Sirleaf: A controversial laureate?

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is by no means a saint – but she still deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
‘In Liberia, people on the street used to call Sirleaf a “warlord”, citing her association with Charles Taylor’ [EPA]

Widely admired and celebrated abroad, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has an international profile that is the envy of many a public figure. Awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize has only cemented her celebrity status on the political circuit. Yet unlike her fellow co-winners Leymah Gbowee (also of Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (Yemen), “Ma Ellen” has a past linking her to a violent rebel movement and since 2006, she has led an administration plagued by corruption. Even though she has been received with adulation overseas since she was first elected, she has always gotten a much tougher reception at home. These contrasts will be brought into sharp relief on Tuesday as Liberians return to the polls for national elections and Sirleaf fights for her political life.

In Liberia, people on the street used to call Sirleaf a “warlord”, citing her association with Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. This was because Sirleaf was once the International Coordinator for the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), raising money to oust former strongman Samuel Doe from power. During the civil war, NPFL fighters perpetrated horrific atrocities and staged violent spectacles, the aftershocks of which are still felt today.

For her part, Sirleaf has admitted in her memoirs and in testimony to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she supported Taylor through the 1980s but claimed not to have known his true intentions. She said that she had been “fooled” by him and had publicly asked the NPFL to end the civil war. And while she did eventually break her ties with Taylor, most Liberians still believe that she played a more active role in the NPFL than she has so far admitted to.

This is important because the Nobel Committee’s citation specifically mentioned “non-violent struggle” and “peace-building work”. Even though this commendation was referring to her support of women’s rights during her tenure as president, her past links to Charles Taylor and the violence perpetrated by the NPFL should not be glossed over in the post-Nobel period.

Sirleaf’s administration has also been consumed by one corruption scandal after another during her six years in office. Twenty-one members of her government have had to resign for corrupt behaviour and still others have been accused, but have kept their jobs. Problems with corruption are not in themselves surprising. Corruption runs deep in Liberia’s political system. It permeates the police force, the courts, the business community, and even the education system.

As president, Sirleaf has very publicly made the fight against corruption a top priority, but in doing so, she has had to work against the grain of her society’s institutions. Although it may be difficult for a Western audience to appreciate this, the very fact that she has not been rocked by a corruption scandal herself is remarkable. This is a marked change from every single one of her presidential predecessors. In the context of Liberian politics, remaining corruption- and scandal-free is itself a significant achievement.

[Sirleaf’s] focus on women’s rights began on Day 1 of her presidency, when she discussed the taboo issue of rape in her inauguration speech.

Just as important is the fact that Sirleaf has allowed a culture of open political discussion to emerge. It is now possible to publicly criticise the president and her administration without fear of reprisal. She has even passed a law to protect whistleblowers. These are remarkable changes, shifting the post-war dynamics of the country away from violence and towards dialogue (rancorous though it might be).

This is not to say that Sirleaf’s record on transparency and accountability is spotless. She has parted company with Auditor-General John Morlu, the strongest and most competent anti-corruption advocate that Liberia has ever seen. And she has appointed four members of her own family into executive positions and broken her own promise to remain a one-term president. These decisions do not bode well for her next presidential term, if she is re-elected.

Still, none of these experiences take away from her advocacy efforts on behalf of Liberian women. Her focus on women’s rights began on Day 1 of her presidency, when she discussed the taboo issue of rape in her inauguration speech. Although a significant proportion of women have been sexually assaulted during the civil war, rape was still seen as a private matter. Confronting this problem so frankly and starkly on such an important occasion placed women at the center of her presidency.

Sirleaf subsequently set up special courts to prosecute sexual assault cases, hoping to encourage victims to press charges against rapists in a country where $2 is often enough to buy a woman’s silence. Not surprisingly, these courts have not been successful in prosecuting rape cases. But Sirleaf still deserves credit for laying the foundation for a change in attitudes towards women. The fact that the president herself has admitted to being a victim of attempted rape and a survivor of domestic abuse has opened up a space for dialogue where none existed before.

She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

– Desmond Tutu

So despite her complicated past and the significant problems of her administration, Ellen, as she is referred to in Liberia, has still had an extraordinary first term as president. When she was elected in 2005, she inherited a broken and violent society, a crushing debt burden, and a devastated infrastructure. Since 2005, society’s wounds have slowly been healing, the debt has virtually been eliminated, and the country has been gradually rebuilding from the ground up. Substantial challenges still remain, especially with extreme poverty and a youth unemployment rate of 70-80 per cent.

Is she a saint? No. Did she deserve the Nobel Prize? Absolutely.

In the words of Desmond Tutu: “She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

Dr Christine Cheng is the Boskey Fellow in Politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She co-edited Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (Routledge) and is currently writing a book about Liberia’s post-conflict transition. She blogs at

A version of this article was originally published on RealClearWorld.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.