Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, ten years on

A file picture of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talking to RFI in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A file picture of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talking to RFI in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. RFI
Text by: Jennifer Bakody
9 min

It's been a decade since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected to become the 24th president of Liberia and Africa's first female president. According to analysts, several key events seem likely to shape her legacy.


A former banker and UN director who was no stranger to Liberian politics, Sirleaf was handed a mandate to advance transitional justice and grow her country.

According to Dr. Jeremy Levitt, a US professor and international lawyer who was brought in to help shape the legal architecture for the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was a euphoric moment. "It represented a moment of change, of new opportunity, of trying to renconcile the past, of post conflict justice," he told RFI. "And she ushered in an era of hope that was needed for the country at the time."

Ten years of President Sirleaf

The TRC’s final report in 2009 was highly controversial. Two commissioners refused to sign it. People spoke of competing allegiances. And most damning for President Sirleaf, the report implicated her in wartime abuses.

"The report in itself offers a way forward. The president has not had the political will to implement it," Levitt told RFI. He says Sirleaf is likely unwilling to implement the report for fear of having to sanction herself, and says the naming of the president was an act of corruption by the TRC. 

Isaac Vah Tukpah Junior, the US national chairman for the opposition Congress for Democratic Change believes despite Sirleaf's promises, corruption reared "its ugly head" early on in her presidency.

Tukpah told RFI that even if it wasn't President Sirleaf's fault, she should have implemented the TRC report.

"Her [...] essentially rejection of the report, and not pursuing that line... in order for people to get some kind of closure to all the issues that affected them, to the people who violated their human rights, to the people who committed all those atrocities... It should have been respected."

Sirleaf won a second term in 2011, in the face of violent protests and contention.

"Cause I was there," Tukpah told RFI. "And we saw how ballot boxes were stuffed. We have pictures. We discussed this with the international community. But even then, after that, the second round, when the opposition party - our party that would have gone to the second round - withdrew from the elections, there was nobody at the polls.

"In reality there's a question mark as to whether she actually won the 2011 election or not."

That same year Sirleaf was one of three laureates awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside her countrywoman Leymah Gbowee and Yemen's Tawakkol Karman.

John Yoder, a political science professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, told RFI that winning the award, though admirable, made her look good in the West, without having the same effect in Liberia:

"At home, people say, 'But that [the award] isn't putting food on our table, it isn't fixing the electrical system that doesn't work, it isn't building the roads, it isn't fixing the health system. We still don't have clean water. The youth are unemployed. She should be back home'."

"Obviously Madame Sirleaf has some supporters," Tukpah told RFI. "So they felt joyous and gratified. For most Liberians, the fact that she's a Liberian and was receiving that prestigious award, it probably served as some satisfaction. But the reality is most Liberians felt she did not deserve the award."

Liberia has about 4.5 million people. Its life expectancy at birth is about 58 years. In 2014 its GDP per capita was about 300 euros.

"Liberia is not out of the hot water," Levitt believes. "There are several problems including infrastructure and core development issues that haven't been addressed in her ten years as president. Liberians are as poor today as they were right after the civil war."

Some 4,800 Liberians died from the Ebola outbreak which erupted last year. Levitt, Tukpah and Yoder agree Sirleaf’s government probably did the best it could with the slim resources it had. Yoder says he'd even give Sirleaf an excellent grade in her handling of the crisis.

Tukpah suggests history might reveal it to be her government's swan song for two clear reasons:

"One, she's tired. Two, she has exhausted the goodwill that people had for her. Madame Sirleaf has incompetent people on her staff. Some of them may have good will for the country, but they are misaligned. They have demonstrated that the resources intended have not been utilised for the purposes intended. So her chances of making any difference are slim to none."

Liberia’s next general elections are due in 2017.

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