12 October 2012

Liberia: Leymah: Chickened Out or Resigned -Critics Choose the Former, Suspecting Inadequacy

Photo: AllAfrica
2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners: L-R Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Peacebuilding and reconciliation, mainly after a senseless, devastating civil war of the kind Liberia went through for 14 years, is no child's play. It is for men and women of uncommon resolve who are willing to scale the mountains, walk the plains, and go down steep inclines into the valleys in search of peace and reconciliation. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and peace advocate Leymah Gbowee probably knew this when they jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. However, as the challenges of peacebuilding transition from rhetoric about peace, street rallies and prayers for peace, taking of personal credit for mass action, and from blaming the devils of war, to the reality of reconciling real people, so change commitment and disposition to peace.  Many, sensing the transition-to-reality drawback, see Gbowee's resignation this week as a change of perspective that borders on chickening out due to the lack of the expertise required to deal with the complexities of Liberia's peace drive. "But does it?" seems a fair question, according to observers. The Analyst has been finding out.

Political observers in Liberia are contending that Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee's resignation as head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, this week, portends more than she cared to reveal in her resignation letter.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf established the commission last year and awarded the chairmanship to Ms Gbowee. The end, according to one government insider, was to help speed up the government's peace drive while attaching relevance to and enhancing Gbowee's global peace activism for women.

Rather than meeting the challenges of boosting the nation's reconciliation and peacebuilding process by collaborating with or modifying government's programs and community-based peace initiatives, one year on, Ms Gbowee threw in the towel, claiming corruption and nepotism in government.

Observers say the so-called "corruption" and "nepotism" existed, perhaps at current levels, in Liberia long before she accepted the position. That there has been no indication that the Peace and Reconciliation Commission under Gbowee's watch designed any workable and palpable roadmap for peace in Liberia, observers say, indicates that she was simply using the obvious to cover up her personal, failures, and the lack of capacity to deliver.

They say she might have discovered, too late, that national reconciliation and peacebuilding mean more than activism and the shifting of blame to someone else in theatre – that it requires commitment and ingenuity.
But just what drove the Nobel laureate's decision to resign?

Justifications for quitting

Consecutive media reports say Ms Gbowee tendered her resignation, Monday this week, on grounds that the Sirleaf Administration has made no sufficient progress in promoting reconciliation.

She blamed the administration of not only condoning corruption but also of practicing nepotism, two vices she believes are antithetical to peace and reconciliation to peace in Liberia without saying now.

Ms Gbowee, who says she stands guilty of betraying the people's trust by working in a government that is guilty of closing its eyes to corruption in high places, sees her resignation as an act of absolution from a raging conspiracy.

She told the BCC in an interview that coincided with her resignation that President Sirleaf has awarded "lucrative jobs" to her sons in a brazen act of nepotism.

But without saying how that affected peace, contradicted the laws of Liberia, or undermined the policy objectives and roadmap of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, she told the world in that interview that the best was forward was to avoid being tainted.

"I've been through a process of really thinking and reflecting and saying to myself 'you're as bad as being an accomplice for things that are happening in the country if you don't speak up'," Ms Gbowee reportedly told the BBC's Focus on Africa radio programme.

"And when tomorrow history is judging us all let it be known that we spoke up and we didn't just sit down," she said.

She insisted that the president's appointment of one of her sons, Charles, as central bank deputy governor, another (Fumba) as head of the National Security Agency, and the third (Robert) as senior adviser and chairman of the state-owned National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) was unacceptable.

"This is wrong and I think it is time for her to put him aside," Ms Gbowee said regarding Robert Sirleaf. "He's a senior economic adviser and that's well and good - but to chair the oil company board - I think it's time he stepped aside."

While acknowledging in an AFP interview that the Sirleaf Administration has done a good job in rehabilitating the country's infrastructure, she insisted that that was not good enough for a country in which poverty was fast determining the social status of most Liberians.

"What good is infrastructure if people don't have enough to eat?" she wondered. "In her first term she developed infrastructure. But what good is infrastructure if people don't have enough to eat? Development in a land of hungry, angry people is nothing. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there's no middle class," she told the AFP news agency in Paris, where she is currently promoting the French edition of her book, "Mighty Be Our Powers".

She however conceded that her scathing of President Sirleaf, which she said were not personal, and reason for resigning came as a surprise to many Liberians who relied on her commission for the way forward toward peace and reconciliation.

"I also want to make it clear that my speaking up against these things does not mean that I hate President Sirleaf or that I am anti her regime," she said, neglecting to say why she kept silent in the past and chose Paris as venue to voice her displeasure.

Without bother to say what those pathways might be, she said, she and the president differ on their pathways for establishing permanent peace in Liberia.

She however described as "shame" the fact that some Liberian government officials see reconciliation as threat at a time when every Liberian expects the charting of a new beginning.She did not name names.

Chickening out

Naming no names and stating no policy or pathway differences to justify her resignation, observers say, exposed Ms Gbowee's resignation to suspicion.

This, they contend, supports suggestions that she has simply relieved herself of commitment to the Liberian peace process, which is more complex and taxing, in order to become a freelance peace advocate, a lucrative undertaking that lend itself to rhetoric and showcasing for financial benefit and world fame.

For some who think the Nobel laureate has political ambition, her resignation is an attempt to extricate herself from the failure of the Sirleaf Administration in preparation to run for president or vice president in 2017.

"That is typical of Liberians. Once they do something that people praise them for, the next thing is to demand to please be elected president. Like George Weah who wanted to be president because he became the world's best soccer player, Gbowee thinks it is condescending to work for President Sirleaf, a co-Nobel Prize laureate. For her, it is easier to spend her time skirting the world attending peace rallies, and run home in 2017 to run for president," said political observer Jacob Z. Davies of Harbel, Margibi County.

A government statement signed by Acting Information Minister Norris Tweah, while accepting Ms. Gbowee's resignation Monday, disputed her claims that she was resigning due to lack of progress in the nation's peace drive.

The statement quoted the government as contending that it did make "earnest effort in fostering reconciliation and genuine peace which is manifested not only in the current fiscal budget where reconciliation accounts for Five million United States dollars but the genuine efforts by the government to engage in reconciliatory dialogues across the country".

The statement recounted government's establishment of the Independent Human Right Commission and a Special Commission to navigate the reconciliation process across the country as proofs that it did not abandon the path to peace and reconciliation.

The statement then announced that the government would launch in November this year, the Peace and Reconciliation roadmap to which Ms Gbowee and others contributed.

It did not elaborate, but it noted that the launch would demonstrate government's "continuous efforts to alleviate the issues of reconciliation as one of its over aching priorities".

Sources say Ms Gbowee's resignation comes, reportedly, shortly after the commission she headed spent over US $300,000 to launch a peace initiative.

The sources were not forthcoming on the nature of the initiative, but observers say government's clarification that it has opened itself to the Gbowee Commission lend support to suspicion that she has motives other than the ones she gave for resigning.

One observer believes that Gbowee has abandoned the commission because she lacks the capacity to juggle its complexity with the many groups with which she associates.

"She is founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, head of the Liberia Reconciliation Initiative, and co-founder and Executive Director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A). She is also a founding member and former Liberia Coordinator of Women in Peacebuilding Network/West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). She is finding it difficult to juggle these groups and the complexity of the commission. That is why she chose to resign over issues to which she would have had meaningful input if she wanted to," said one source.

The source said Gbowee's apparent disdain for Liberia since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 left no doubt about her grand scheme to dump the Sirleaf Administration, abandon the cause for peace in Liberia, and criticize from the sideline.

One proof, the source said, was Ms Gbowee's celebration of her award in Ghana, rather than in Liberia, and her touring of the US, Asia, and Europe to make peace speeches for money instead touring the counties to identify openings for peace programs in Liberia.

"Why else would she accuse the government of doing nothing for peace when it is her commission that has the mandate to lead Liberia to peace and reconciliation?  What policy and programs has she put into place that the administration failed to fund or implement, assuming that her commission has no means to implement them?" wondered high school math teacher Nathaniel Soloken of Old Road.

Soloken said Gbowee and others like her, who came to fame riding on the blood, sweat, and misfortune of the masses, can no longer fool the Liberian people by simply distancing themselves from the status quo and criticizing without concrete basis.

"If you claim corruption, prove it. If you claim nepotism, say what it means and what laws it violates and how it affects peace. Anyone who thinks they can stay abroad, make money by using the hardship in Liberia, and return to lead the country will come to rude awakening comes 2017. Gbowee is running away from the responsibility of helping to reconcile the people now. Soon she will come as a Messiah," he said.

Analysts say not only has the lack of details and the reference to nepotism as two of Gbowee's reasons for resigning undermined her stand on the nation's peace drive, but also that her failure to match rhetoric with reality on the ground makes her as guilty as those she is accusing of doing nothing to push the nation's peace agenda.

For instance, she sees accounts of the Liberian civil war as extraordinary. Yet, she failed in more than a year as head of the reconciliation commission to meet the Liberian people to explore means for reconciliation.

"It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would - unafraid because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence, and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land," Ms Gbowee wrote concerning the role of women in ending Liberia's drawn out civil war.

"Where are those women now as she travel around the world making money for herself while abandoning the god-given task to head the reconciliation and peace drive for the nation?" wondered market woman Kebbeh Somo of West Point. "We were all in the rain and sun; but when time came, they left us and went to Ghana. Thank God, the war ended, but she took the credit for herself. What has she done for us? Now I hear she is claiming that the president is corrupt; how about her? Can she account for the money she has been eating on the backs of the Liberian women?"

This question might be crucial to Gbowee's fame beyond the peace commission, but that seems the least of her concerns currently as she relishes the newfound pleasure of traveling around the world preaching women equality and promoting (selling?) her film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

In the middle of last month, Gbowee traveled to Sri Lanka where she fondly described herself as "a local girl with a global platform". The Association of War Affected Women, in collaboration with Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Peace is Loud, a non-profit founded by filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney organized the trip.

"Leymah is not only an inspiration to women in Liberia; she is a role model for women around the world. Her leadership was clearly demonstrated last month in Sri Lanka, where she met women's groups from throughout the country working on peace, security, and development," said one report on the trip.

The report noted further, "Inspired by Leymah, Sri Lankan women adopted the Sri Lankan Women's Agenda on Peace, Security, and Development, which Leymah helped launch during her visit to Sri Lanka from July 16 to 18, 2012.

"The Sri Lankan Women's Agenda assesses the urgent security, equality, and economic concerns of Sri Lanka's war-affected women, three years since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, which was fought between the Sri Lankan government and the insurgent Tamil Tigers, and which lasted for 26 years. It also offers policy and program recommendations to the government of Sri Lanka on a gender-sensitive approach to the country's recovery and rebuilding processes."

The question many Liberians are asking is, "Just how much of an 'inspiration to women' and 'role model for women' can she be if she failed to take her advocacy beyond street protests and rhetoric about gender equity?"

The level of progress in Sri Lanka barely three years after the civil war questions Gbowee's commitment to peace in her own homeland, especially in light of allegation that the government has done nothing.

"The million-dollar question is what has she done as head of the peace commission that the government ignored? Is she distancing from the Sirleaf Administration because it is not giving her as much money as the Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Peace or other institutions has?" University of Liberia senior economics student Martha P. Gowah wondered.

Observers say there is serious cause to analyze critically Ms Gbowee's resignation, which enforces the conviction she expressed last March in the US at the Women in the World Summit that "We have to be our own Gandhis, our own kings, our own Mandelas."

She told the women summit that rather than being 'politely angry', women should take center stage of political development in the US and around the world.

Analysts say the Liberian equivalence for this statement is for women to come center stage in the search for peace.

But how contradictorily Gbowee's conviction speak to her action vis-à-vis the search for peace in Liberia, they say, is a troubling development of which Liberians must be wary rather than swallow hook, sinker, and line.

"This is not a voting of an activist; it is chickening out for political purposes," said Beatrice Wolomah of Paynesville Red-Light Market. "And Liberians ought to be careful".

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