Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: A Controversial Laureate?

By Christine Cheng

Widely admired and celebrated abroad, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has an international profile that is the envy of many a public figure. Awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize has only cemented her celebrity status on the political circuit. Yet unlike her fellow co-winners Leymah Gbowee (also of Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (Yemen), "Ma Ellen" has a past linking her to a violent rebel movement, and since 2006 she has led an administration plagued by corruption. Even though she has been received with adulation overseas since she was first elected, she has always gotten a much tougher reception at home. These contrasts will be brought into sharp relief on Tuesday as Liberians return to the polls for national elections and Sirleaf fights for her political life.

In Liberia, people on the street used to call Sirleaf a "warlord," citing her association with Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. This was because Sirleaf was once the International Coordinator for the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), raising money to oust former strongman Samuel Doe from power. During the civil war, NPFL fighters perpetrated horrific atrocities and staged violent spectacles, the aftershocks of which are still felt today.

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For her part, Sirleaf has admitted in her memoirs and in testimony to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she supported Taylor through the 1980s but claimed not to have known his true intentions. She said that she had been "fooled" by him and had publicly asked the NPFL to end the civil war. And while she did eventually break her ties with Taylor, most Liberians still believe that she played a more active role in the NPFL than she has so far admitted to.

This is important because the Nobel Committee's citation specifically mentioned "non-violent struggle" and "peace-building work." Even though this commendation was referring to her support of women's rights during her tenure as president, her past links to Charles Taylor and the violence perpetrated by the NPFL should not be glossed over in the post-Nobel period.

Sirleaf's administration has also been consumed by one corruption scandal after another during her six years in office. Twenty-one members of her government have had to resign for corrupt behavior, and still others have been accused but kept their jobs. Problems with corruption are not in themselves surprising, as corruption runs deep in Liberia's political system. It permeates the police force, the courts, the business community and even the education system.

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Dr Christine Cheng is the Boskey Fellow in Politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She co-edited Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (Routledge) and is currently writing a book about Liberia's post-conflict transition. She blogs at www.christinescottcheng.wordpress.com.

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