WHEN Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2005, she promised to step down as head of state after one six-year term. Now, however, the 71-year-old former World Bank director, the only woman ever elected to head an African state, says she needs another term to complete what she has started. Though Ms Sirleaf is favourite to win next year’s election, she will not have it all her own way in this small west African country, the continent’s oldest republic.
“One of the reasons why I decided to run again”, she says, “is because we have laid the foundations in terms of our reform agenda but only now are we at the point where we are poised to take corrective measures.” Top of that agenda is corruption. Despite having declared “zero tolerance” at the beginning of her term, it is still a huge problem—and her own government is not immune. This year she has had to sack her information minister for pocketing the salaries of fictitious employees. And she has had to force her brother, accused of embezzlement, to stand down as internal-affairs minister. Five ministries, including those of finance and mines, have come under fire from the country’s auditor-general, who published a string of reports showing that millions of dollars are unaccounted for.
“There are some merits in the public characterisation that not enough is being done on corruption,” says Frances Johnson Morris, Liberia’s anti-corruption commissioner, cagily. The president, who earned the sobriquet “Iron Lady” in the hard years of opposition, agrees. She says she could not afford to annoy an unco-operative legislature with a crusade on corruption while trying to persuade it to pass crucial economic reforms. So she promises to do better in a second term. “I did not realise the problem of corruption was so deep,” she concedes. “It is societal, it is not just a problem with government, it is all over.”
But though Liberia’s stability is fragile and 8,000 UN troops are still in the country, it is a much better place than it was a few years ago. Rebels and teenage soldiers then loyal to a warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes at The Hague, used to rampage through the capital, Monrovia, killing with impunity. An on-off civil war between 1989 and 2003 left about 250,000 dead.
By contrast, Ms Sirleaf has increased the national budget from a mere $80m in 2006 to $350m today and persuaded the IMF to clear the last of Liberia’s $4.9 billion external debt. Monrovia is witnessing a building boom, with beachside resorts and blocks of flats springing up, along with some conspicuously grand mansions belonging to well-known politicians. Ms Sirleaf has also freed Liberia’s forestry and diamond sectors from UN sanctions and renegotiated a controversial contract with a steel giant, ArcelorMittal.
This should please some voters. A recent merger of Ms Sirleaf’s Unity Party with two opposition parties should also consolidate support, especially among the elite of American-Liberian families who came to the country as freed slaves in the 19th century and have dominated the economy ever since.
But her opponents in next year’s poll may accuse her of pandering to the old elite. In 2005 she almost lost to a footballer and political novice, George Weah, who ran as a populist. To make matters worse, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has listed Ms Sirleaf, along with some of her past and present allies, as partly to blame for Liberia’s 14-year-long civil war. In particular, it cited her for backing Mr Taylor when he was a rebel who overthrew the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe. Ms Sirleaf has publicly regretted her past association with Mr Taylor. Nonetheless, the commission said she should be banned from public office. That recommendation is unlikely to be taken up by the legislature, but it will still tarnish her reputation.
In the spectrum of Liberian politics, Ms Sirleaf is arguably the best president the country has ever had. But that does not mean the voters are bound to agree.