Sirleaf’s Lingering Authoritarianism Threatens Liberian Transition

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addresses the UN General Assembly. New York, March 2014. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

This July, after the government of Liberia assumed full responsibility for national security from the United Nations mission there, I witnessed national police conduct sporadic raids against informal traders in the Old Road community of Monrovia. In an effort to address the proliferation of unlicensed marketers, officers patrol with wooden switches, routinely strike young men, and destroy or confiscate their wares. This conduct is typical of the continued authoritarianism and general lack of order among Liberia’s security forces.

Liberia’s “Iron Lady,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has supported aggressive “cleanup campaigns” that target both commercial premises and private residences, though this other side of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate has generally gone unnoticed outside of the country. While Sirleaf’s government has made some strides in reforming the overall political culture of the country, notable democratic failures may hinder Liberia’s bid to move on from a legacy of conflict. This includes complicating next year’s scheduled presidential elections.

Internationally, the reputation of Sirleaf remains high. Domestically, she continues to be dogged by her brief support of Charles Taylor’s rebel movement, an act which led Liberia’s postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission to recommend she be banned from holding political office for 30 years. Bai Gbala, an adviser to President Samuel Doe, the leader Taylor sought to remove, charges that it was actually Sirleaf who “conceived the idea of the overthrow of the Liberian government by force of arms.”

Perhaps as a result, Sirleaf has avoided policies that would eradicate a culture of impunity. Rather, she has coopted a number of officials from her predecessors within her government. One of these, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Lewis Brown (who now represents Liberia at the UN), was appointed to the Ministry of Information, in which capacity he presided over a number of attacks on the media.

Some of these attacks were significant, such as the imprisonment of Rodney Sieh, one of the country’s leading investigative journalists, for libel. Henry Costa, a notable radio personality and perhaps Sirleaf’s harshest critic, has been arrested several times, prompting him to leave the country. His radio station was recently closed by the government, drawing criticism from the Committee to Protect Journalists. In recent weeks the government has shuttered several other media outlets owned by Benoni Urey, a prominent opposition leader and presidential candidate. Other government criticisms were petty, such as a Ministry of Information press release that criticized a single newspaper caption.

Several government critics have passed away under mysterious circumstances and effective investigations have not been forthcoming. These include Harry Greaves, a longtime Sirleaf ally, who drowned under circumstances that remain unclear. Greaves’ United States-based stepdaughter issued a series of tweets (since deleted) implicating Sirleaf in the death. His body was found near the site where a government consultant and whistleblower had drowned a year earlier, which effectively brought an end to a probe that implicated then high-ranking members of Sirleaf’s Unity Party. Taylor-era official John Richardson says that “Sirleaf has no trusted friend. She betrays and double-crosses everybody.”

The President has also been plagued by allegations of nepotism. Three of her four sons have held prominent positions in her administration. Charles Sirleaf is Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia (he was briefly suspended in 2012 for failing to declare his assets), Fombah Sirleaf leads the National Security Agency (NSA), and Robert Sirleaf headed the National Oil Company of Liberia until resigning shortly before it went bankrupt.

With Liberia having no elected local officials, Sirleaf’s executive powers are extensive. Torli Krua, a US-based Liberian commentator, recently observed that “relatively speaking, the Liberian president has more power than President Obama, the Queen of England, and the Pope of Rome.” Only now, at the twilight of her administration, has she begun to push for decentralization.

Sirleaf has been celebrated as the first elected female African president, but her record in advancing women’s issues is mixed. Her support for legislation or constitutional reform that would enable Liberian women to transmit citizenship to their children has been tepid. A close ally, Mary Broh, was pictured in an official Facebook post whipping an alleged child prostitute while carrying out her duties as head of a special presidential taskforce. The Deputy Director of Operations of the Presidential Guard, meanwhile, has been accused of viciously assaulting a woman in public. Sirleaf only removed him after the incident was widely publicized on social media, though he was allegedly appointed to a new government position several months later.

Prominent Liberian women have also criticized the President’s record. Leymah Gbowee, Sirleaf’s fellow female Nobel laureate, publicly charged her with corruption. Justice Minister Christiana Tah resigned at the height of the Ebola crisis, accusing Sirleaf of interfering in an investigation of fraud within her son’s NSA.

Sirleaf has made several decisions that have increased tensions in Liberia. She waited several months to speak out against a proposal to declare Liberia a Christian state. She endorsed a quarantine of a slum during the Ebola crisis in a move ridiculed by most public health experts and which resulted in a deadly riot. Student activists have been jailed by the government and, campaigning ahead of her election in 2005, she pledged to not seek a second term, a promise she later broke. Sirleaf also pardoned the commander of her motorcade for using an official vehicle to transport large amounts of marijuana, after he had served less than two years of his sentence.

A recent damning report by Global Witness implicated a number of the President’s associates as accepting or serving as conduits for bribes. The lead investigator appointed to look into these allegations was convicted of embezzlement in the US. Global Witness also found that the ruling party accepted foreign corporate funding to facilitate its 2010 convention, in violation of Liberia’s Constitution.

Even the massive influx of aid during the Ebola crisis has not been leveraged to demonstrably improve living conditions or infrastructure. While health officials were stressing the importance of hand washing to prevent transmission, authorities took several weeks to restore piped water to the capital.

The President’s missteps and the slowing pace of Liberian development may complicate the political transition next year. No elected Liberian leader has peacefully left office since 1944 and some are skeptical that Sirleaf will break that trend. Pointing to her frequent cabinet shuffles and mixed signals regarding her successor, the Taylor-era official John Richardson, again, suggests she wants Liberians to riot.

Even if Sirleaf presides over well-run elections, the first post-conflict administration’s groundwork on good governance, reconciliation, and reconstruction has been modest. Sirleaf’s tenure has not seen a marked departure from the modern Liberian experience of a strong executive that selectively respects the rule of law.

Brooks Marmon is an analyst previously based in Liberia, where he worked on issues of accountability and fragility. He tweets @AfricaInDC