31 October 2012

Liberia: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - 'Leymah Gbowee Is Too Young to Know What We've Done to Reach Peace and Security in Our Country'


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, combines a matriarchal exterior with a sophisticated economist's intelligence. First elected in to office in 2006, she has headed a process of national renewal and economic reconstruction in a country that only recently dragged itself out of over 20 years of civil war.

The scale of the task required from President Sirleaf's post-war government was starkly underlined by the 'to do' list outlined at an RAS Business Breakfast on Wednesday 31st October. Fundamentals, such as getting the financial and economic house in order...rebuilding relationships with the Bretton Woods institutions and sorting out the entire fiscal system, show that whilst the people of Liberia may have been ready and willing to start the rebuilding process, their institutions were in no fit state to tackle such a mountain.

President Sirleaf, as with most African leaders these days, speaks the positive, positive language of 6.5 percent growth rates and unexploited resource potential. Iron ore, diamonds and gold are all found in large quantities in the country. Rubber has also been produced for over 80 years at the Firestone plantation. President Sirleaf bemoans the fact that the country has never been able to add value to the production process - manufacturing products from an abundant primary resource, and consequently diversifying the economy beyond the relatively unprofitable commodities sector.

A huge infrastructure deficit is largely blamed for this. The deficit includes an underdeveloped road system making it difficult to transport materials and people around the country, to an over-stretched education sector. Whilst the country has what an optimist might describe as 'a demographic dividend', its rapidly increasing, youthful population requires opportunities in education and employment that Liberia currently struggles to provide.

"In 10 years Liberia should not be aid dependent", says the President - a rather vague statement with no specific policy proscriptions to explain how this might be done. This is a pronouncement straight from the Paul Kagame school of Afro-positivism - decry the negative impacts of the aid industry whilst sweeping up the direct budgetary support sustaining your own government.

Liberia, following the end of its civil war, has enjoyed a large amount of international goodwill and the government of Johnson Sirleaf must be credited with creating a credible administration, capable of making a genuine attempt to fight poverty in this post-conflict state. However, to think that this assistance can be rendered obsolete within a decade is optimistic to the extreme.

Liberia does, however, have a better shot at plotting a route to economic development than it did 10 years ago. As Johnson Sirleaf attests, political stability is fundamental to prosperity, and the country has enjoyed this since the middle of the last decade. This can also be said of the surrounding sub-region, the President indicating that increasingly close relations exists between the region's leaders.

Johnson Sirleaf was, quite predictably, asked about corruption in her own country, a subject that has hit the headlines of late. It was a little disappointing therefore that she did not go in to detail on accusations levelled against her and her family in this regard. Whilst her rejection of such accusations was strong: "I stand by my record and the record of my family ... we have vibrant society that produces rumour and innuendo" - she didn't tackle specific instances of perceived nepotism with any substantive arguments. For example, the appointment of her sons to ministerial positions may be justified, but if so, the President should not be afraid to defend it.

Likewise, her verbal slapping down of fellow Liberian Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who recently accused her of not doing enough to combat corruption in Liberia, was a lesson in patient condescension: "she [Leymah Gbowee] is too young to know what we've done to reach peace and security in our country."

Johnson Sirleaf's statement that corruption would need to be fought "through both prevention and punishment" was at least a convincing framework for tackling the problem. Both improved systems (reducing discretionary decision-making) and strengthened institutions (creating "pillars of integrity" within the economy) were correctly identified as being fundamental to this task.

Whilst Johnson Sirleaf may not have all the answers, it would be hard to argue that there is a better person to run Liberia at this moment in time. She hopes that her legacy will be forging "the irreversible cause of peace and prosperity based on natural resources" in Liberia. It is difficult to be unimpressed by such ambition and determination.

Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Arguments Online.

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