On January 15, 2006 , Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was sworn in as President of the Republic of Liberia, Africa’s oldest modern republican state, founded by freed slaves largely from the USA in 1847.
The search of Liberty took them there but the reality for majority of the peoples of that country for most of the 160 years of the existence of the republic has been anything but freedom. The Americo-Liberians, newly arrived from slave plantations in America over the years established another set of oppressive and exploitative systems over the indigenous peoples of Liberia. The last 3 decades of Liberia is more widely known in terms of its gruesome rulers (Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe) but historical distance does not excuse the previous regimes of their own gruesomeness that created the basis for the post 1980 dictatorships that we are so grimly aware of.
Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf’s election and assumption of office is rightly celebrated both for its historical significance and symbolic resonance for the continuing struggle for democracy and fullest participation of African Women in the affairs of this continent. Her election has lifted the spirits of all those who believe in gender equality and full recognition for Africa’s majority who are women. It is also another slap in the face for all those Afro pessimists, both African and non Africans who profit from bad mouthing Africa and seeing only doomsday scenarios and catastrophes coming out of Africa.
As we enjoy these positive feelings we should also sober up to the enormous challenges that Mama Ellen is going to face. How many of those Heads of state, prominent politicians, assorted state officials from across the world who were there to shine in the glow of celebrations will still be there for her in a few months time? Will those regional and international leaders who obviously preferred her candidature now be willing to travel the long journey ahead? She will sooner than later discover that she needs more than election war chest pledges to realize the hopes and ambitions of millions of war ravaged and traumatized Liberians who will be expecting her to be “mama fix it’ of their misruled and abused country.
Her inauguration speech was uplifting, understandably emotional but also highly measured in a way as not to raise too many hopes. She is too much of a seasoned politician with varied experience as a Banker, Donor dispenser and NGO activist at national and international levels, to be that extravagant with her promises. But her cautious disposition will not stop millions of Liberian women and men from looking up to \'Mama Ellen\' to fix all the various challenges that have confronted them.
She is also not coming in with a completely clean pair of hands having been part of a previous regime and collaborated directly or indirectly, with elements in, other regimes including that of the pariah of the moment, disgraced and indicted former dictator, Charles Taylor. While many may see her as a saviour, others will be suspicious and say \'wait and see\'. In a continent that has seen too many false prophets before it is not an unreasonable attitude. Many of the sit tight leaders we are moaning about today were once promised messiahs and heroes!
Some of the issues that were raised during the campaigns that may have contributed to her winning the run off against \'The Footballer\', George Weah, may actually come back to haunt her. One, the fact of being a woman was an empowering position to be in elections in which women really mattered, not as victims of the wars but also as their own agents of change through the unintended transformations that sometimes come with dislocations brought about by prolonged conflicts. Old barriers break down and sometimes oppressed groups break out and kick up the ceiling. Would Mama Ellen be able to deliver to the women of Liberia? She has been approvingly called \'The Iron Lady\' comparing her to Britain\'s former hard-line right wing Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
I am not sure if many British women and men who were victims of Thatcher\'s \'greed is good\' politics and policies that made the rich richer and pauperized the poor even more and women more than men will welcome her African reincarnation. If she is past tense in London why should she be a new currency in Monrovia? No doubt there will be more Boubous and Head Gears to compete with the Business Suites around the tables of power and government offices. Would this mean prosperity for poor women beyond gender symbolism? Or is it more likely to be another better times for ruling women?
Secondly, her Harvard University education versus the \'Street University\' background of her main challenger portrayed the battle as one between the educated against the so-called illiterate. It is a battle that resonates across Africa. When it comes to the right to vote we do not have any qualifications but when it comes to being voted for we demand \'minimum\' qualifications. Does that mean that the so called illiterates have no other right than vote for those of us who are educated? In the case of Liberia, Ellen and her generation of politicians share the responsibility for the mass illiteracy in the country. How can they turn around and condemn the generations they denied the right to education and look down on them as unworthy? It is stranger still that George Weah was cleared to contest the election despite being an \'illiterate\'. If he was cleared to stand surely he must have passed some \'education threshold\'. Or was he cleared with the hope that he would not win? If we do not have a policy of free and compulsory education up to a certain level for all our citizens it is very discriminatory and a violation of their rights to insist that they must possess certain qualifications in order to be voted for.
Another undemocratic side of this illiteracy debate in Africa is the shameful fact that the business of government is conducted in many of our countries in languages that majority of the people neither speak nor understand thereby mystifying the process of governance. When we say someone is illiterate, in what and whose language are we stating this? I wonder how many of our so-called educated elite will pass an elementary test in their mother tongues.
Thirdly, a lot was made from her experience as a World Bank Staffer and UN bureaucrat. This is very odd given the fact that many countries on this continent were destroyed by following the prescriptions of the Washington twin vultures of IMF/WB through successive failed experiments with lives of our peoples through SAP and the current Neo Liberal policies. In Ellen we are being asked to trust the judgment of a former employee of these same institutions. She cannot solve the problems of Liberia by acting like some Bank clerk or repeating the neo-liberal mantra of her former employers or the globalization fantasies of her friend, George Soros. Liberia needs an effective, responsible and responsive state that will protect and defend its people, create jobs and empower them to transform their lives. It does not need a state that hands off social and economic development trusting the ghosts of an unfree market. She and her new Finance Minister (another colleague from the Washington temples of capitalism) will have to unlearn all the IMF/World Bank doctrines if she wants to succeed as a change agent rather than merely acting as agents of the Bank and the Fund.
As for her UNOCRAT background I have only one question: Is Africa now effectively a UN mandate territory that previous experience of the UN is now a pre-requisite for aspiring to public office? Well she needs to look no further than her next door friend, Alhaji Tejan Kabah of Sierra-Leone to ask if working in the UN and acting as UN mandate Governor guarantees development or even free flow of foreign investment and donor funds. No amount of foreign support can be a substitute for the efforts of your own people.
Fourthly, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf has promised to wage war against corruption. She needs to tread carefully and be serious. She should learn from the credibility gap surrounding similar efforts by her biggest regional patron, Mr. Know-All President of Nigeria, retired General Olusegun Obasanjo. One way she can make a difference is not by insisting on the easy option of asset declaration alone; she can innovate by also demanding transparent declaration of liabilities. Politicians should declare how much they owe those who funded their campaigns and how they propose to pay them back or what they have promised in lieu of the campaign funds?
Finally, Mama Ellen has also made one of those rash promises that many Africans have become too disdainfully familiar with. She has reportedly promised to serve only one term. I hope she will break the mould by actually honoring that pledge whether it was made verbally, in public or in private. Out of the many heads of state who came to cheer her up amid those she will continue meeting, there is no high level of redemption of past similar promises.
Congratulations Mama Ellen, it’s not going to be easy, but if you do not abandon the people they won’t abandon you too. I wish you well.