News flash: there are no angels and demons in politics

Liberia’s lady President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been banned from public office. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report yesterday, concluding that Sirleaf be barred from politics.

Sirleaf is the latest darling of the aid community (Museveni and Zenawi: remember when?). Said aid community is, for the most part, stunned. Even Kristof is at a rare loss for words.

Should they be so surprised?

Sirleaf openly supported at least two rebel movements — Charles Taylor’s attempt to overthrow President Doe in 1989, and LURD’s invasion to oust Charles Taylor a decade later. The TRC is condemning these actions–not something you’d expect human rights advocates to disbelieve, let alone protest.

Of course, it’s not clear that there is a Liberian over the age of six who hasn’t supported one rebel group or another the past twenty years. If they were all banned from politics, there wouldn’t be a local left to run the place.

Not that it matters. The TRC has no teeth. I don’t know the legal details, but the idea that the Commission can bar the President from politics seems laughable. Oh, did I mention that the TRC judges (a) laughably bad at their job, and (b) have political interests themselves?

But was dear Ellen unjustly maligned? Please. The outside world paints Sirleaf as an angel and Charles Taylor as a demon. Black and white politics are easy to digest. But there are no angels or demons in politics anywhere, least of all Liberia. Ellen is not the noble cherub you think. Taylor is not the black devil you fear. The truth of the matter, as always, is more subtle.

The real pity? The TRC recommended prosecution of some of the more devilish-leaning Liberians (of which Ellen is not one). It’s hard to believe her government can push these prosecutions while denouncing and dodging the ban against Ellen (as I am sure they will). Whether political or idealistic, the TRC’s decision is dangerous and naive.

The fallout is hard to predict. Her reelection in 2011 just became more challenging. And that is scary.

All the things that Ellen promised to do, all the things that would prevent another dictator from assuming power and ethnic groups clashing again in war–from ending the imperial Presidency, to empowering the anti-corruption commission, to pushing land reform–remain undone. The country is fragile as ever, and no more safe from an autocrat or warlord than it was five or fifteen or fifty years ago.

Having failed to groom a successor or build her party beyond her own personality, she sees herself as the only hope for the country. She is correct, but only because of her own broken promises.

9 thoughts on “News flash: there are no angels and demons in politics

  1. (1) No African politician is angel.

    (2) Some African politicians far worse than others.

    (3) Western politicians really dumb (Exhibit A: Sanford).

    (4) Less devilish African politicians must be painted as angels to keep dumb western public servants interested in funding African aid.

    (5) Reporters and academics get to look hardboiled by pointing out (1) and suggesting that there is a more nefarious agenda behind (4).. like world imperial domination by… Save Darfur and Enough…

    (6) Dumb western politicians get to look hardboiled by pointing out to reporters that they can make distinctions between the bad and the truly bad. (The classic quote: "It's a tough neighborhood over there.")

    Of course, there is also a completely different set of possibilities. Powerful people have interest in making sure all persons with potential political power are taintable. Reporters and academics too cynical to see an honest person standing in front of them, and follow. Consequence: Few honest social movements in the bottom billion. This is the Rodrigo Rosenberg argument. But he was probably just a drug-dealer defense lawyer, too.


  2. Excellent points. VOA now reporting that the Liberian TRC has retracted the report that she's banned from public office.

  3. Dumb western politicians still manage to be even dumber about Africa than they are about the rest of the world. U.S. politicians have belatedly recognized that peering into Putin's soul or putting all its eggs in Musharraf's basket were lousy approaches to foreign policy.

    And yet in Africa the U.S. is still conducting a personality-driven policy with folks like Museveni, Kagame, Meles, and yes, even Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, at the expense of institutional reform. Sigh.

  4. I was with you until the last sentence. I've been in cabinet meetings with her, and she's got nobody to turn to. Most presidents you'd assume they'd have a team of trusted advisors whispering into their ear, helping her to field questions. In the case of Liberia, she's out there alone, and frankly the cabinet itself is pretty thin on talent. the problem, as you point out, is that everyone is guilty of something in Liberia, and it's hard to find anyone of substance who doesn't live in Minneapolis or Baltimore by now. To the extent she could, I see EJS as having delivered pretty well on what she promised given the abysmal capacity problems, generalized trauma, and threats to her security.

  5. @Josh: I keep meeting talented and smart Ministers and deputy Ministers, so I don't think the talent is so thin here. The question is whether they are willing to relinquish power, something that so many of the key reforms require. Amos Sawyer (whom I confess is a friend) is doing more than whisper in her ear about the decentralization, anti-corruption, and land reform efforts. He is a brilliant political scientist, experienced activist, and a former President. She is not wanting for good advice, but rather is failing to follow through. The reasons for that I don't know, but I suspect that much of the reluctance comes from within–power always seems easier to share when you don't have it, and corruption easier to tackle when you aren't in charge. But I hoped for more.

  6. am in LIB now. in my unscientific poll of 4 people who were not even polled but who voluntarily said these things (1 from govt, two from NGOs and 1 farmer in Lofa), Amos Sawyer should have been on the list of people who are banned from running for office. he was specifically named by people who were not asked to name anyone in particular.

  7. but the whole TRC idea of banning ppl from running for office has been arbitrary and without any particular standard. if the commission thinks that this is a viable course of action, it needs to empower the electoral commission to create standards and judge each and every candidate by the same standard.

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