They were in buoyant mood and so were their colleagues in the Diaspora planning yet another protest - normally a symbolic show of opposition than any serious and strong representation of opposition voices.
As the flight taking Sirleaf to Washington left the Roberts International Airport, authorities at the Ministry of Justice were preparing to announce the possible indictment of over a dozen past officials allegedly involved with a scandal at the National Oil Company. The news was greeted with mixed reactions. Opponents questioned the intent and timing of the move, insisting it was merely a ploy to deflect the US attention from the thorny issue of corruption.
The meeting with Obama was crucial, not least because of the extent of damage left in the wake of Ebola but an opportunity for the President to redeem some lost grounds on the core development issues she was struggling to address before Ebola struck.
Measured and poignant, Sirleaf drew more attention to the country’s resilience in battling Ebola - the subject of her mission - than schooling her American public on what her government had achieved during her tenure. From her pre-meeting with John Kerry to addressing the media, Sirleaf kept her narrative consistent, while crediting her host for much of the success in the fight against Ebola.
These overtures would set the tune for the more pivotal moment - a plea to her allies to ensure support towards sustaining the momentum of the fight.
Johnson Sirleaf got more than she bargained for. President Obama was full of praise for her and even more significantly, hailing her accomplishments in not only the fight against Ebola, but the war on corruption.
Yet when it comes to corruption, even ardent supporters would agree that not much success can be claimed. The consensus was thereof that the US was perhaps overexcited by her performance in handling what would have amounted to a serious international crisis and lost the detail on Sirleaf’s domestic struggles, especially her battle with corruption.
Nonetheless, her government claims she has made lot more progress and point to the fact she has prosecuted more current and past officials for corruption than any government. They also contend that she has sought to deal more with systemic issues and institutional challenges than knocking the doors of a weak and susceptible court system. In her defense, they would cite the resuscitation of the General Auditing Agency, creation of the Internal Audit Secretariat, establishment of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and the passage in 2008 of the landmark Public Financial Management Law.
But critics insist she had been selective in dealing with the key cases and has shown cold feet in pursuing trusted allies that had been found to be involved in corruption. They cite a number of special investigations commissioned by the President with findings still gathering dust, especially where many of the key actors were close to the inner cycle.
By brushing aside the most potent argument o
f her adversaries - her battle against corruption, Obama altered the narrative.
“After a brutal civil war, she has worked steadily to solidify democracy, to reduce corruption, to deliver basic services to a very poor country. And she’s done so with grace and steadiness, and reached out to all the people of Liberia….. But what is extraordinary is because of President Sirleaf’s leadership, because of the heroism of so many people in Liberia, and because of the actions of the United States and ultimately the international community, we have made extraordinary strides in driving back Ebola.”
President Sirleaf was fully aware she was standing on a much higher pedestal than before but to imagine having those lines uttered from the chief architect of American foreign policy might have lifted a heavy weight of anxiety.
“This has had a devastating economic impact, not surprisingly, on Liberia. And so we’re going to have to work with President Sirleaf to find ways to strengthen the economy, to rebuild infrastructure, to make sure that some of the development goals that had been set previously are accelerated to deal with some of the economic contraction that requires us and others in the international community to work with our West Africa partners to ensure that growth returns to Liberia.”
Obama’s message was clear and direct. He was eager to help but with no clear blueprint on show. Analysts feared the President had missed an opportunity to push through her big ticket issues.
The Liberian delegation and the US backroom team might have missed a window to force through some tangible commitments by failing to conjure up a list of doable, practical and quick wins projects Obama would consider.
While the folks in the US administration can be credited for doing a fantastic job in setting the tone and agenda of a meeting that produced so much promise, much more would have been sealed had the delegation left in Obama’s pocket a shopping list of clear priorities and resources required to get things done.
The onus now rests on President Sirleaf and team to formulate an agenda for the US, targeting some key infrastructural development projects like the major international airport, renewable energy projects to power clinics and hospitals in rural areas, agriculture-related investments and road projects.
While both teams are said to be working around some interventions, Obama had left the door ajar and seems eager to remain engaged with Liberia - a country he can be credited for helping to save when a health crisis was out of control.
Already a team of US engineers are said to be conducting some feasibility studies on helping Liberia redesign and renovate the runway, paving way for the full rehabilitation of the airport, a key legacy project of President Sirleaf.
With a successful stopover in Washington, the President flew to Brussels to attend a pre-donor meeting ahead of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meeting in the US. In Brussels, she secured bilateral commitments and multilateral support to the Ebola response effort. But the single windfall from the US has changed the mood domestically.
With the President struggling for domestic appeal and analysts fearing a backlash from the US, it is safe to say she managed to pull the tides well in her favor. The lingering concern amongst development experts is how she keeps focus in maximizing the best possible outcomes from her recent travels abroad.
But there is no gainsaying the fact that President Sirleaf had turned what looked like a bleak prospect into a promising situation. Only time will tell, if this windfall will ease the economic impact caused by the Ebola crisis.
Culled from The Capitol Insider Magazine