, better educated, or more experienced in public life than she. She still holds the advantage in more ways than one. In that light, it should be an easier risk for her to take to save the Liberian nation than Abraham Lincoln had to take to save the American Union.

The president, so far, has been quite lenient and conciliatory. But I urge the president to be even more lenient and conciliatory than she has already been. The preservation of the nation should take precedence over petty party politics. In such difficult times, a page out of Lincoln’s playbook may be just what the doctor ordered; the fate of our nation may depend on it.

Note: Theodore T. Hodge may be reached at

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