Chris Blattman

My take on Johnson-Sirleaf

For starters, I’m among those surprised that the Peace prize didn’t go towards more players in the Arab Spring.

I’m also among those that wonder whether the Nobel peace prize has become the Nobel prize for puppies and warm fuzzies.

But I’m also among those that hope that Sirleaf gets re-elected next Tuesday. She hasn’t been a terrifically effective executive, but she’s far, far better than the alternatives.

But a force for peace? Yes and no, but mostly yes.

Six years ago, I’d hazard that a majority of Liberians figured their country could easily slip back to war. Today, they may feel poorer than they hoped, but few see a return to conflict. A lot of people deserve credit, but this is no doubt her greatest accomplishment as President.

Before her Presidency, mostly she was been a force for peaceful political change. Mostly. There’s that pesky initial support for Charles Taylor (for which she since apologized) and there’s credible suggestions she supported a rebel uprising against Taylor in 1999. The (admittedly inept) Truth and Reconciliation Commission she formed ruled her unfit to hold office as a result.

None of these trouble me too much. Look for inculpable politicians after 14 years of civil war, and you’ll find irrelevant expatriates. But it should have given a little peace prize pause.

With an election next week, what do we need to know about her as President?

Beyond solidifying peace, she can count debt relief and roads among her big successes. Outsiders fault her for being weak on corruption, but I say good governance takes a generation and not a Presidency to see real change.

I think her weaknesses are most apparent when you look at the persistent power problem. Eight years since peace and there’s not even a single and coherent plan to rebuild the hydro plants. The nation is run on generators. If you want a reason for a stagnant economy, that is a major culprit.

It’s less the power issue itself than what it symbolizes–difficulty finding focus and getting things done. I can’t shake the feeling that she spent more time getting feted international, and running a US book tour, than the big issues at home.

I nitpick a little. She has been solid and principled since she entered office, and strikes me as the best leader on the table. I will not be surprised to see her win the first round of the election next week. Let’s hope for a peaceful one.

11 Responses

  1. @Ellen Knickmeyer: truly juvenile allegations. Carry on, Chris.

    I share the concerns of others. The Nobel Committee has tarnished its credibility with the conspicuous timing of the EJS prize and the timing/weirdness of the Obama prize.

    And why the triple prize this time? It’s not like in Physics or Chemistry where three people can share for contributing to a particular innovation. These two country contexts are two different struggles.

    1. just to correct myself somewhat, it turns out the nobel comes out on a pre-designated day and couldn’t have been timed to benefit EJS?

  2. It’s warm and fuzzy because it went to women, including an Arab activist? If that’s not what you meant, what did you mean?

    1. I hope I’ve established a little more credibility than that.

      In the past few years the prize has gone to a climate control panel, a micro-finance founder, an environmental activist, and Obama.

      The prize is supposedly supposed to go to “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

      I’m all for wide definitions of peace, but all these seem like a stretch. The micro-finance and Obama ones are, in retrospect, even kind of embarrassing (and I am a fan of both). The prizes to El Baradei and Xiaobo and Carter make a little more sense.

      The others? Just saying they have a little more in common with puppies than peace.

  3. Chris, very well put (though I would be a little more generous to her. For many of us she’s a symbol beyond her individual actions as president).
    On your last point, the government actually has many hydroplats plans, but not the money to fund them. I have sat through at least 2 presentations in which the ministry of planning pitched their calculations to the international community. To no avail. Is it that multilateral orgs are moving away from the big industrial-style era projects? Puzzling, as this is one of the main binding constraints to Liberia’s growht at the moment.

    1. Sirleaf has made a contribution to peace, but I would actually say it’s the Liberian people’s act of voting in someone like her that did more for peace than her per se. Her performance in office has been average at best, and it’s difficult to point to any major action she’s taken in office to promote regional or domestic peace.

  4. wow, I prefer to look at Sirleaf as a representative of Africa’s women and participation in peace and democratic governance. It takes years to build a country, and I believe Liberia is headed in the right direction. Considering a country that was once ravaged by war and perhaps very little hope of development, it does matter that Liberia’s ‘power’ runs on Generators, and so does Nigeria, Africa’s giant. I hope that the prize shudders Sirleaf Johnson to act ‘right’ in the face of the world-for the love of Liberians and other neighbouring West African countries that are recovering from conflict or are facing possibilities of conflicts within and across borders. We cannot underscore the role of African woman in the region’s search for peace and her participation in democratic governance. Kudos to Sirleaf! we are watching….

  5. Can the Nobel Committee really not be aware of the at least appearance of attempting to influencing the election in four days? Can we really conclude that the prize’s announcement won’t have any effect on the election? Is doesn’t seem to concern them.

    While awareness of the existence of the Nobel Peace Prize among the Liberian public may probably be quite low, the timing of this announcement fuels the on-going conspiracies that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2005 run-off win, and next week’s possible re-election, are unfairly favored, influenced, controlled, or pre-determined by the international community. That is not helpful, and makes the timing unfortunate.

    1. I told Chris I was going to refrain from commenting because I usually think it does little. However I simply can’t help myself…

      All I can say as a preface is I spent a year in Liberia following the three main candidates in Liberia during the 2005 race- George Weah, EJS and Charles Brumskine.

      I can tell you a few things:
      1. @Matt Jones -“Fuels conspiracies”. No conspiracies with 2005. The math of the 2nd round does not add up. In my view EJS should have an asterisk next to her name like Barry Bonds (if he ever makes it into the HOF). 28.3 to 19.8% in Rd. 1 to Weah. 10% a big lead in two person race. In 22 candidate race it’s huge. 3 weeks later 60-40 to Ellen. 1st Rd EJS places 6th in critical Nimba Cty. SIXTH!!!! Day one of Round 2 – DAY ONE – Rumor comes out that George Weah is nominating two mass murderers to his cabinet. Two mass murders that slaughtered thousands of people in Nimba County. 2nd Round Results??? 77.1 to 22.9%. In 3 weeks. Not a word from Ellen putting down the crazy “leaflet” rumor. Not a peep. (Nobel eh????)
      With 2nd round attendance officially listed at 14% down from the very successful first round. B.S. It was down 50% or more. Star Radio, NEC Press Conferences, Alan Doss all lamenting at the terrible turnout. And that worked both ways by the way…so not some G.W. conspiracy theory here. The numbers don’t lie. The problem is no one is paying attention to the numbers. No one is paying attention period.

      Further…. head of Elections Commission is immediately named to EJS cabinet as Minister of Justice. Good people if this was any other African leader or Taylor or Obasanjo or Weah or Zuma or insert African leader here would people accept it as freely as they have with EJS? Would they accept the above hard numbers so freely?

      2. EJS is going to lose this election on Tuesday. You heard it hear first. CDC wins first round and 2nd round everyone (Mason, Brumskine, PYJ) all rally around CDC. For good or ill.

      Out on a limb but I am hearing this from exceptional sources outside of CDC. This coupled with the fact that Ellen has done nothing despite what nobel and smart people like Chris say. Debt Forgiveness? Really? Started under the corrupt and inept NTGL to move GEMAP forward. EJS spoke out against GEMAP during ’05 campaign. From Bono to the Pope and everyone in between have been lobbying intensely for this issue. An issue that was sure to be relieved as their was absolutely no other solution for debtor or creditor. It simply had to be done in a politically palatable way. You wouldn’t be doing it with Doe or Taylor for instance. But that should not give kudos to EJS.

      Highly respected First minister of Finance left 1.5 years into EJS’s term. Why? It is said b/c EJS would not put out lucrative (and corrupt as hell) Maritime contract out to public bid. Don’t believe me. Please read the information from the U.S. Dept of Justice. $30,000,000 PAID by the Republic of Liberia to LISCR, LLC. In six months of 2010!!! For Lobbying Services. Yoram Cohen’s group who was brought in by Charles Taylor. I quote her extensively from her book and documentation from U.S. Foreign Registration Act semi-annual reports. Do not believe me or trust this writing. See for yourself here…

      3. Trust me when I tell you that EJS has been behind every major civil conflict in Liberia’s history since the Quinkwonkpa coup of 1985. Think she only gave 10K to Taylor as support? Then please read both the excerpts from her book compared and contrasted to what she said to the U.S. Congress Subcommitee on Africa – June 19, 1990. Find it here….

      4. Mark my words – if violence erupts on Tuesday or between the elections look for the following in the Liberian papers – especially Front Page Africa and the new democrat: “CDC Hooligans” “George Weah incites”

      Never mind that George Weah calmed his supporters in 2005 so a precursor to the Kenyan elections of 2006 didn’t come about. He said “You brought me on board because I represent peace…you need to trust me. Do not go out on the streets and riot.” The kids marched peacefully (I was there)…singing “I’m no the battlefield for my rights…I don’t fear no AK I don’t fear no tear gas…I am on the battlefield for my rights”. Then the Jordanian police came out from the U.S. Embassy and went to town on the protestors. The protestors threw rocks at the Jordanian police in defense. Sirleaf says in her book that these protestors were throwing rocks at the U.S. Embassy. Lies and distortions of the truth…some small, some big. All to serve one goal.

      Hoping for peace on Tuesday and thereafter. And hope whoever takes the reigns they take to heart the answer George Weah gave to the BBC in 2005 when he described what he would do in his first 100 days….

      “First we are going to preach about peace and reconciliation. We are going to bring together all of the stakeholders, warring factions, congo/natives and we are going to figure out a way to heal and reconcile. One’s we do that THEN we can begin thinking about development”

      This is the foundation that Liberia needs to build upon. We can all put away our texts and fancy charts and lingo. The problems of Liberia have been clear for over 150 years. It’s time to get the foundation right…then build from there.

      Thanks for enduring this post (if you made it this far)

  6. Well, I am pretty sure the does not care much for the Blattman prize. That being said, the challenges that any nascent democracy face in the developing world run much deeper than any cursory analysis of her leadership style or priorities can convey. For a country like Liberia, getting people out of war mode into a state where they are ready to be part of the nation is quite a big deal. And for power, having a coherent plan does not necessarily mean its gonna get done. Ask my people in Nigeria. Personally, I think it does not matter much who wins the Nobel Peace Prize… until you win it, of course, since then you would have won both.

  7. How will the award impact the election? While I wouldn’t suggest that the Nobel Committee is meddling in Liberian politics, the timing is very convenient for President Johnson.

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