A Review of the Johnson-Sirleaf Administration: Ninety Days in Office

 By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 18, 2006


Only about ninety days ago a new page was turned in Liberian history. Liberia, after experiencing about two decades of turbulent times and crises was holding an inauguration for a new civilian government. A national election was just held and unlike times gone by, this one was a multi-party, multi-candidate election. When it was over the verdict was almost unanimous: It was a free and fair election. But the best news was sentimental; Liberia had just produced Africa’s first female elected president. Excitement filled the air. Liberians of every stripe basked in glory as our international partners exulted with us. I was so moved I called it “Liberia’s finest hour”. Who could resist the warmth of that genteel old lady tough enough to be called the iron lady?

About ninety days ago, that little lady took the podium and spoke to the world and we were seized in a moment of ecstasy. When she spoke, she lifted our spirits and calmed our fears. Her supporters were proud to hear her kind and promising words and those who had heretofore counted themselves in opposition to her had succumbed; this little lady was the real deal. The wise thing was to climb aboard and go for a ride on the magic carpet – it seemed Liberia’s moment had arrived.

Here are some of the reassuring words that sounded like magic on that mid January day, about ninety days ago in Monrovia: “As we savor the new dawn of hope and expectation, I pledge to bring the Government closer to the people. The days of the imperial presidency, of a domineering and threatening Chief Executive are over. This was my campaign promise, which I intend to keep.” Read those words again. What is the assessment of this presidency ninety days later? Is that sense of promise, that sense of optimism still lingering in the air?

A quick search and study of our political history will clearly confirm that Liberia has had its share of “imperial, domineering and threatening presidents”. In the most recent past the president who has personified those negative traits more than any other has been Mr. Charles McArthur Taylor. Not only was Taylor a menace to the Liberian people, he was a menace to the entire sub-region. For his alleged involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war, he is now behind bars awaiting trial for what the UN calls crimes against humanity.

What is the Liberian government, headed by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf prepared to do? Well, word has it that the government is planning to foot the bill for the legal expenses of ex-President Charles Taylor. Shocking? Unbelievable? Yet, it’s at least partially true. Questioned on a recent radio program, the current Minister of Information, Honorable Johnny McClain admitted that the president has agreed to “chip in”. According to him, the president said, “We will try our best to see what we can do”, in response to Nigerian President Obasanjo who was floating the plan of getting some African leaders to raise money for Mr. Taylor’s defense. This is the most absurd and vexing proposition I’ve ever heard. Taylor is not entitled to have the Liberian government pay for his legal fees. True he is entitled to a legal defense and one should be provided for him if he cannot afford it, but the charges against him were not levied by the Liberian government neither is he being tried by the Liberian government. So why does the Liberian government have to “chip in”? Why didn’t the president make that a campaign promise?

Is this the new dawn of hope and expectation President Sirleaf proclaimed only ninety days ago? Whatever happened to her pledge of bringing the government closer to the people? Isn’t this a weird way of showing concern and compassion for the people by footing the legal fees of a former “imperial, domineering and threatening” president? What exactly are the benefits to the people? Has our little iron lady who spoke to the nation and the world only ninety days ago considered the full implication of this mess? The prudent mind wonders.

One could easily think of projects this administration could undertake to genuinely bring itself closer to the people. For starters, how about building new marketplaces instead of driving poor and indigent people out of their livelihoods? Yes, keeping Monrovia clean and beautiful and safe for drivers and pedestrians is a difficult task to accomplish when sidewalk markets are extending into the streets. But we must remember to be sensible and considerate about these matters. Those poor vendors are already victims of bad government policies, a good, caring and compassionate government must not continue to harass them by burning their market stalls and displacing them. Money spent building new market stalls is better than raising money for an ex-dictator’s legal funds.

Some disturbing news out of Monrovia this weekend says Ambassador George Weah was “arrested and briefly detained” at the Roberts International Airport. (Those original reports seemed to have been a bit exaggerated). Mr. Weah, who was said to be on his way to Nigeria for a meeting was briefly detained along with two of his aides and removed off the aircraft, which they had already boarded. According to the news report reaching us Mr. Weah and his aides were said to be traveling on diplomatic passports, which the immigration officers at the airport considered a violation since these gentlemen are not diplomats. Mr. Weah subsequently refused to travel without his aides.

In trying to justify what transpired, some government sources seem to be back-pedaling. They admit Ambassador Weah was not their target but his aides were; they shouldn’t have been traveling on diplomatic passports. But if that is the case, why were they processed and allowed to board the flight before they were asked off the plane? If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did issue these passports to these citizens, why were they humiliated publicly? Couldn’t they be advised to obtain ordinary passports upon their return and that traveling on such passports would not be allowed in the future? Was this matter handled the most prudent way? I have my doubts.

Again, during her inaugural address, just ninety days ago, this is what our president said: “…Throughout the campaign, I assured our people that, if elected, we would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced… Today I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. Any member of my administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing or yet another attempt by another Liberia leader to play the gallery on this grave issue should think twice.”

Well, I remember when I heard those words spoken only ninety days ago. They sounded like magic to my ears but have we quickly gone back to the way things used to be? If corruption will not be tolerated at all, there should be no room for malfeasance. Those officials who displayed such carelessness over the weekend should be fired immediately to appease the situation; that’s one way to make good on the promise.

Within the last few weeks, news have come out of Monrovia indicating that some citizens have been rounded up and questioned for long periods of time without being arrested. It is illegal to detain citizens without officially arresting them and reading them their rights immediately. Such practices are said to be taking place in Monrovia under the guise of national security. Is the National Security Agency running amok under the auspices of the government? This is another form of malfeasance.

It has been only ninety days since the inauguration of this new administration, so it is painful to release this personal assessment because I had great expectation as we ushered in this administration. Although I did not go to Liberia, I campaigned for her vigorously here through the electronic media. I still have hope, but as the days pass that hope wanes.

I sadly keep thinking of the situation in Kenya after the reign of Daniel arap Moi. As the corrupt regime ended and Mwai Kibaki, the veteran statesman and politician came aboard, there was so much hope and optimism, unfortunately, it turned out to be the case of old wine in new bottles. It is such a letdown now. The similarities are eerie.

I hate to see our president planning to “chip in” for an ex-dictator’s legal defense funds. I hate to see our president’s national security agency infringing on the rights of citizens and effecting illegal arrests and detention. I hate to see a president whose airport and security staff is humiliating prominent and law-abiding citizens. I hate to see a president whose police department is treating street vendors as criminals; a police department accused of setting fires to market stalls when they know fully well the fire department is not functional. (Could this really be true? If so, this is a blunder the president needs to address immediately.) Is there still hope? Yes, but I don’t feel as optimistic or euphoric as I did ninety days ago and it’s a long way to go before another election. Shape up, mom.