Cronyism or Courage? A Strong Woman Leads a Weak State

June 22, 2010 | NeW Staff

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (pictured above) may not be bad at kicking a soccer ball, but can she kick Liberia’s corruption habit?  Photo: Time

Imagine that several of President Barack Obama’s advisors were pocketing money from American taxpayers–and that his cohorts at the Justice Department were paid off by outsiders to influence important cases.  We can’t.  We live in a nation where tolerance for corruption ends the moment a hint of wrongdoing is discovered.  Now imagine these crimes are happening in a small country that has suffered under decades of economic degradation and that has only recently emerged from the control of a warlord responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of citizens.  The corruption no longer seems surprising and, in fact, is almost expected.  This is Liberia, and the corruption of government officials is occurring under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

According to Dino Mahtani’s recent Foreign Policy article, Tarnishing the Iron Lady of Africa, a chorus of critics have begun condemning Johnson-Sirleaf for a failure to sufficiently crack down on corruption.  For example, these critics are abhorred that Johnson-Sirleaf has kept former government officials of former President Charles Taylor “kleptocracy” on her current administration’s payroll, as well her alleged “cronyism” by hiring several family members.  In fact, even Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has suggested that Johnson-Sirleaf be barred from public office for 30 years due to her connections to and support of Taylor.  These accusations, however, do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Yet criticisms of Johnson-Sirleaf fail to account for the context of her successes.  This is a woman who has begun to stabilize a political community and economy that seemed irredeemable to nearly every observer only a few years ago and who has dramatically changed the international community’s perception of her country’s future.  As if that wasn’t hard enough, she did it all while becoming the first female head of state ever to be elected in Africa. 

Moreover, simple ignorance permeates these criticisms.  For instance, it would be virtually impossible–not to mention reckless–to fire every Liberian government employee with past connections to the Charles Taylor regime.  Doing so would leave Johnson-Sirleaf with few civil servants knowledgeable enough to run the country’s various government departments.  Take Iraq, for instance, where the coalition’s “de-Baathification” program turned out to be disastrous.  In an attempt to purge the new Iraqi state of all former Saddam Hussein officials, the coalition unintentionally gutted the weak government of critical expertise, setting progress in the country back years.

It might be tempting to say that Johnson-Sirleaf is the “lesser of two evils,” since a return to Liberia’s bloody days would be far worse than some occaisional government corruption.  But observers would be wise to give the Liberian president a little more credit than that by understanding the context in which her decisions must be made.  Indeed, in light of the country’s daunting challenges (such as 80 percent unemployment), it is obvious why a U.S.-quality anti-corruption effort might not be possible at this point.  If Johnson-Sirleaf rocks the boat too much–by firing scores of potentially tainted government employees–her reform packages will likely be thrown overboard by a skeptical legislature.  For now, she is balancing her priorities and making incremental changes to sew a war-torn country back together.

In the end, Johnson-Sirleaf’s intentions for her country should not be in doubt.  She is not the lesser of two evils; she is a blessing for Liberia.

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