Feted on the international stage, but accused of hollow promises at home

Accolade hit by accusations of political corruption as Liberian President seeks re-election


Of all the campaign billboards that crowd the road from the airport to the capital of Africa's "Lone Star State", one stands out. A determined Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stares out from above the slogan: "Monkey still working, baboon wait small." It is a new spin on an old Liberian proverb in which the President is the "monkey" who does the work and her opponents are baboons who aim to steal the benefits.

After winning the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, it might seem obvious that she will make them wait by winning re-election next week. But the reality is that Africa's only female President is fighting to stay in office. A gap has opened between how she is seen internationally, where she is feted as a heroine, and how she is perceived at home. The 72-year-old's promises ring hollow to many of Liberia's 3.5 million population who have not forgotten her vow to make corruption "public enemy No 1" when she was running in 2005. Six years later, it is widely accepted that graft is endemic and the government has done "nothing at all" about it, says Aaron Weah, of the local branch of the International Campaign for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

The auditor-general, John Morlu, delivered 64 reports on high-level graft, only one of which was followed up on by the government. When the respected Mr Morlu's term came up for renewal he found himself out of a job. "There is completely no will to prosecute corruption," says Weah. "[The President] made commitments she hasn't lived up to."

Critics point to a bloated bureaucracy stuffed with Ms Johnson Sirleaf allies that now accounts for much of the country's modest budget. Many public services are instead delivered with donor money – the US Agency for International Development's budget for Liberia is bigger than the government's. Anti-corruption campaigners are also concerned by the appointment of the President's son, Robert Sirleaf, to the board of the National Oil Company of Liberia.

The government publicly accepts there is a problem with graft but says it is making every effort to curb it and has established a national anti-corruption authority. Beyond the debilitating graft that many Liberians blame for holding back the country's recovery from 14 years of conflict, some of the most serious concerns centre on Ms Johnson Sirleaf's alleged role in those wars. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to deal with the legacy of those ruinous wars and was initially lauded for its work by Ms Johnson Sirleaf's government. After years collecting 20,000 statements, and giving a hearing to one out of every 100 Liberians, it issued its report in 2009. Ms Johnson Sirleaf faced questions at the time about her relationship with the warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor – now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. Under the constitution, she could not be compelled to appear before the commission but after outside pressure was brought to bear she waived her immunity and gave testimony in private. "We didn't care if she testified under the sea or in a forest, the important thing was that she testified," says Nathaniel Kwabo, the executive director of the TRC. Ms Johnson Sirleaf admitted to a single meeting with Mr Taylor and to making a small financial contribution to his then-rebel movement, which she later came to regard as a mistake.

She had in fact met Mr Taylor on more than one occasion and is alleged to have had a much deeper role in support of his armed group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. "There was no way, bearing in mind the evidence, to ignore the role of the President in the conflict. It was our responsibility to speak truth to power," said Mr Kwabo.

When the report was published, some people were recommended for prosecution; others who had shown adequate contrition were publicly forgiven and a third category of people was to be barred from public office for 30 years. Ms Johnson Sirleaf's name was in the last category. Her administration hastily invoked her constitutional immunity and the TRC found its recommendations largely ignored by a newly hostile government. "They took two pages of our report and ran with them," says Mr Kwabo. "Recommendations have not been taken, the actions have been cosmetic."

Misgivings in the West African nation grew further when she abandoned her promise to serve for only one term and decided to run again. Despite having very real achievements to boast of, such as the forgiveness of $4.6bn (£2.9bn) of Liberia's public debt, and lighting up Monrovia, which came to be known as the "dark city" during 17 years without electricity, Ms Johnson Sirleaf's Unity Party has faced strong opposition. A referendum in August on changes to the constitution, including an alteration to the residency qualification that would have removed any doubt about her right to run for office, became a dress rehearsal for the presidential poll. Amid a low turnout, none of the four changes were passed.

With the stakes raised, the ruling party has spent heavily to make sure its candidate wins Tuesday's ballot. Eyebrows were raised when laws were passed that award $2m of public money to the winners of Liberia's presidential and legislative elections – effectively reimbursing the costs of their campaigns.

The campaign itself has, according to one foreign observer, has been full of "mudslinging" and "dirty tricks". Pro-government media have relentlessly portrayed Ms Johnson Sirleaf's popular opponent, the former footballer George Weah, who is running for vice-president, as a warmonger.

In Monrovia, fliers have started to appear showing the one-time world footballer of the year as a criminal in handcuffs. A US monitoring group, the Carter Centre, said the conduct of the elections was "unfortunate" and noted that the opposition CDC party was refused use of the national stadium for its main campaign rally.

When Liberia's national public radio aired a press conference given by George Weah earlier this week, its director-general, Ambrose Mnah, was suspended the next morning. "It has been a very tense campaign compared with 2005," says Othello Garblah, editor of the local New Dawn newspaper.

Dr Stephen Ellis, author of Masks Of Anarchy, a history of Liberia, said Ms Johnson Sirleaf's main accomplishment was to restore the old status quo, in which a small elite that traces its roots back to the freed American slaves – lord it over the indigenous majority. "Internationally she is overrated," he says. "She's a very competent person but she gets a free ride in the international press when actually she is struggling."

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