Defamation or Spite: Reflections on Sirleaf versus Woewiyu

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 15, 2006


When Mr. Tom Woewiyu wrote his now famous Open Letter to then presidential candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in August 2005, and alleged that she collaborated with him and others to destabilize and overthrow the Doe government, I was one of the people who strongly criticized Mr. Woewiyu. Clearly, at the time, Mr. Woewiyu’s intention was to make his claims a campaign issue in order to sway votes from Mrs. Sirleaf to George Oppong Weah, whom Mr. Woewiyu supported.

This was in the heat of a political campaign. Everywhere in the world, campaign rhetoric is generally harsh, even caustic. However, Mr. Woewiyu returned to Liberia recently and gracefully congratulated Mrs. Sirleaf on her victory. He reportedly pledged to support her administration in the governance process for the sake of peace and reconciliation. His actions demonstrated that if he had any malicious intentions, they ended with his olive branch to the President. One would have expected for Mrs. Sirleaf to reply to Mr. Woewiyu’s gesture as a stateswoman – elegantly or perhaps let it go. Rather, she decided to take Mr. Woewiyu to court for defamation.

Mrs. Sirleaf’s reaction ostensibly legitimizes claims by her critics that she has a vindictive streak. Taking Mr. Woewiyu to court for defamation does not result in an environment in which the issues raised by him would be resolved logically. On the contrary, it opens a “can of worms” that are unhealthy for governance. Liberians need to restore the communal bonds that were fragmented by the war and not to find their President in the midst of a lawsuit that deals with a relatively inconsequential matter in light of the vast array of challenges facing the nation. Preoccupation with this matter can only take Liberia in one direction. It will ride our country and its people into destruction of the very tenuous stability that we have mustered under the weight of manifold threats.

If Mrs. Sirleaf has the best interest of the Liberian people at heart, she will pull back from this process and not let it cascade out of control. Her decision was made in very poor taste. Imagine for a moment, the mammoth challenges facing Liberia. The litany is so long that you can only scratch the surface when enumerating them. They range from chronic unemployment and dependence, lack of basic healthcare and acute shortage of medicines, unremitting illiteracy, poor schools, underachievement by Liberian students, heightened distrust of government, weak centralized government to pervasive corruption. Add to these, widespread inequities, and subordination of women, crumbling infrastructure, and the lingering insecurity that has kept investors at bay. Others have argued that her administration could be spending quality time on engaging the legislature on behalf of qualified Liberians with foreign citizenships for confirmation, rather than spending the country’s meager resources on issues of marginal importance considering the list just cited.

If suing Mr. Woewiyu was quite important and Mrs. Sirleaf felt so aggrieved by the Open Letter, why did she not put her campaign on hold to take him to court while she was a private citizen? Why did she wait to win the elections and appoint members of the courts before embarking on her lawsuit? Devious minds are likely to read her actions as using her stature to exploit this situation for empathy given that she has begun to blunder in the first few months of her presidency. If these critics make such a claim, would they not find sympathetic ears among Liberians who have difficulty understanding why their lack of jobs, food, safe drinking water, electricity, housing, etc, should be subordinated to Mrs. Sirleaf’s self-absorption. Is she planning to spend the Liberian people’s tax dollars to finance this sordid affair? It is my fervent hope that the legislature will make sure that she spends no tax dollar to cover the cost of her lawsuit. She should pay back the Liberian people for any public time that she spends responding to subpoenas from Mr. Woewiyu’s lawyers. She should also reimburse the taxpayers for any cost she will incur on maintaining her security.

There are other questions that Mrs. Sirleaf might need to answer. Is she seeking to intimidate her critics and potential critics? After Mr. Woewiyu, who will be next? Would it be Tyler Quiwonkpa who accused Mrs. Sirleaf of playing a key role in her husband’s death? Would it be those who have criticized Mrs. Sirleaf for maintaining the tenor of nepotism? Or would it be newspapers that are beginning to question her capacity to govern? Would she also go after the Vice President’s wife for disagreeing with her Internal Affairs Minister for his endorsement of female genital mutilation?

Mrs. Sirleaf should know by now that it is clear that she collaborated with Taylor, even though Mr. Woewiyu’s allegations seemed to have been inflamed or overblown, which detracted from its impact, especially since he himself did not apologize for his part in this affair. Mrs. Sirleaf’s associates castigated George Weah for suggesting that he would be punitive toward his critics in the media when he won the elections. They even couched him as a dictator in waiting. How would she explain what appears to be a double standard – suing her critic in a manner that some Liberians believe is spiteful. With the appointment of the former Elections Commission Chairman as Justice Minister and the other pronouncements that can only be characterized as fiascos, can the Sirleaf Administration do any worse in so short a time frame?

Mrs. Sirleaf has noted that she has important issues to which she must devote her time other than prioritizing the extradition of West Africa’s most notorious warlord – Charles Taylor to face trial in Sierra Leone. In her hierarchy of priorities, is suing Tom Woewiyu more critical than persecuting Mr. Taylor? Could it be that bringing Charles Taylor to justice would shed the spotlight on his supposed partnership with Mrs. Sirleaf, and thus, Mr. Woewiyu is being used as a bait to distract the Liberian people? Unlike some of Mrs. Sirleaf’s apologists who believe that bringing Charles Taylor to justice would destabilize Liberia, I share an opposite view. The sooner Taylor is brought to justice, this will pave the way for us to settle the supposition of a line of causality between Taylor, Sirleaf, and others in the government, who have come to be named as violators of human rights. Lest those apologists are fearful of the prospects described, they should advice Mrs. Sirleaf to end the charade. It would be extremely important that the highly respected human rights advocates working for Mrs. Sirleaf (i.e., Samuel Kofi Woods and Tiawon Gongolo) make their positions known on whether or not Mrs. Sirleaf should continue to stall on persisting in the quest to bring Taylor before the International Court. The test of their commitment to social justice hinges on standing up when their employment in government is at stake.

A leader’s capacity to effectively influence their constituents depends greatly on the choices they make, particularly the battles that they pick and with whom. Constituents also measure their leader’s success by the outcomes of their decisions. Let us hope that Mrs. Sirleaf’s decision to take Tom Woewiyu to court is not driven in part by the same cunning and coercive motives that chilled healthy debate, censored the press, and plunged Liberia into 14 years of butchery

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.