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The plot to oust Liberia's leading lady

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf could be barred from office because of her links to a warlord

Claire Soares
Wednesday 08 July 2009 00:00 BST

Africa's first female president was propelled to power on a tide of democratic passion from voters eager to turn the page on the years of civil carnage. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was hailed as the woman whose level head and calm, almost grandmotherly, demeanour would help Liberia quietly rebuild and prosper. Now the bloody past is coming back to haunt her.

The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) this week recommended that the President be barred from holding public office because of her wartime conduct. The move has shocked the West African nation, where Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf still enjoys huge popularity, and speculation is already swirling that this is not a case of Liberia's leading lady being unmasked as a villain, but rather Machiavellian political manoeuvring ahead of the 2011 elections.

"She has her enemies and her rivals, and they have been sufficiently influential to get this recommendation included," said Stephen Ellis, a veteran Liberia watcher and the author of The Mask of Anarchy. "She has a major political fight looming now. If the recommendation is taken up by parliament and becomes law, then of course she's in real trouble."

The House of Representatives will meet tomorrow to consider the TRC report, which has been three years in the making. Its most contentious aspect is the name listed at No 12 on the List of Persons Recommended for Public Sanctions. Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf is one of 50 people accused of being the "financiers and political leaders of the different warring factions".

She has made no secret of the fact that she initially supported the 1989 Christmas Eve rebellion by Charles Taylor, giving him food, visiting him at his hideouts and donating $10,000 (£6,100) to his cause.

Like much of the political elite at the time, she wanted an end to the eight-year reign of terror of Samuel Doe, a sergeant turned coup leader turned dictator. And like much of the political elite, within months she realised she had made a serious miscalculation: Mr Taylor was not a puppet to be controlled. Liberia and the wider West African region would end up being convulsed by back-to-back wars for more than a decade.

Testifying before the TRC in the capital Monrovia in February, she was open and contrite about her mistakes: "If there is anything that I need to apologise for to this nation, it is to apologise for being fooled by Mr Taylor in giving any kind of support to him. I feel it in my conscience. I feel it every day."

Yesterday, the presidential spokesman Cyrus Badio said Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf was reviewing the report and would comment once she had digested it: "Of course, we were surprised by the recommendation, but our focus is our work to move this country forward in a united fashion."

The TRC began its hearings in 2006, inviting victims and perpetrators to retell their versions of events during the devastating war years, in a system modelled on the post-apartheid reconciliation efforts in South Africa.

The commission chairman, Jerome Verdier, said he stood by his recommendations. "Our consciences are clear, we did our work honestly," he said. "If we hadn't recommended what we did, we would not have been helping Liberia's reconciliation, we would not have been doing our part to heal the wounds of war. If people do not see this now, they will come to realise it in future."

But inside the reconciliation commission, it appeared there were still issues to reconcile. Pearl Bull, one of the nine panel members, refused to sign off on the final report because "it was an attempt by certain people within and without to stop Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf running for re-election".

After Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf – an economist who waited tables to put herself through Harvard – beat the former AC Milan and Chelsea footballer George Weah in the post-war election in 2005, she vowed to be a one-term president. But diplomats note that the 70-year-old has been eschewing such definitive statements, fuelling speculation that she might stand in 2011.

Yesterday came the first calls for the President to stand down. Acarious Gray, the assistant secretary general of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change said that "the presidency has been brought into public disrepute".

International donors have been largely impressed with Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf's can-do attitude over the past three-and-a-half years. An overflowing in-tray greeted the President when she took office after Liberia's 14-year civil war, which had reduced a resource-rich country to rubble. Now, the security situation has stabilised (but there are still 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the country) and the government is digging itself out of its pit of foreign debt. Progress has been made in regulating the rubber, timber and diamond trade and the World Bank last month praised Liberia for improvement in controlling corruption.

Events of the past few days have given rise to fears that the country might be about to take a couple of steps backwards, unravelling the delicate progress that Liberians affectionately term "slow-slow". However, anyone tempted to write the political obituary of Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, should consider two things. Her powers of endurance over the decades earned her the nickname "Iron Lady". And one of her anthems when she was campaigning for office was: "I am a woman, hear me roar." It might soon be time for her rivals to cover their ears.

Charles Taylor: War crimes suspect

Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor is on trial in The Hague for his part in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war during which 250,000 people were killed. He is accused of backing rebels in return for diamonds, and faces 11 counts of war crimes, including for murder and rape. He denies the charges and is due to take his place on the stand as the defence's first witness next week. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also recommended that he be prosecuted for his role in his own country's civil war. He launched a rebellion against President Samuel Doe in 1989 and went on to win in 1997. He was eventually forced into exile in 2003.

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