Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ripped from the International Headlines: Nobel Peace Prize Winner Seeks Reelection

The last 72 hours started on Friday morning with the bombshell announcement of President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee's Nobel awards, and is now wrapping up under a late rainy season Sunday evening thunder-downpour as crowds clear out of the streets and stadiums from the last official day of campaigning.

Twitter blew-up early Friday morning after the Nobel announcement, with a wide range of messages, many excited congratulations, but some reacted with a bit more caution:

@penelopeinparis, Penelope Chester, went on to file a post in UN Dispatch: Could the Nobel Peace Prize Hurt Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Changes at Re-Election Next Week? which incorporated a more nuanced reflection of the counter-intuitive liability of the win:

The reactions concerning Sirleaf’s award have been mixed, however. While many believe that this is a great day for Liberia, some are concerned that the timing of the prize actually plays against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s re-election bid, a mere four days away. Indeed, among Liberians, there is a persistent notion that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not truly dedicated to the welfare of her country.

There are a number of reasons for this: the Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission put her on a list of individuals who should be barred from public office because of their role in the civil war. In Sirleaf’s case, it had to do with her early support for Charles Taylor at the beginning of the war...

On Twitter, expats based in Monrovia see the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize as bad news for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Some argue that this will play in the hands of the opposition...

To a remarkable degree, the torrent of global press that followed over the weekend repeat much the same story. While, many foreign journalists covering the elections seem to be familiar with the reality that Sirleaf's international celebrity plays very differently here in Liberia, but others seem to have startled by this aspect, treating it as a late-breaking development:

Reuters: Liberian Vote a Stress Test for Fragile Gains

But her critics have said the prize is evidence only of her international fame -- not her domestic record, which includes controversy over her temporary support to a rebellion by notorious warlord Charles Taylor against ex-president Samuel Doe and impatience with the slow pace of reconstruction.

New York Times: Prize or Not, Liberian Faces Tough Race to Keep in Office filed by Adam Nossiter:

But analysts say more tangible benefits are harder to pin down. Corruption “remains pervasive at all levels” amid “widespread claims of malfeasance in government circles,” a recent report on Liberia by the International Crisis Group noted.

A leading anticorruption official was not reappointed, and Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has ignored a report by a commission set up to investigate crimes committed during the war. It recommended that she be banned from office for 30 years because of her early involvement with the warlord Charles Taylor, which she later said she regretted. There have been no prosecutions, rankling many voters.

The Associated Press: Nobel-Prize Winning Sirleaf to face stiff Competition at Tuesday's polls, as published in the Washington Post:

Pervasive corruption, criminality and the slow progress of national reconciliation have undercut her support on the home front, critics say...

Sirleaf also sidestepped last year’s recommendations from a South-African-styled Truth and Reconciliation Commission that said she should be banned from public office for 30 years for her early financial support of former rebel leader Charles Taylor. Taylor is currently awaiting judgment from the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.

AFP: Nobel Power Marks Feverish End of Liberia poll campaign [sic?] by Fran Blandy:

Despite ushering in much-needed foreign investment and getting billions of dollars in debt-relief, Sirleaf is criticised for failing to implement the recommendations of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report naming her on a list of people who should be banned from public office for 30 years for backing warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor.

The Independent: Feted on the International Stage, but Accused of Hollow Promises At Home. Filed by Daniel Howden:

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...Ms Johnson Sirleaf faced questions at the time about her relationship with the warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor...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...

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.

While all this background is certainly important context, it is misleading to cite the TRC report and Taylor history as any sort of significant liability that Sirleaf has had to overcome to win. Sirleaf's explanation of her support for Taylor seems adequate enough: she thought Taylor was the right option at the time, and like many was desperate to get rid of Doe.

To say that she should be disqualified from office because she supported Taylor completely disregards how widespread support for Taylor always has been, and still is. For all the perhaps-unfortunate, inconclusive manner in which the report was unceremoniously shelved, that is simply not a topic that is very common to hear anyone in Monrovia bring up as a factor in which party or candidate they support.

Equally incorrect is the concept that the Nobel Prize would reverberate quickly through the electorate, shifting voter opinion. While it is a potential point of argument which is totally unhelpful in such a fragile environment as the election period will be, it is not being internalized by the populace. No need to repeat what I said with brevity on twitter:

The major obstacles that Sirleaf faces, as many of this weekend's articles make a point to mention, if not properly emphasize, is that such an overwhelming majority of Liberians exist in jobless misery, with the daily prospect of just finding enough resources for a single meal posing a significant challenge, aside from accessing other basics such as healthcare, sanitation, or a minimally decent education.

The daily reality of this struggle is exacerbated by the twin evils of endemic corruption and a wide inequality that still rests of the foundations of a dangerously divided nationhood. People's lives are remarkably similar to what they were in 2005, and for that matter in 2003, 1997, 1990 or 1980. The last six years haven't significantly changed that, and although it can be strongly argued that the disease of corruption is difficult to eradicate, many citizens of this country, in their daily dealings with the police, the courts, schools, and government, see no significant improvement during her time in office. This is why President Sirleaf's re-election, as sensible as it seems from afar, is so uncertain here on the ground.

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