Whenever Sirleaf reflects on her two consecutive terms in office, she would probably agree that most of the decisions and choices she made were largely defined by existential circumstances far beyond her control. Nevertheless, as is typical of a first-term President on the first leg of her administration, Sirleaf was anxious to try and eager to deliver on the huge public expectations amid limited resources and mounting capacity challenges.
There were problems simply impossible to solve, some setbacks inevitable, and opportunities falling through the cracks. Truth be told, the President’s agenda, even for the first 150 days, was overloaded with promises, many of which were simply over-ambitious.
Her supporters make the case consistently that she inherited a pariah nation, saddled with debt and with virtually zero infrastructure. No system, no processes, no human capital - such was the magnitude and scale of Sirleaf’s post-election challenge.
On account of the magnitude of the challenge, the desolate state of the country and the obstructive politics she was made to endure, her legacy must be situated within a unique context rather than a grading system that sees the glass half empty than full, at least according to her supporters.
The President’s critics argue the exact opposite; that she knew the scale of the problem when making the solemn pledge to fix the country she inherited. She acknowledged in 2005 at her inauguration: “…It is therefore understandable that our people will have high expectations and will demand aggressive solutions to the socioeconomic and societal difficulties that we face. Our record and experience show clearly that we are a strong and resilient people, able to survive; able to rise from the ashes of civil strife and to start anew; able to forge a new beginning, forgiving if not forgetting the past.”
For the historical minded and the neutrals alike, Presidents do define their term by pronouncements they make and the choices they follow. As such, it is thus required that any assessment of Sirleaf’s performance must be articulated in consonance with her own words and the legacy left in its wake.
The legacy debate has dominated her agenda in the last few years and the President is by no means under any illusion that she has delivered on all her promises. But in judging Sirleaf, pundits will naturally try to look at her success from the perspective of what Liberia was before she started the journey of restoring the country to normalcy. Considering all the ills and challenges she inherited, historians could be kind when sketching her path through the pages.
Like most post-conflict countries, Liberia’s immediate challenge was to deal with the stockpile of debt it had incurred over the years to have any possibility of accelerating its development. Said Sirleaf in 2005: “We will formulate a multi-year economic reconstruction plan tied to a Poverty Reduction Strategy Program that relieves our country from a staggering US$3.5 billion external debt and paves the way for acceleration in our national effort to make more progress in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.”
The path to debt relief or HIPC would be long, boring and onerous. It was only in 2009 and early 2010 that the country reached the HIPC completion point and was deemed debt free, due in no small measure to the audacious leadership of the Liberian leader.
Sirleaf’s foreign policy can also easily be ranked as one of her key successes, wherein she effectively changed her country’s perception in the eyes of the international community through her stellar leadership. On the continent and beyond, she had found the right opportunities to bring to bear her knowledge of international diplomacy by breathing life into processes such as the High Level Panel on the post-MDGs, the African Peer Review Mechanism and Africa Common Position.
She promised and delivered on key governance reforms by rationalizing a number of agencies and ensuring they are efficient and responsive to public service delivery. Most of these reforms were slow but the overall success and effectiveness deserve credit. But of all the governance reforms, the civil service has been the most contentious. Though the Civil Service Agency (CSA) has been working to modernize the sector, challenges still remain. But President Sirleaf also didn’t deceive when she said “it may take us some time to achieve this objective given our inheritance of a bloated and poorly paid civil service for which there are currently salary and benefit arrears totaling some US$20 million.”
Most importantly, the Sirleaf administration oversaw credibly conducted and peaceful democratic elections in 2011. Although the country is still far off as far as rule of law is concerned, investments in the judiciary have seen an upsurge in court cases and a more vibrant public litigation program. The court itself has undergone fundamental changes but corruption in the judiciary remains pervasive.
Her unflappable and courageous handling of Ebola is certainly an accolade she did not anticipate but will be recorded as one moment she made amends with a restive and distrust citizenry.
On the flip side, President Sirleaf is still struggling to translate the over 16 billion US Dollars investments into meaningful employment for the vast majority of the country’s impoverished citizens. She must convince the script writers she has worked the fundamentals to conclusion in attracting these investments in the first place.
It is very easy to discredit her administration on the poverty reduction front, by citing the “less than one dollar a day” World Bank poverty measurement. But on account of the UNDP Human Development Index, she has overseen steady progress since 2005, with a 25% increase in its ranking. All the great signs are that the country is making progress but with little to cheer for the hundreds of thousands that seek opportunities to work and make a living.
Also, Sirleaf’s failure to plot an aggressive job creation strategy will probably rank amongst her chief under-achievements and the tendency that her big investments could be lost to memory due to the daily hardship faced by households is a scaring but strong possibility.
While there has been a lot of cry over jobs, however, the reality is that the population has been so poorly equipped to take advantage of the jobs available. As the war disrupted the education system, a lot was thrown behind, with significant numbers of adults poorly skilled and woefully unprepared for the labor market.
The problem with job creation is finding the right mix of policies and actions to address the binding constraints to growth while at the same time reviving the private sector to stimulate the jobs in the economy. With energy and roads only gaining steam in the later part of her first term, it was always going to be a struggle in delivering shared prosperity.
But jobs aside, it must be stated that she has kept a whole host of promises. Liberia has overseen credibly conducted elections and peaceful democratic transitions since her tenure.
Domestically, she has struggled to bring the population closer, as toxic partisan politics has simply failed to evaporate after successive elections. The divisions within the country have not been aided by the slow pace of reconciliatory efforts as prescribed under the roadmap for national reconciliation. But the President alone cannot take all the blame as key sectors of the country and the moral guarantors of our body politic have themselves failed to seize the mantle.
Despite the upside and downside, Sirleaf’s final narrative will depend on what happens in the last few years of her leadership, as a few big ticket investments she had overseen come on line. Her critics should not write her off yet. For example, switching on the Mount Coffee Hydro Power in 2016; connecting the Ganta Highway to the Tappita Hospital and other parts of southeastern Liberia, and erecting a new Terminal Building at the Roberts International Airport could end up increasing the President’s rating in the dying days of her administration.
So, in the end, how will Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleeaf, Liberia’s 23rd President and only female elected Head of State be remembered?
On balance, Sirleaf’s presidency was less transformative than her supporters hoped it would be. But given the near total collapse of a country she inherited and the size of the budget envelop she was handed, not a single one of her rivals could have achieved what she did so far.
It is impossible to imagine how any of the country’s political leaders could have bettered her records across all governance indicators even if they were to have more lucrative budget envelops.
It will be worth reserving a judicious assessment of her performance till when the grades are up in 2023, after the first term of her successor. But from the general look of things, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has changed the direction of a nation that was headed for the abyss and raised hope that there is a better and brighter future.