Category Archives: Liberia

Liberia – President George Weah: A year since his election

This month marks the first anniversary of Liberia’s President George Weah winning the presidential election in the West African republic. It’s been an unusual series of events for a country which has very particular origins. Weah is in many quarters still best known for a stellar international football career, and is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest African football players ever. During his international career, Liberia itself suffered 14 years of civil war, and emerged peaceful but very poor. The post-war country had an internationally celebrated female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize.

Weah is 52 years old now, and as an international soccer star was named FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d’Or in 1995. He has been hugely popular in his home country, especially with the young. This is a country where half the voters are under the age of 33. He has been active in Liberian politics for over a decade. He ran without success in two previous presidential or vice-presidential elections (2005 and 2011) which saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to office. While celebrated internationally as the first female head of state elected in Africa, she was not as popular at home, where corruption and poverty continued to undermine quality of life for so many. She served two full terms of office but was barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.

Weah continued to pursue his political ambitions and was elected as a Senator in at the end of 2014, but only rarely attended parliament. His modest educational achievements were highlighted during election campaigns, but the poverty he had grown up in gave him real credibility among voters tired of elites and corruption.

In the October 2017 presidential elections he topped the poll with 38% of the vote, going to a run-off with the outgoing Vice-President Joseph Boakai. The second round was delayed by a legal challenge by another candidate. When it was held on 26th December 2017, George Weah won comfortably with 62% of the vote.

His platform included tackling corruption, raising living standards, and economic reform. This is popular with the many people still waiting to see decent services or economic opportunities more than a decade after the war ended. At his inauguration on 22nd January 2018, he announced that he would cut his salary by 25%.

A unique past

Liberia has a most unusual history, and is the oldest modern republic in Africa. It was founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States, and retains strong links with America. Although it escaped traditional European colonialism, the structures recreated unfortunately meant the indigenous population was seriously marginalised. A civil war from 1989 to 2003 left more than 200,000 people dead. Since then, elections have been peaceful but the country continued to struggle with rebuilding itself after the war, and poverty is stubbornly high. As the country continued to rebuild its weak health and state systems, Ebola emerged in 2014. It took nearly 5,000 lives in Liberia, and the same number in neighbouring countries, in the worst outbreak ever seen.

In a population of nearly five million people, the median age is less than 18 years. It is still near the bottom of the Human Development Index, which combines health, education, and income, at 181 out of 189 countries ranked. Life expectancy is 63 years, and the literacy rate is 43% for the over-15s. GNI per capita is US$667.

The country’s economy has been struggling, and the government deficit is more than 5% of GDP. The Liberian dollar lost a quarter of its value last year, and a further quarter since Weah took office. One of the factors affecting the economy has been the withdrawal of the UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which once numbered 15,000 troops. It completed its task in March, having taken over from the regional peace operation ECOMOG at the end of the civil war 15 years ago. The country is still affected by the economic consequences of the Ebola epidemic, which saw significant restrictions on daily activities.

Despite his strong and well-received stand on corruption,some were disappointed with his early appointments. Only two of his ministers were women, halving the number in the Sirleaf cabinet. The woman he chose to be his running mate for Vice-President, Jewel Howard-Taylor, used to be married to the former President, Charles Taylor, who started the war and whose forces were linked to atrocities during the conflict. He was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2012 for his role in that neighbouring country’s war, and is currently serving his 50-year sentence in a UK prison. He is still popular in Nimba county especially, and his former wife helped to bring in votes from the region.

In another first, President Weah made a surprise return at the age of 51 to Liberia’s national football team in September, in a game against Nigeria organised in his honour.

Besides the economy, there are many challenges to face. President Weah has been non-committal about whether a war crimes court should be set up, as recommended by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010. Corruption, food production, and poverty are long-term problems. However, new land ownership legislation was passed in September, recognising community land rights, and helping to protect the 70% of the country’s population which lives in rural areas. Previously the state claimed ownership of all land, sometimes allocating parts of the country to foreign investors without community involvement.

Expectations were high at the time of his election, and a sector of the population not used to feeling it is heard was energised by his campaign and victory. As always, the gap between expectations and results will be difficult, especially since many of the problems are structural and will need long term solutions.

Liberia – President Sirleaf’s trial and error response to the Ebola crisis

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.