A Reflection On President Sirleaf’s First 100 Days in Office

By Joseph G. Bartuah


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 8, 2006


On November 8, 2005, Liberian voters resoundingly elected Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to provide the needed leadership for a country ravaged by 14 years of senseless fratricide. That epochal election gave President Sirleaf the mandate to serve the Liberian people for a six-year-year term. Wednesday, April 26th marked the first one hundred days of what historians are likely to label as the Ellen Era. In keeping with democratic tradition, it is imperative that Mrs. Sirleaf’s first 100 days of her 2,191-day presidential marathon be candidly assessed, since her inauguration on January 16, 2006. It is against this backdrop that I am penning my reflection a couple of days after.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
To begin with, the inauguration itself was one good thing that has happened to Liberia in a very long time. The caliber of guests at the inaugural ceremonies was indicative of the streams of international goodwill that have been flooding our common patrimony since the election of this well-known international civil servant and indefatigable politician. For the first time in decades, Liberia received favorable international media ratings across the globe following Mrs. Sirleaf’s election and subsequent inauguration.

Even before she was formally installed into office, President Sirleaf had already embarked on her herculean task. Her shuttle diplomacy to the three neighboring countries of Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone was very instructive and farsighted. For 14 years or more, Liberia had lost the confidence of her neighbors, primarily due to the brutal kleptocracy that ruined our country and unwarrantedly devastated theirs.

The then president-elect’s visits were therefore, perceived as a timely attempt by the incoming administration to regain the trust and respect of its neighbors. Obviously, no development initiative will be sustainable in the absence of a secure socio-political landscape. And so by making those lightning visits shortly after her electoral triumph, President Sirleaf clearly signaled that national stability would be the fulcrum of her administration. Of course, good neighborliness and mutual confidence are the fuel that turns the wheel of national stability, which in turn, spurs national development.

Another positive signal from the president was the appointment of topnotch professionals, seasoned administrators and eminent advocates of known principles to her cabinet. This again positively signaled that the new president was resolute and determined to break with the negative past. In the past, despots and autocrats had deemed it expedient to appoint only their timid cronies and incompetent zealots as cabinet members. As a result, the cabinet, which was supposed to candidly advise the president on key public policy issues, ended up sycophantically chorusing presidential blunders. It was a perennial scenario a blind leading a blind.

Considering the competent content and formidable character of the current cabinet, I have no doubt that President Sirleaf will receive the best possible pieces of advice on pertinent issues of policy dynamics. Does this mean that she has a perfect cabinet? No, because there is nothing like “a perfect cabinet”, but the president has unequivocally registered her best intention and unshakable determination to efficiently serve the Liberian people. Moreover, since many of her cabinet members are known advocates of democratic pluralism, they are expected to continually engage the people for their input on policy issues, so that together, the people and their leaders can work in tandem to accelerate national development.

Since her inauguration a little over one hundred days ago, President Sirleaf has been relentlessly waging war against endemic corruption, which has pathetically pervaded the Liberian society over the years. To ensure that her government begins on a clean slate, she urged her appointees to declare their assets. For a society in which nefarious acts of graft are now perceived as a sort of cultural norm, the formidability of drastically minimizing corruption needs not be overemphasized. But as it is often said, where there is a will, there must be a way. Corruption has been the main culprit impeding our national development over the years. It has been so because our laws have not been scrupulously applied; sentiment has always superseded judicious law enforcement. Liberian laws have largely been applied against the poor, not the rich in the society. But this time around, President Sirleaf has vowed that it won’t be business as usual. She has therefore urged the Chief Justice and the entire judiciary to discharge their duties without fear or favor.

The first one hundred days of President Sirleaf has also witnessed the irreversible upholding of press freedom and free speech. Even media workers in Monrovia concede that there has not been any systematic muzzling of the media. This does not mean that it has been a smooth sail all the way for the media? In fact, there is no society in which the media has had a smooth sail, considering the adversarial nature of its work. For example, two reporters were recently manhandled by the police. However, there has been no overt or covert effort by the administration to silence the media, because the government knows that its goal of administrative transparency cannot be achieved in the absence of press freedom and freedom of speech.

Decentralizing or devolving power and authority is another area in which the Sirleaf administration has scored some points. Whereas political power had been disproportionately concentrated in Monrovia in the past, President Sirleaf has begun a gradual empowerment of the people in deciding the leaderships of the various political subdivisions. As a result, county superintendents, district commissioners and other local government officials are being selected through a consensus-building process before being formally appointed by the president.

Although the process is far from perfect, it is likely to encourage the people in actively participating in government’s development agenda. Such leadership selection process might also render local government officials more accountable to their respective constituents, because they’ll be aware that they serve not only at the pleasure of the president, but also primarily at the pleasure of their people. Also for the first time, resources are being allocated to each county and statutory district in our national budget. The central government is insisting that each district has to decide on which development project to undertake with their budgetary allotment.

The Sirleaf administration has not only been making policy pronouncements, it has been taking actions to improve the lot of the Liberian people. According to media reports, pipe-borne water would be restored to all parts of Monrovia in about three months’ time from now. Work is vigorously continuing on re-electrifying our capital.

A couple of days ago, I asked my friend, Morris Karnuah, in Monrovia as to how the government was doing. I purposely asked him because I know that he’s someone who’s very critical on issues. I was impressed by his response; he emphatically told me that the new government was working assiduously. He said prior to Ellen’s inaguration, the streets of Monrovia were eye-soring, as debris had effectively besieged our capital. He said since “the oldma” took over, the government has been relentlessly cleaning the streets and Monrovia appears to be re-entering the mode of civilized cities around the world.

On the economic front, within a very short time, the government is winning the favor of key donor institutions such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund among others. As a result, there are indications that Liberia will soon be placed in the category of a heavily indebted poor country. This will make Liberia, a country which owes some $3.5 billion mainly to international donors, eligible for debt relief. If the government continues its prudent economic policy, some other benefits are most likely to follow.

The government is also keen on downsizing the bloated civil service. As a man with a 10-year civil service experience before switching to the private sector, I know that there are lots of redundant employees within our civil service. Such massive redundancies are also exacerbated by hundreds of “ghost names” on government’s payroll. Such enormous waste of scarce public resources ought to be urgently sanitized. Our parastatals also need to downsize their workforce to ensure efficiency. In fact, some of them need to be privatized or simply proscribed. In just one hundred days, government has already begun addressing all these thorny issues.

Moreover, President Sirleaf has not been sitting supinely in Monrovia; she has actually been taking the government to the people. Not only that as a candidate she campaigned throughout the country, since taking office in January, she has been touring some of the remotest parts of the country. Nowadays we have begun hearing about our president breaking grounds for development projects such as a children’s village in Montserrado, or dedicating a George W. Bush Bridge in Grand Kru County. For me, that’s inspiring, because one of the cardinal hallmarks of genuine leadership is to inspire the people in order to optimize their potential rather than intimidate them.

As a person who has been keenly observing the intricacies of Liberian politics for the past two decades or more, I’ll deliberately resist the temptation of tagging a simplistic label on the embryonic Sirleaf administration, because I know that in any socio-economic, political assessment, such emotionally-driven labels, or “grading” tend to ignore the latent underpinnings and the manifest realities of policy formulation. What I am so certain about is that despite the chorus of premature criticisms from certain quarters, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is bound to make a positive difference at the end of her 2, 191-day mandate in 2011.

About the Author: Joe Bartuah is a long time Liberian journalist, currently residing in Boston, Massachusetts. He can be reached at: josephbartuah@yahoo.com.