The Cost of Sirleaf’s Failure: Launching Pad for Anti-Democratic Forces


By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 23, 2007


The Sirleaf government’s policy is apparently simple: provide tangible rewards for political cronies; secure their jobs; and blame others for the moral failures of powerful social and political allies. Simply, fear of being ostracized by her wealthy friends have led President Sirleaf to retreat from her commitment to Liberian girls and women, and perhaps, all those in Liberian society who find themselves in disadvantaged conditions. Former child soldiers and those who are suffering traumatic after effects of the war, needing mental health and other psychosocial services may not be far behind in what is turning out to be a cascade of neglect for those cut up in the pervasive cycle of poverty. Is this because women and poor people are not viewed as strong constituencies with the kind of leverage to undo President Sirleaf’s legacy? Perhaps, women will just support the President blindly because she is a woman. This might just be an erroneous belief.

A woman president evoked new ways of doing public service: equity and justice for all, especially women – the downtrodden classes, improved conditions for boys and girls who were forced to participate in or experience communal violence – rape and orgies. It was thought that the Sirleaf administration would create and foster a comprehensive framework to achieve equitable access to school and opportunities of all kinds, for girls and women, who have for so long experienced disinvestments in their lives and future.

Rather than unfolding uniformed and connected sets of strategies for sustainable social change, that would cater to populations and sectors of the society that suffered disinvestments in the past, the values of the Sirleaf government are manifesting a contrary sign. Her governance strategy occurs through diverse processes that pivot around structural forces aimed at reinventing and maintaining the “old order.” Therefore, the burden for negative impacts of this old tradition that culminated into the civil war must partially be assumed by Liberians who have the power to speak out against these practices, but have remained silent, because her presidency is a convenient wave for them to ride to personal aggrandizement.

No one will deny that the legacies of past Liberian presidents: pandemic of inequality and corruption, coercion, and outright violations of people’s civil liberties are so appalling that they are hard to overcome in one year. No one will deny that President Sirleaf has amassed the Liberian state enormous amounts of goodwill and begun to redeem the nation from the throes of disrepute that her predecessor brought it. But all these will not mean anything at all, if they do not translate into bread and butter benefits and improved quality of life for the poor and dispossessed in Liberian society or that proceeds from the resurgence of goodwill for Liberia will not be leveled equitably across the society.

For some of us, we are construed as an opposition against well-funded political foes, who believe that it is to their benefit that conditions of old are brought back. We too must not relent in our efforts to influence outcomes that directly affect the lives of Liberians who cannot speak for themselves. Our advocacy is critical to achieving economic and social equity, particularly for Liberians living in poverty and squalor because their voices continue to be overlooked by this government. For example, with all the issues that have arisen against women in recent times, the Gender Ministry has remained completely silent. Public policy does not only determine how a government dispenses societal resources, but it explicitly expresses the values of that government. And I have already told you that the values of the Sirleaf government manifest in ways that only maintain the status quo ante.

Recent events involving two powerful men and less powerful women have shed harsh light on the Sirleaf administration’s lack of concern for or indifference to the well-being of Liberian girls and women. Now, more than ever, we need to shine the light on the venerable pattern of inequality and subjugation of poor people in Liberia. We cannot let the President use the cover of being the first woman president to pursue a course that will prove destructive not only for herself, but for nearly all Liberian people (educated and illiterate) who embrace a leadership paradigm and practice that professes belief in democratic governance. If Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fails in her presidency, the cost will be enormous for all well-meaning people who considered her the hope for change. And that is why those of us who believe in her must do everything possible not to sit idly by when she falters, but to remind her continuously of the enormous cost.

President Sirleaf apparently recognizes the cost of failure, and so she has developed a set of glossy coping mechanisms to repel accusations of not keeping her promises in the arena of protecting the lives of Liberian girls – writers who continue to argue that it is too soon to start criticizing the “old lady.” But every single time these individuals try to deflect constructive criticisms of the Sirleaf administration, they put a nail on the coffin of democracy, because they provide a weapon to anti-democratic forces, which are just waiting in the wings to tell us – “We told you so.”

Let’s assume that it has crossed some minds that selective prosecutions are occurring in Liberia and the beneficiaries are the President’s friends. Let’s assume that some people believe that lucrative government contracts are going to the President’s supporters, and there are no open and accountable systems for awarding government contracts. These might just be perceptions, but if they converge into a trend and patterns are formed, perceptions will soon become reality. That is why transparency and accountability are essential, and strategic options to increase the participation and impact of government policies on sources of past failures are critical. If President Sirleaf fails, it will be so easy for Liberians to make political decisions that demoralize their own interest, as they did when they supported Charles Taylor. And in my mind, it will take much longer for us to recover from the damage that will be done than it is taking for us to recover from the present crisis.

Recall that Charles Taylor and Doe before him, as well as several others, Tubman and Tolbert, tested the will of the Liberian people to respond to their cronyism. Liberians did at each interval, and the results were abysmal. All those Liberian elites who felt that they were exempt from the consequences of Tolbert, Doe, and Taylor’s failures, are here to attest and some are dead. If anything will dilute the desire of Liberians to support those Liberians who claim to be progressive and to have well-thought out solutions to Liberia’s problems, it will be the clear revelation that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wants to bring back the “old order.” By now, those of us who advocate for social justice have learned all we need to know from opportunistic and repressive leaders. We know that their aim is not to change the rules and set new and inclusive standards of governance, but to put cloth over our eyes and continue the destructive patterns of old.

Those responsible for setting the agenda for governance in Liberia today would have to acknowledge that a cultural shift is taking place in almost all spheres of our lives. For the first time in the history of the nation, leaders have to do what no previous generation of their peers have had to do before: submit their political whims to the will and best interest of the citizens; be held accountable for their actions; but also, their journey is enhanced by the fact that they can hear the ideas of the citizens, if they wish.

The reason why Ellen Johnson Sirleaf must succeed is that her failure will be too costly. Ordinary Liberians, not members of the elite classes will lose faith in the ability and capacity of those of us who claim to be progressive in our political posture to protect their well being. In the end, we would have dug a hole so deep that no amount of politicking will dig us out of. No amount of careful planning by populists and anti-democratic forces against the Sirleaf government will deliver them favorable ratings in the eyes of the Liberian public than, if Mrs. Sirleaf herself sends the message that she only cares about the powerful and the well-connected.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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