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

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.” Read more