In Liberia, dignity in the struggle for progress
Occasionally, from unimaginable horror emerges something else once unimaginable: hope. Liberia’s recent election represents one of those occasions.
Last month, Liberians saw their democratically elected president hand power to her democratically elected successor. It was the country’s first peaceful transfer of power in nearly 75 years, but even more momentous was that it came just a decade and a half after a brutal civil war, and only a few years after a deadly pandemic halted its economic recovery and threatened to undermine years of progress.
A feeling of instability and uncertainty pervades many western countries today. Nations whose democracies seemed unshakeable and whose security was long taken for granted are rethinking the stability of those foundations. Yet the challenges Liberia has overcome — an effort led largely by the country’s women — offers reason for optimism even when forecasts are ominous. Liberian democracy shows that progress is always possible. And it serves as a timely reminder of the human dignity inherent in the struggle for that progress.
The brutality of Liberia’s civil war was nearly incomprehensible. Over fourteen years of violence, some 70 percent of the country’s women were raped. Nearly 250,000 Liberians were killed. An estimated 90 percent of the country’s economy was destroyed. As author and journalist Helene Cooper describes vividly in Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian children were transformed into soldiers who, high on drugs and propaganda, rampaged their country and sometimes even their own homes. As Sirleaf told Foreign Policy last fall, “I don’t think people understand the awesomeness of the destruction of this county — its institutions, its infrastructure, its law, its morals.”
That Liberia held free and fair elections just two years after the end of the war is a testament to its citizens’ resilience and determination — especially that of its women.
It was Liberian women who strung together and sustained the few remaining threads of society through more than a decade of violence, and it was Liberian women whose peaceful protests helped end it. It was Liberian women who led the “Vote for Woman” campaign that helped elect, and reelect, Africa’s first female head-of-state. It was Liberian women who made that election possible by canvassing their country to register voters, ultimately signing up close to half the country’s population.
Raising awareness. Building faith in the electoral process. Canvassing homes and markets to register voters and get them to the polls. Against all odds, Liberians undertook the exhausting, unglamorous work of democracy, and it worked. It’s still working today.
The story of Liberia’s recovery is inseparable from the leadership of its two-term, Nobel Prize-winning president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf’s accomplishments were both symbolic, as a woman who led a country destroyed by men, and tangible, as a technocrat whose international experience and savvy helped eliminate Liberia’s foreign debts. To put it more simply, as one Liberian woman told the BBC last fall, “The best thing she did is the peace she kept for us.” The legacy of Ma Ellen, as Sirleaf is known, was cemented last month with the peaceful transition to her successor, George Weah.
That legacy is not without blemishes. Throughout her twelve years in office, she was dogged by charges of nepotism for bringing her sons into her cabinet. In 2010, she walked back a pledge to serve only one term. Two years later, undercutting her own messages of equality and fairness, she defended an anti-LGBT law, telling the Guardian that “we like ourselves just the way we are.”
Liberia, like its outgoing president, remains imperfect. Corruption, poor infrastructure, and high rates of poverty persist. The new vice president is the ex-wife of the warlord who plunged Liberia into war in 1989. Fears remain, as Prue Clarke and Mae Azango described recently, that “the ghosts of Liberia’s past” will find a new foothold in the country.
But to be inspired by Sirleaf and her country’s accomplishments is not just to understand the immense challenges Liberians faced when fighting finally ended in 2003. It’s also to recognize that no leader is without shortcomings, no election without skeptics, and no democracy without flaws. Overcoming these obstacles peacefully isn’t a sign of democracy failing — it’s the whole point of democracy itself.
Sirleaf’s response to the 2014 Ebola crisis demonstrates democracy’s messy, roundabout nature. As the president worked on the international stage to secure aid to fight the rapidly spreading pandemic, she was falling short at home. She was criticized harshly for not recognizing the threat quickly and for quarantining an entire neighborhood of her country — a tactic that failed to contain the disease but succeeded in sparking panic and protest.
Yet in the face of this criticism, Sirleaf didn’t double down. She acknowledged her errors and changed course. As Cooper describes it, “The very freedom and democratic process that had flourished in Liberia under her presidency kicked her into action.” In September 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecast that 1.4 million people across Sierra Leone and Liberia could be infected within a few months; ultimately, fewer than 11,000 Liberians contracted the disease before the country was declared Ebola-free.
The leader erred. The community reacted. The system responded. That process, with all of its mistakes and flaws and inefficiencies, is the process of democracy. It’s a process that’s neither preordained nor perfect. It’s a process that never ends. But to say that any of these shortcomings make the ends not worth pursuing is to ignore the dignity intrinsic to the process itself. There is no finish line in a democracy.
Overlooking that reality makes it far too easy for scandals and shortcomings to blind us to the powerful movements that gather strength quietly and steadfastly in the background — like a massive voter registration drive that enables a nation devastated by violence, much of it directed at women, to elect a continent’s first female leader. The triumph in Liberia was not Sirleaf’s election alone, but rather the monumental citizen-led march forward that continues to this day.
That march, with all of its twists, turns, and steps backwards, also continues in United States. Last month, for example, Florida organizers succeeded in gathering nearly 800,000 signatures to put on the 2018 ballot a referendum to restore voting rights for 1.5 million Floridians whose felony convictions bar them from exercising one of their core rights. Gathering that many signatures anywhere is difficult; it’s all the more remarkable in a country with a centuries-long history of using the criminal justice system as a weapon against African Americans — a country that prides itself on punishing first and asking questions later.
As these Floridians showed, and as Liberians reminded the world last month, there is dignity and meaning not only in the desired outcome but also in the struggle for fundamental rights. That’s true whether the fight is to strengthen a democracy two centuries old or one less than two decades old.
Cooper closes her powerful biography of Sirleaf with a telling anecdote. In May 2015, as the danger of Ebola subsided, the president spoke to a group who had gathered to recognize the occasion. “Let us celebrate,” she told them. “But stay mindful and vigilant.” It is yet another lesson Liberia can teach the world.