National crises—whether caused by war, natural disaster, or economic collapse—can provide a particularly dramatic testing ground for presidential power and popularity. This has certainly proved the case for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has struggled to find the appropriate strategy to counter her country’s worsening Ebola epidemic.
With nearly 1,600 Ebola deaths since March, Liberia has been hit harder by the epidemic than any other West African state. The public health crisis has sparked a corresponding economic crisis. Closed borders, investor flight, and international travel bans are fuelling inflation and making jobs ever harder to find.
From the early stages of the epidemic, President Sirleaf has been the focus of increasingly charged political attacks. Businessman and presidential hopeful Mr. Benoni Urey fired the first shot in April, chiding Sirleaf for ‘trotting around the world’ rather than staying at home to ‘focus on the matters that confront the country and people’ (Sirleaf was attending the EU-Africa summit). In August, a parliamentarian threatened to ‘dump’ the bodies of six Ebola victims in front of the President’s Office should the government fail to collect them from his constituency. ‘By dumping the bodies, Ellen will feel how it hurts when people died [sic] of Ebola are abandoned,’ he argued. Political tensions continue to fester, the latest blow coming from a number of Liberian diaspora organisations, which are calling for Sirleaf to hand over power to an interim government.
More worrying than this political mudslinging, though, are the deep levels of public distrust in the Liberian government, which the Ebola epidemic has helped lay bare. Sirleaf’s administration has won international plaudits for its apparent success in reviving Liberia’s war-ravaged economy. This positive assessment is not, however, widely shared at home. Endemic corruption—among the highest levels in the world according to Transparency International—and entrenched inequality have soured public perceptions of government and its ability to provide services. Many analysts link this lack of public trust with Liberians’ initial unwillingness to heed government health warnings about Ebola, a response that has accelerated the rate of infection.
The worsening public health crisis coupled with the steep decline in her own popularity ultimately led President Sirleaf to adopt a more prominent role in the fight against Ebola. On July 26, four months after the first Ebola case was reported in Liberia, Sirleaf announced she would head a new National Task Force, specially created to manage the Ebola response. An aggressive set of executive-led initiatives soon followed.
On July 30, Sirleaf belatedly closed the border with Guinea, the main conduit through which Ebola first entered Liberia. She then, on August 6, used her constitutional powers to declare a 90 day State of Emergency, justifying this action on the grounds that the government and people of Liberia required ‘extraordinary measures for the very survival of the state and for the protection of the lives of our people.’ On August 20, Sirleaf imposed a curfew nationwide, active from 9PM to 6AM, and ordered the quarantine of West Point, one of the largest slums in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. In Early September, authorities used the State of Emergency to shutter a national newspaper after it carried calls for Sirleaf to cede power to an Interim Government.
With these strong-arm measures, Sirleaf sought to convey a sense of firm presidential commitment to fighting Ebola; she did this, however, by drawing on a set of executive powers that were singularly ill-suited for handling an epidemic, notably one already exacerbated by public distrust in government. The decision to quarantine West Point was especially problematic. The large-scale operation was led by the military and resulted in a series of violent confrontations during which a 15-year-old boy was killed. The decision to close the newspaper also prompted the President of the Press Union of Liberia to challenge Sirleaf, raising concerns about respect for democratic freedoms and rights during the Ebola outbreak.
Sirleaf has since revised her approach. On August 30, her government lifted the quarantine and, on September 18, announced it would further demilitarise the Ebola response effort, replacing soldiers with police nationwide. There have also been attempts to temper political tensions, one example being the September 9 meeting between Sirleaf and the leader of the Liberty Party, Liberia’s third most represented party in the legislature. This came alongside a decision to sack 10 government officials, including ministers, for being ‘out of the country without an excuse’ and thereby showing ‘insensitivity to our national tragedy.’
In addition to her renewed emphasis on solidarity at home, Sirleaf has also multiplied calls for international assistance, an effort that coincides with a new set of WHO forecasts predicting the likely trebling of Ebola cases by November. These diplomatic overtures are paying off. The US and EU, among others, have committed new aid packages to help both with the Ebola fight and the post-Ebola economic recovery process.
But even as President Sirleaf attempts to correct for previous missteps, political tensions persist. Government officials have repeatedly denounced opposition politicians for trying to use Ebola to help them win elections set for 2017. Legislators, meanwhile, are leading highly personalized Ebola response efforts in their own constituencies, in some instances driving private ambulances to cater for the sick. Sirleaf too is now regularly touring the country, handing out supplies and meeting with healthcare workers. In these instances, it is difficult to distinguish between genuine acts of solidarity and more self-interested electioneering.
The story of Liberia’s Ebola epidemic is sadly far from over. To date, the crisis has seen President Sirleaf move from a position of relative detachment to aggressive, Commander-in-Chief intervention and back to a more conciliatory stance. These different experiments with presidential power in many ways amount to a succession of firefighting efforts. There is some indication this is beginning to change, however. By seeking both to defuse political tensions and to attract more international assistance, Sirleaf is now starting to respond to the Ebola crisis in a way that addresses deeply rooted governance issues, which are in part a legacy of her own administration.