NEW YORK — The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia could mean that a tremendously positive transformation could happen in Africa, one that may extend beyond Liberia’s borders. In a country where women make up more than half the electorate, the election of Johnson-Sirleaf could help galvanize women’s political participation throughout the continent.
Liberia’s presidential election came two years after the country went through a brutal civil war that displaced almost a third of its 1.3 million population and left 200,000 dead. Charles Taylor, a warlord who was Liberia’s president, fueled the civil war, which shattered the country’s already fragile infrastructure and practically bankrupted the country. He now lives in exile in Nigeria.
Johnson-Sirleaf was educated at Harvard and later became Liberia’s finance minister during President William Tolbert’s administration in 1970. Her vocal opposition to the military government of Gen. Samuel Doe landed her in prison in 1985. She was released after a short period, went into exile and returned in 1997.
Although she initially supported Taylor’s rebellion against Doe, she later became Taylor’s strong opponent, running against him in the 1997 presidential elections. She lost that election to Taylor, having managed to obtain only 10 percent of the votes. Later on, she campaigned tirelessly against Taylor and played an active role in his removal from office. After Taylor’s departure, she took over the leadership of the Unity Party.
Johnson-Sirleaf has had a distinguished career. She was minister of finance of the government of Liberia, vice president of the Africa Regional Office of Citibank in Nairobi, director of the U.N. Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa and senior loan officer at the World Bank. Her career as an economist should help her to tackle Liberia’s daunting economic problem.
Liberia currently owes $3 billion to the international community, and is ranked by the World Bank as one of the poorest countries in the world. Given its low income level, this amount of debt places Liberia in a worse situation than all other sub-Saharan African countries. The country has a market-based economy that is slowly beginning to recover from the ravages of civil war.
Liberia is a good example of a rich/poor country. Rich in natural resources such as gold, diamonds and iron ore but with a shattered infrastructure that makes it almost impossible for the government to take advantage of them. Corruption, widespread at all levels of government, has been a permanent feature of Liberia’s recent history.
At present, public utilities such as electrical power, sewage plants and running water are only provided to a small part of the population in Monrovia, the capital city. Roads in or near Monrovia get some maintenance but those to the interior are frequently impassable during the rainy season.
If she is able to garner political and international support, Johnson-Sirleaf may have come at the right time to end the political chaos, social vulnerability and economic dependency that has marked Liberia’s life for decades. She faces significant challenges: to lead the country into economic recovery, to restore the rule of law, and to improve the human rights and health of all Liberians.
How international aid is provided, however, can significantly affect Johnson-Sirleaf’s chances of success. Although there is a natural temptation for international agencies and donors to provide significant support to a new government with these characteristics, this aid must be judiciously given.
Liberia is not Switzerland. Liberia is a country with no infrastructure and few qualified human resources to respond to the needs of the country. Because of this, international aid should be gradual, coordinated through a central agency, placing emphasis on rapid and effective training of human resources. Most importantly, it must be carefully monitored. These are things that Johnson-Sirleaf knows and knows well. If she is able to apply these principles, she could positively change forever Africa’s political landscape.