Liberia: Sirleaf's Legacy and the New President's Challenge

3 November 2017
guest column

In the second round of historical presidential elections, Liberians must ask themselves what they have to gain and what they stand to lose if they do not get this right. Here are some of the things which should be on their minds and on the candidates' agendas.

First they must recognize and acknowledge President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's legacy, in order to have a clear, rational idea of both past gains and the challenges ahead.

Second they must commit to a free, fair, and peaceful electoral process that reflects the will of the people of Liberia, whatever decision the voters make.

And third, whoever is elected must define a vision and a mission and commitment to take Liberia to the next level of development.

If those if those who claim to be leaders take their leadership seriously and represent the people and not themselves, Liberia has the potential to rise from the ashes of its complex and convoluted history to become a respected and influential player in the region, on the continent and around the globe.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf inherited a country that was completely broken by civil war. The country had no revenue to speak of and almost all public funds had been looted. Violence had become the norm.  It was in crushing debt. Infrastructure was lacking. Liberia was a pariah state in the region, on the continent and around the globe.

What did she accomplish? She should be recognized for maintaining and solidifying the fragile peace that came out of the 2003 peace deal, not an easy task when ex-warlords, some in the legislature, threatened to take the country back to war each time they were unhappy.

She brought investors back to Liberia. Unprecedentedly, she gained support for debt forgiveness and an end to the demands of vulture funds holders. She boldly attacked the unexpected Ebola epidemic that set her agenda back. She brought back respect to Liberia and Liberians, who had been the embarrassment of the region. She called for women to be full participants in national decision making. She won a Nobel Peace Prize. She made Liberia a regional player, serving as head of ECOWAS, taking the bold decision to demand the departure of The Gambia's longtime dictator.

Was she perfect? No. Could she have done better and more? Of course. Did she make mistakes? Absolutely – even the best presidents elsewhere have done so. Is there more work to be done? Yes.

What she did was lay the foundation for Liberia's future, a foundation that could be lost if the next election does not go smoothly and the next president focuses on her mistakes, instead of coming with an enhanced vision and a plan for moving Liberia forward.

Being president of any country is not an easy job, particularly one with the history that Liberia has.  Liberians should be asking those running for president why they want to be president and demand a satisfactory answer before they agree to give them the most valuable possession they have – their vote.

Who among the two candidates can build on Sirleaf's legacy, using a vision of inclusiveness, and take Liberia to the next level? Who among them can learn from her mistakes and make even better choices than she did? Which of them will build a future for the next generation and, at the end of their term, turn over to their successor a better Liberia than the one they found?

In the forthcoming presidential election run-off, no Liberian should die or be injured in the name of the candidate they support. Candidates and their supporters must publicly commit to a peaceful and fair process and to accept the results, whoever the people choose. Any disagreements must be taken to the courts.

This election is the first opportunity since the end of the civil war for Liberians to show the world that they are ready for prime time. All eyes will be watching and no one wants to see Liberia succeed more than myself. Liberians can do it, if only the politicians will allow them to.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired Foreign Service officer of the United States government, was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 2013 to 2017 and ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

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