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Can Mama Ellen Deliver Liberty to Liberia?

16 February 2006 at 08:42 | 415 views

Tajudeen Abdul Raheem

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in recently as President of Liberia. Tajudeen Abdul Raheem wishes her well in what promises to be a stormy voyage, and raises questions about some of the problems that might crop up over the next four years. Will her reign mean better times for all women or only for ruling women? Will she be able to unlearn all her IMF/World Bank doctrines and put social change at the forefront of her agenda?

On Monday 15 January 2006, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as President of the Republic of Liberia, Africa’s oldest modern republican state, founded by freed slaves largely from the USA in 1847. The search for liberty took them to Liberia, but the reality for the majority of the peoples of the country for most of the 160 years of its existence has been anything but freedom.

The Americo-Liberians, newly arrived from slave plantations in America, over the years established similar exploitative systems over the indigenous peoples of Liberia. The last three decades of Liberia is more widely known for its gruesome rulers, but the previous periods should not be excused their own gruesomeness that created the basis for the post 1980 dictatorships that we are so grimly aware of.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf’s election and assumption of office is rightly celebrated both for its historical significance and symbolic resonance for the continuing struggle for democracy and fullest participation of African women in the affairs of this continent. Her election has lifted the spirits of all those who believe in gender equality and full recognition for Africa’s majority, who are women. It is also another slap in the face of all those Afro pessimists, both African and non Africans who profit from bad mouthing Africa and seeing only doomsday scenarios and catastrophies coming out of Africa.

As we enjoy these positive feelings we should also sober up to the enormous challenges that Johnson-Sirleaf is going to face. How many of those heads of state, prominent politicians, assorted state officials from across the world who were there to shine in the glow of celebrations will still be there for her in a few months time? Would those regional and international leaders who obviously preferred her candidature now be willing to travel the long journey ahead? She will sooner rather than later discover that she needs more than election war chest pledges to realize the hopes and ambitions of millions of war ravaged and traumatised Liberians who will be expecting her to be the "mama fix it’ of their misruled and abused country.

Her inauguration speech was uplifting, understandably emotional but also highly measured in a way as not to raise too many hopes. She is too much of a seasoned politician and has a long and varied experience as a banker, donor dispenser and NGO activist at national and international levels to be that extravagant with her promises.

But her cautious disposition will not stop millions of Liberian women and men from looking up to "Mama Ellen" to fix all the various challenges that have confronted them. She is also not coming in with a clean pair of hands, having been part of a previous regime and collaborated with other regimes - including that of the pariah of the moment, disgraced and indicted former dictator, Charles Taylor.

While many may see her as a saviour, others will be suspicious and say wait and see. In a continent that has seen too many false prophets before it is not an unreasonable attitude. Many of the sit tight leaders we are moaning about today were once promised messiahs and heroes!

Some of the issues that were raised during the campaigns that may have contributed to her winning the run off against "The Footballer", George Weah, may actually come back to haunt her. One, the fact of being a woman was an empowering position to be in an election in which women really mattered, not as victims of the wars but also as agents of change through the transformations that sometimes come with dislocations brought about by prolonged conflicts. Old barriers break down and sometimes oppressed groups break out and kick up the ceiling. But would Mama Ellen be able to deliver to the Women of Liberia?

She has been approvingly called "The Iron Lady" comparing her to Britain’s former hardline right wing Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. I am not sure if many British women and men who were victims of Thatcher’s ’greed is good’ politics will welcome her African reincarnation. If she is past tense in London why should she be a new currency in Monrovia? Would this mean prosperity for poor women beyond gender symbolism? Or is it more likely to be better times for ruling women?

Two, her Harvard University education versus the ’Street University’ background of her main challenger portrayed the battle as one between the educated against the so called illiterate. It is a battle that resonates across Africa. When it comes to the right to vote we do not have any qualifications but when it comes to being voted for we demand ’minimum’ qualifications. Does that mean that so called illiterates have no other right than to be voting for those who are educated? In the case of Liberia, Johnson-Sirleaf and her generation of politicians share the responsibility for the mass illiteracy in the country. How can they turn around and condemn the generations they denied the right to education to and look down on them as unworthy? It is very strange that George Weah was cleared to contest the election despite being an illiterate. If he was cleared to stand surely he must have passed some education threshold. Or was he cleared with the hope that he would not win? If we do not have a policy of free and compulsory education up to a certain level for all our citizens it is very discriminatory and a violation of their rights to insist that they must possess certain qualifications in order to be voted for.

Another undemocratic side of this illiteracy debate is the shameful fact that the business of government is conducted in many of our countries in languages that the majority of the people do not understand, thereby mystifying the process of governance. When we say someone is an illiterate, in what language are we stating this? I wonder how many of our so-called educated elite will pass an elementary test in their mother tongues?

Three, a lot was made of her experience as a World Bank staffer and UN bureaucrat. This is very odd given the fact that many countries on this continent were destroyed by following the prescriptions of the Washington twin vultures of the IMF/WB through successive failed experiments with the lives of our peoples through SAPs and the current Neo-liberal policies. In Johnson-Sirleaf we are being asked to trust the judgment of a former employee of these same institutions. She cannot solve the problems of Liberia by acting like some bank clerk or repeating the neo-liberal mantra of her former employers or the globalisation fantasies of her friend, George Soros.

Liberia needs an effective, responsible and responsive state that will protect and defend its peoples, create jobs and empower people to transform their lives. It does not need a state that hands off social and economic development, trusting the ghosts of an unfree market. She has to unlearn all her IMF/World Bank doctrines if she wants to succeed as a change agent rather merely acting as an agent of the Bank and the Fund. As for her UN background I have only one question: Is Africa now effectively a UN mandate territory that previous experience of the UN is now required for aspirations of public office? Well, she needs to look no further than her friend next door, Alhaji Tejan Kabah of Sierra Leone, to ask if working in the UN and acting as UN mandate governor guarantees development or even a free flow of foreign investment and donor funds. No amount of foreign support can be a substituted for the efforts of your own people.

Four, Johnson-Sirleaf has promised to wage war against corruption. She needs to tread carefully here and be serious. She should learn from the credibility gap surrounding similar efforts by her biggest regional patron, Olushegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. One way she can make a difference is not by insisting asset declaration but also liability declaration. Politicians should declare how much they owe those who funded their campaigns and how they propose to pay them back.

Finally, Johnson-Sirleaf has also made one of those rash promises that many Africans have become disdainfully familiar with. She has reportedly promised to serve only one term. I hope she will break the mould by actually honoring that pledge, whether it was made verbally, in public or in private. Out of the many heads of state she will be meeting at her first AU summit in Khartoum there is no high level of redemption of past similar promises.

Congratulations Mama Ellen, it is not going to be easy, but if you do not abandon the people they won’t abandon you too. I wish you well.

* Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa

Credit: Pambazuka News

Photo: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf