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Liberia’s Sirleaf: the burden of leadership


By: Ralph Cherbo Geeplay

The Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been busy touring Europe: getting awards, giving speeches and receiving investors. For a Liberian president, Sirleaf clout in the international community is unmatched. On her most important trip days ago she stopped in Paris, France to receive France highest award, the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, commissioned by Napoleon in 1802 putting her in the company of the select few: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen Elizabeth II, Aung San Suu Kyi, Toni Morrison and Lord Mountbatten, Etc.

About month ago, perhaps as if aware that Sirleaf would be in Paris to be decorated, another Liberian Nobel laureate in Leymah Gbowee was also in the French capital. There, she disassociated herself from the Liberian leader calling Sirleaf government corrupt, nepotistic and where reconciliation efforts were going nowhere.  Gbowee, resigned from the reconciliation commission she was heading sending again a significant blow to Sirleaf, given that the Verdier Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tabled recommendations and findings are getting dusty on the shelves and are completely being ignored by the Unity Party led government.

Her comments must have hurt; she is a fellow Nobel like Sirleaf. In leadership the 74 year old Sirleaf is learning that there is a burden: you take responsibility for what happen while at the helm. Sirleaf before becoming president herself was a master of the craft

As an opposition leader and a political activist she dished out the same stinging criticism to three Liberian presidents before her, as she sought the Liberian presidency: Tolbert who she disagree with over spending, resigning from her deputy finance minster position, only to return as minister proper. Samuel Doe who in a well publicized speech she called an “idiot and Taylor who Sirleaf earlier supported but turned against vehemently. Sirleaf rise to the presidency earned her respect from both sides even from those who opposed her; she is determined and resolute when she makes up her mind, but as a leader observers say being too stubborn could hurt her. But If Gbowee thought she went to France to dent or outdo Sirleaf she was wrong. Sirleaf received a rousing welcome on her recent European trip addressing the Belgian Senate in the process.

In a well attended and publicized press conference last month in Paris when Gbowee launched her book: MIGHTY BE OUR POWERS, she said: “People are very disappointed. We have a deficit when it comes to having a moral voice in the country.”  Close associates to Sirleaf say the president was shocked. Gbowee said   “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,’” she told the BBC “And when tomorrow history is judging us all let it be known that we spoke up and we didn’t just sit down.”But Gbowee has come under sharp criticisms from within the country for doing less to advance ideas to move the country forward. It has been said of her that little was seen in the way of any action on her part to advance peace before she resigned, pinpointing the flaws they said was not enough, if she wants to see peace she had to get her hands dirty. But others in the country praised her boldness, however. And then suddenly Sirleaf was on the plane across the Atlantic. London was her first stop meeting David Cameron, the British Prime Minister and the Indonesia president on issues relating to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

On her European tour, Sirleaf dismissed Gbowee as she landed in the Netherlands, where she received an honorary doctorate degree from Tilburg University in appreciation “for her leadership and her interest in education and social responsibility. The President accepted the distinction on behalf of the people of Liberia,” said Radio Netherlands.

The Liberian president called Gbowee inexperience ”My fellow Nobel laureate is too young to know what we’ve  gone through to achieve peace and security in my country, to reach the level of democracy that we all are experiencing today,” calling on Gbowee to work with her still.

Sirleaf is accused of appointing her sons to three top senior government posts, which her rivals call nepotistic. Son Fumba heads the nation’s spy agency, while Charles is a deputy at the nation’s central bank and Robert chairs the country’s body that regulate the nation’s oil industry. But Sirleaf is not budging, she told the radio Netherlands, when asked if she would fire them given the outcry in the country, she said “No, I will not.” Adding, “I have trust in Liberia. I’m not talking about the noisy minority… I’m talking about a satisfied majority who I meet in rural areas and who are pleased that their lives have changed, their incomes have increased and they’re getting better services.” Observers say Robert Sirleaf repeated the same quote recently in Monrovia saying in essence that those who lives were being transformed in rural Liberia were not complaining.

It is hard for Sirleaf to dismiss these criticisms. She told radio Netherlands that “Nepotism is putting somebody who is a relative in a position for which they don’t have the qualifications, integrity or competence. There are times when you have to hire relatives, even when it’s a temporary measure, to achieve your objectives.” That quote was a nice tap dancing by the Liberian president. Nepotism literally is simply putting your relatives in positions qualify or not.

This is where analysts say the toothless Liberian legislature which is busying itself today with increasing its own benefits as the country struggled with a small limited budget of 672million much needed—for development purposes, for example schools, hospitals and roads not to mention civil servants salaries increment, could assert itself and win some public opinion.

The Liberian Assembly could draw the line and craft legislation so that future Liberian presidents including Sirleaf would be striped of nepotism and its antecedents; it could now spring into action and enact a law to barred Liberian presidents from appointing relatives to powerful positions. And let the moral will of President Sirleaf the laureate be tested when the bill arrives at her desk at the Executive Mansion! Nepotism is a root cause of the Liberian war rampant amongst past Liberian presidents. Ordinary Liberians are appalled by the act: Samuel Doe tribalized the Liberian army creating incompetence in the file and rank of the AFL which led to witch hunts on the part of the military with Doe solidifying power. [By the way Nov. 12 just came and went and nobody said anything about it.] Also, so were other most recent modern Liberian presidents: Tubman, Tolbert and Taylor were also nepotistic. That Sirleaf could ignore this cardinal fact that has troubled Liberians and contributed toward the civil war could also tint her legacy! Liberians voices are clear, they simply disapprove of the act.

To a point Sirleaf’s rebuff is disingenuous. She expects those in rural Liberia who knows little about Liberian politics and the complexities of the day to day running of the country and government, and who are busy with farm work and selling in the market stalls to send their children to schools, etching out a very hard life after a very long devastating war to get by, are the ones she wants to censure her administration, and yes, they are intelligent and are responsible electorates, but nepotism is the last thing on their minds. The argument can also be made that since 85percent of the population also is illiterate, how and what do they care about nepotism to want to criticized the president? Sirleaf statement is insincere. Gbowee also needed to choose her words carefully; Liberia does not lack moral voice(S). Long before she spoke up others including Tiawon Gongloe and Augustine Toe had already taken Sirleaf to task, say observers.

To be fair to Sirleaf she has taken a stand against corruption, even though the slate is not clean. She has often said corruption is endemic in the Liberian society and she is right, it is a culture. The judiciary too has not been robust in persecuting graft cases reports say, but in whatever way you look at it, it is her government at the end of the day. Call the three branches co-equal, and independent but Sirleaf like most presidents commands the bully pulpit, her legacy will ultimately depend on her success during her presidency years from now. The recent friction between the legislature and the Liberian presidency is healthy and it needs to be sustained.

Analysts say Sirleaf on the last leg of her administration will have to find that delicate balance between the burdens that leadership has placed on her shoulders as the president and the resolve to remain humble as a laureate; her defiance against the recent charges could leave a stain. Facts are not in dispute that her sons are qualify for the posts, but given Liberian recent political history Sirleaf is setting a bad precedent given her influence. President John Kennedy could still make the argument that his brother Bobby was qualify to head the American Justice Department, probably the most important government bureau; it controls the all powerful Federal Bureau of investigation (FBI)  and other law enforcement agencies; sensing the discretionary use of political power available to the president the United States Congress went ahead and barred the all powerful presidency and those entrusted with public trust from appointing relatives to government positions.

The Liberian Assembly must do the same. It is the notion of the abuse of power, that presidents as authoritative as they are, and given the power of the office they occupied will appoint their relatives to positions that could have easily been occupied by other qualify citizens.

Given the burdens that leadership has placed on Sirleaf’s shoulders as president of the nation, she must have learned by now that leaders make mistakes and that they take responsibility for whatever happen within the government. She must have seen also, that the critics are never in short supply as was yesterday, and that criticisms are themselves healthy, if the ultimate aim is to move the country forward.

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