By NN fellow and FrontPage Africa editor Wade Williams
MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be sworn in for her second term this Monday but the 73-year-old Nobel laureate begins her six-year term under a heavy cloud.
An acrimonious election campaign against the main opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), was capped off by violence on the eve of the runoff and a CDC poll boycott.
Liberia has not been more tense since the end of the civil war eight years ago that left 250,000 people dead.
Johnson Sirleaf has a series of challenges ahead as she attempts to continue the reconstruction and reconciliation started in her first term.
The biggest challenge is unemployment, which is stuck at a staggering 80 percent. Young people have been the hardest hit, and they make up the bulk of CDC supporters.
“The president has made it her priority to address the employment situation, especially for the young people,” said presidential press secretary Cyrus Badio to GlobalPost. “The unemployment situation is a major challenge that this country will have to confront.”
Johnson Sirleaf got a taste of just how volatile Liberia’s youths are last month when they rampaged through the streets of the capital Monrovia after the government delayed payment of wages for community work. Rioters smashed cars and shopfronts, poured garbage onto the streets and clashed with police. Johnson Sirleaf must find a more long-term solution to the high youth unemployment if their anger is to be soothed.
Reconciliation will also be a priority. The contentious elections exacerbated deep divisions that have not been healed since the 14-year war ended in 2004.
“These elections deepened the sectional lines, the tribal lines; you might even say class, they deepened it,” said former Maryland County Senator Gloria Scott, who lost her seat in the Liberian legislature in the 2011 polls.
Johnson Sirleaf has won widespread praise on the international stage for being the first African woman elected president and for presiding over peace and economic growth in a troubled country that had long unsettled the whole region.
Johnson Sirleaf used her cachet to attract $16 billion in international investment into the country and win relief from a crippling $4.6 billion debt. But that international support and her recent Nobel Peace Prize win have fueled criticism that the president spends too much time courting international favor rather than cementing the fragile democracy at home.
The president’s shelving of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report has also raised ire here. The report listed her among those who should be banned from office for backing warlord Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia in 1989.
Johnson Sirleaf has admitted supporting Taylor’s overthrow of dictator Samuel K. Doe, but she says she abandoned Taylor as soon as his tactics, including systematic rape and enlistment of child soldiers, became known. But Johnson Sirleaf’s reluctance to implement the commission’s recommendations has meant those charged with war crimes have gone without trial.
If the country is to reconcile, Johnson Sirleaf must be willing to change her tactics and pay a price, says Dan Saryea, head of the Liberia Democratic Initiative, a local NGO supporting democratic governance.
“If you want to reconcile people, those who you want to reconcile must be convinced that they have justice,” said Saryea. “Justice is not just about punishing people. It is also about creating an environment where those who perpetrated violence or other acts against people can admit to the problems that they created.”
During the election campaign, Johnson Sirleaf forged alliances with warlords who fueled the country’s bloody past, including ex-rebel leader and now senator Prince Johnson, in exchange for their endorsements. Analysts say these ties now undermine any efforts Johnson Sirleaf makes toward reconciliation.
“The president is currently being surrounded by a good number of warlords,” said Saryea. “Almost all ministers, autonomous agencies’ heads are all protected by former generals of disbanded warring factions. For me, I see this as a serious threat to the peace process, and not only to the peace process but to civil engagement.”
Despite these challenges, the upcoming second term presents an opportunity for Johnson Sirleaf to correct some of her mistakes in the first term and leave an important legacy.
“I think Madam Sirleaf still has the opportunity to address these issues, and I think the way to do it is for her to listen to alternative voices and divert a little bit from the regular voices that have not benefited her government for the past six years,” said Saryea. “What she needs to do is to look at the questions and the issues that the ordinary people are raising and pay attention to those.”
Wade Williams is an editor at FrontPage Africa newspaper and a fellow of New Narratives, an NGO supporting independent media in Africa.