Liberian President and Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is stepping down after 12 years in office. Like every other leader in her situation, she has her regrets about things she would have done better and others she believes were landmarks that had helped the progress of the country within the period she was in power. One noteworthy regret, the president pointed out, was to the effect that she hadn’t worked hard enough for parity. “It saddens me, because I represented breaking the glass ceiling in Africa.” Notwithstanding, in the eye of analysts, Johnson Sirleaf is leaving behind what is generally perceived as a legacy of “fragile gains.”
However, not a few will give her credit for maintaining stability in her country while in office. As at the time she was elected, Liberia, after a debilitating civil war, was tottering on the brink of collapse. She was confronted with an almost insurmountable challenge of building a country ravaged by civil war and saddled with crippling debts. In the face of such daunting task, she was able to negotiate settlements, rebuild infrastructure, and lift sanctions; she was also considered a strong proponent of equal rights for women. In 2011 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
We recall that in the 2005 election, Sirleaf ran for the office of president as the candidate of the Unity Party and came second in the first round of voting behind footballer George Weah. In the subsequent run-off election, and with the support of the international community that could not stand the impudence the candidature of Weah presented, Sirleaf earned 59 per cent of the vote. On 23 November 2005, she was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president and was inaugurated on January 16, 2006. She ran for a second term in 2011 though she had pledged to serve for only one term. She won, not without controversies.
Along the line, her administration came under fire for cronyism and corruption, in a particular case involving one of her sons. In the management of the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014, many saw her decision to use troops to quarantine the heavily infected and poor West Point neighbourhood as an over-reach in high-handedness.
When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as Liberia and Africa’s first woman head of state, some eleven years plus ago, she pledged to set an example for others in her government to follow, starting with the declaration of her assets. Before her rise to prominence, she suffered persecution under the Samuel Doe administration when she was placed under house arrest and soon after was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition, as a consequence of allegations that she insulted members of that regime.
Some of her landmark legislations include the signing into law on October 4, 2010, of the Freedom of Information bill, the first legislation of its kind in West Africa.
When she came into office, Liberia was reeling in debt. As an economist, Sirleaf vowed to make reduction of the national debt, which stood at approximately US$4.9 billion in 2006, a top priority. Liberia’s colonial masters, the United States of America, was the first country to grant debt relief to Liberia, waiving the full $391 million owed to it by Liberia in early 2007.
In September of that year, the G-8 headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided $324.5 million to pay off 60 per cent of Liberia’s debt to the International Monetary Fund, crediting their decision to the macroeconomic policies pursued by the administration.
In April 2009, the government successfully wrote off an additional $1.2 billion in foreign commercial debt in a deal that saw the government buy back the debt at a 97 per cent discounted rate through financing provided by the International Development Association, Germany, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom. The discounted rate was the largest ever for a developing country.
In 2006, Sirleaf established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating more than 20 years of civil conflict in the country.
In spite of all, in our considered opinion, Sirleaf receives credit for some parts of her leadership, including her final presidential act: Stepping aside to let the country’s democratic process choose its next leader.
This decision, it must be accepted, is a good example by an African leader as the continent continues in her measured steps of consolidating her democratic foundations. It is also, in our view, her greatest achievement that will help heal the wounds of Liberia.