In Liberia, President Johnson Sirleaf’s Past Sullies her Clean Image

In Liberia, President Johnson Sirleafs 
Past Sullies her Clean Image

Six years on from the end of Liberia’s long and bloody civil war, the country is finally on the mend. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund regularly applaud President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first elected woman leader — on the huge strides she’s making to stamp out corruption and rebuild her shattered country.

That image has now taken a hit. In its final report, released yesterday, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission , a body modeled on South Africa’s historic truth commission, says Johnson Sirleaf should be banned from government for 30 years for her early support of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor, who played a central role in Liberia’s conflict, is on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity that stem from his part in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The Commission’s 370-page report collected more than 20,000 statements and took three years and several million dollars to complete. It investigates the causes and consequences of Liberia’s conflict, a war that displaced a third of the people in the small West African country, left a quarter of a million dead, and countless more raped, disabled, and traumatized. Johnson Sirleaf is among 50 people the Commission recommends should not be allowed to hold public office. The Commission also says that dozens of individuals should face further investigation and prosecution, though does not include Johnson Sirleaf on those lists. Still, to name the president as the TRC does, is tough censure for someone so widely respected. “To exclude someone from the right of running for political office is a very serious position to take that has to be extremely grounded in facts,” says Corrine Dufka, a senior research with Human Rights Watch’s Africa division who focuses on West Africa.

Perhaps. But in a conflict that went on for nearly two decades, it’s hard to find any Liberian officials whose hands are completely clean. When she testified at the TRC, Johnson Sirleaf admitted that during the early years of the war she had brought food, supplies and financial assistance to Taylor. At the time, she said, she wanted to see an end to the repressive and tyrannical regime of President Samuel Doe. If she cast her lot with a war criminal, she said, she did so unwittingly.

But the TRC says Johnson Sirleaf didn’t go far enough. One of the ideas behind a truth commission is that people responsible for past errors show remorse. By not apologizing or showing more remorse, the TRC says, Johnson Sirleaf denied both her own responsibility and undermined the TRC process. Those who disclosed their misdeeds in greater detail and showed remorse were not recommended for further censure or prosecution. Milton Blayi, whose nomme de guerre was General Butt Naked because he entered the battlefield completely naked but for his boots, admitted culpability for as many as 20,000 deaths, for example. But, he now speaks often and publicly about repentance.

The President’s defenders say the fact Johnson Sirleaf took part in a process that highlighted her early role in Liberia’s meltdown is proof of her commitment to good governance. “She allowed the whole process to roll out and that shows that she is concerned about the truth,” says Suliman Baldo, the Africa Director for the International Center for Transitional Justice. Many Liberians probably agree with that.

Outside of Liberia, where few people until now have been aware of Johnson Sirleaf’s early association with Taylor, the revelation could tarnish Johnson Sirleaf’s image somewhat. Still, the President’s unlikely to come under too much pressure from donors. Says one political observer who has worked in Liberia and asked to remain anonymous: “It will take a lot to dent her reputation.”

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