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Do you trust Sirleaf ?

By Owei Lakemfa
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF, Liberia’s  72- year old Iron Lady is a mother of four sons with seven grand-children. She campaigned in the 2005 presidential elections on the basis that as a granny, she should be given a chance to mother the country which was still recovering from war, and made a solemn promise to serve for only a single term of six years.

By this time, Liberians were apparently fed up with the politicians whose  misrule had led the country to a long  and brutal civil war. Sirleaf was one of those old politicians. Thirty eight years ago, she had served as Finance Minister under President William Tolbert.

She again held that portfolio in 1980. When Sergeant Samuel Doe  overthrew the government in 1980, Sirleaf fled into exile. Five years later, she returned and served the half craze Doe regime as president of the Liberian Bank for Development.

Later things fell apart and Doe detained her. On her release, she fled once again and became a supporter of the businessman, Charles Taylor who had ignited a civil war to sack the Doe gang. She fell out with Taylor and contested the 1997 presidential elections with her former ally but lost.

In the run up to the 2005 presidential elections,  Liberians, tired of old politicians like Sirleaf , sought a new breed of leaders that had not been contaminated  by long years of misrule, dictatorship, corruption and bloodshed.  Many zeroed in on a young former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah.

He seemed the perfect person as he had over the years demonstrated his love for Liberia by assisting  in the process of reconstruction and healing. He had funded  the Liberian national football team, played in it and almost qualified Liberians for the World Cup.

There was a national demand by the youths that their football idol return home to lead the country. Following the mass appeal, Weah  joined the race and instantly became the person to beat. Of course politics is not linear and the old guard went to work claiming that Weah was not a graduate, lacked experience and in any case was too young to be president.  Sirleaf pleaded to be given just one term in office after which she would quit and the young can come in.

In the October 11, 2005 elections, Weah and his Congress for Democratic Change led the crowded pack winning 28.3 per cent of the votes, 15 seats in the House and 3 Senate seats. Sirleaf and her Unity Party came second with 19.83 per cent of the votes, eight seats in the House  and three Senate seats.

The runoff between Weah and Sirleaf seemed a fore gone conclusion; the youthful crowd puller with an almost 10 per cent lead in the first round seemed set to win. But many forces, mainly external, went to work.

The industrialised countries were not sure of Weah’s position on many issues, including privatisation and the acceptance of transnational corporations like the American Firestone Rubber Company which virtually owned the country.

They were quite at home with their old customer, Sirleaf who had been Finance Minister of a pliant Liberian government, and a former Senior Loan Officer of the neo- colonial World Bank.

Also, many conservative  African leaders like then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo were not with the youthful Weah and backed the granny. It became, to use a favourite Obasanjo  saying, ‘ a-do-or-die-affair’ It was a dirty election and Sirleaf was declared winner with 59 per cent of the votes, and Weah the loser with 41 per cent. Amidst allegations of massive rigging of the votes, Weah challenged Mama Sirleaf’s victory.

But serious pressures were piled on him to save the country from possible political conflicts which might distract it from urgently needed post-war reconstruction. In any case, Sirleaf just needs a single term and would quit in the 2011 elections when she would have been 73 years old. Then Weah can come in and take the presidency. Weah agreed, withdrew the case and decided to return to school.

Now, five years later, Sirleaf has announced  a change of mind; she is in the race for re-election in 2011. In her annual message to parliamentarians, she said she was doing so because she has the key to the country’s development. “ I know where we are today (Where else but Liberia?) I know where we ought to be tomorrow and I know we will get there.” For her, she has become the Moses that will get Liberians to the promised land and the messiah that will bring them salvation.

One of the main problems of Africa is leadership powered by visionless, self-glorifying, egoistic, power-conscious, unprincipled, mostly greedy, corrupt and vain political elites. But for people like Nelson Mandela who shun power and refused a second  constitutional term which was his just for the asking, most people could have argued that this is a genetic African trait.

Perhaps as the fabled Giant of Africa, Nigeria has a major share of power huggers like Sirleaf. There was General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida who vowed to hand over power in 1990 but hung on until he was  forced out in 1993.

General Sani Abacha came on a supposed rescue mission and then tried to transform into an elected dictator before death rescued the country from his vile bloody grasp. Obasanjo had been a military dictator for three years before handing over power.

Twenty years later, he became president again.  But after the constitutional eight  years in office he tried to force himself on the populace for a third, illegal term before he was forced to back down.

As an Obasanjo  protege, it is not surprising that Sirleaf has reneged on her promise. She has refused to learn that power is not ‘Till Death Do Us Part’


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