Phoenix from the ashes of Liberian civil war
This ought to be a deserving tribute meant for only Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the out-going Liberian president, the first African woman to govern her country in that exalted capacity. This Harvard educated international financial expert had, in January 2006, risen like the phoenix from the ashes of Liberia’s politics of blood and fire, to take office as Liberia’s democratically elected president.
But in the fashion of the Nobel Peace Prize which she shared in 2011 with two other women, Leymah Gbowee, a fellow Liberian and Tawakkol Karman of Yemeni for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building in the world,” I have chosen to dedicate this tribute to her and George Weah, the president elect. Weah, you’d recall, is the world- famous footballer turned politician who, last week, beat all the odds to emerge the new Liberian president waiting to take office in less than two weeks.
Though of two different political parties, the two of them, in my view, share common values and experiences that are of tremendous lesson to so many people from so many diverse backgrounds and even so many different climes. Both of them, without any shred of doubt, share the common trait of undiluted patriotism – the love of country – and the burning desire to rebuild a country that had been wracked by civil strife, borne out of excessive ethnic hatred that led to two civil wars. Conservative estimates put the casualty figure at not less 800, 000 persons made up mostly of unarmed civilians. Women and children bore the major brunt of this carnage.
A hitherto unknown Samuel Kenyon Doe, a master sergeant in the Liberian army, had shot his way into power in April 1980 killing the president of African’s oldest republic, William Tolbert Jr. Killed with him were hundreds of the supporters of his True Whig Party.
Doe’s coup d’etat lit the tinderbox that set the country on fire and put it on the inexorable path of bloodbath. Doe, the first indigenous Liberian to rule the country, held sway first as a military head of state for five years. In 1985, he produced a constitution that paved way for an election in which he was declared winner. He was in office as president for another five years. Armed with this constitutional legitimacy to his iron-clad administration, Doe succeeded only in alienating majority of the people.
Opposition to his rule led to violent uprisings which were put down in a brutal manner – in one instance ordering the massacre of about 3000 people, all of them clansmen of Thomas Quiwonkpa, an ally turned rebel, who had attempted to topple the government. This provoked more ethnic rivalries that eventually led to the first civil war. Efforts by the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS and the United Nations brought some interlude of peace.
Such outbreak of peace, where violence and all manner of lawlessness had become routine, did not inspire confidence. In fact, it was not long before Charles Taylor’s forces crossed the border from Ivory Coast into Liberia. The clash between his forces and those of the President became more intense and President Doe was brutally killed in the process.
This provoked another civil war, prolonged carnage and human misery. It took ECOWAS and the United Nations years of diplomatic ingenuity and military interventions to get the warring factions to sign some peace accords. By the late 1996 when they signed one of such accords, Liberia was in utter ruins – no industries working, no electricity and roads were impassable. People were dying in their thousands from hunger and disease.
It was with this gory backdrop that some semblance of election was held in 1997 with Taylor, Sirleaf and many others as candidates. Sirleaf, though favoured by many people, especially women, lost narrowly to Taylor. Those who voted for Taylor, as it turned out, did so not necessarily because they believed in him. They did so out of fear – and as a sign of retribution, having had a hand in destroying the country, he must be made to fix it. So it was, ironically, the desperation of the oppressed that gave Taylor victory. But as it turned out, it was a pyrrhic victory.
Taylor, the warlord, failed to transform into Taylor, the politician and a humane administrator. He ruled the country the only way he knew how to – with iron hand, vengeance and egregious brutality, committing atrocities bordering on human rights violations. He was forced to resign in August 2003 and exiled into Nigeria. But Nigeria proved to be the wrong hiding place. One thing led to the other and he was arrested and charged at the International Court for human rights violations. He is cooling his feet in prison.
Sirleaf bade her time. Presidential election in 2005 was another opportunity for people to truly express their political feelings and their preferences. She ran with others including the country’s famous footballer. This time she won. She made history by becoming the first African woman to be elected head of state. She won not only because of her credible background – Harvard trained international finance expert, minister of finance in Tolbet government, a productive stint at the World Bank and the Citibank – but because the women in Liberia put their weight behind her. They had suffered in the hands of men; they, more others, bore the brunt of the civil war.
And she proved her mettle. She might not have turned Liberia into an economic miracle but she successfully presided over peace and tranquillity for 12 years, governing her country with grace and the rule of law. Her Noble Peace Prize, though shared with others, was not a fluke. She provided a peaceful atmosphere in which a presidential election could be held freely and fairly and a candidate from the opposition party could win fair and square.
Unlike what happens elsewhere, she did not cause the electoral body to rig the election in favour of her vice-president. Where connection and her experience matter most, she did not fail to deploy them to her country’s advantage – she successfully negotiated a debt forgiveness of $4.7 billion with international creditors. Whatever her critics may say and some have accused her of nepotism, she has truly proved to be a phoenix from the ashes of the Liberian civil war.
The single mindedness that Weah, her successor, had shown in the pursuit of his political ambition gives one the hope that he will follow the footpath of this great Mama Africa and do the Liberian youths, who invested hope and confidence in him, really proud. In his chosen career as sportsman, Weah had loomed large on the world sporting map, only falling short of playing at the World Cup.
Regarded as one of the greatest African players of all time, Weah was named FIFA World Player of the Year 1995, the only African to date to be so honoured. He was also named African Footballer of the Year three times. A man raised in one of the slumps of Liberia, Weah did not forget his roots. Single-handedly, he used his own resources to build the Liberian football team to African Cup of Nations standard. His roots have accordingly rewarded him at the polling booths.
When Sirleaf beat Weah in the 2005 presidential election, critics touted him with what they called his half- baked education. That perhaps prompted him to go back to school and fortify himself with a master’s degree in public administration, MPA, from Devry University in Miami, Florida. That is what I call determination. What is left for him to prove is an understanding and a mastery of what is required to graft together a fractious society like Liberia. Doing so will require him not to inherit the prejudices of the former warlords, but to close the numerous fault lines and reduce the cleavages in the country.
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