The legacy of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Why ‘great inspiration’ is not quite enough

3 February 2018, 1425 EST

A co-authored post by Dr Leena Vastapuu and Dr Maria Martin de Almagro.

The first elected woman head of state in Africa, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has just stepped down from her office in Liberia. Her successor George Weah assumed the position on 22 January 2018.

In a recent interview with CNN entitled “Why Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf”, President Sirleaf and journalist Chude Jideonwo had the following exchange.

Chude Jideonwo (CJ): You are in your final days as the first female president of an African country. When you step down, there won’t be any more. What does that say to you?  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (EJS): It tells me that we haven’t worked hard enough for parity, particularly in political participation. It saddens me, to a certain extent, because I represented the breaking of the glass ceiling in Africa. And I think that there are lots of women out there who haven’t quite reach there, but the queue is forming.

CJ: You’ve been a president for 12 years. […] What do you think your gender, your femininity, brought to this particular position, if anything?

EJS: It brought great aspirations. To women, and to girls, in Liberia, in Africa. And going beyond, in my travels in the United States, in Europe and in other places, inevitably there is someone who comes up to me and says: “You’ve inspired me”.

In this blog post, we take a critical look on the legacy of President Sirleaf. Our main goal is to answer these questions: Has Ellen Johnson Sirleaf left the country better equipped in the fight against gender inequality and for women’s empowerment? And to what extent?

Yes: as a woman of many firsts

It is certainly true that Sirleaf has managed to break several glass ceilings during her long career. She was not only the first woman having been elected has a head of state in Africa, but also the first woman to lead the UNDP’s Regional Bureau of Africa. Among her achievements are also a number of international awards, such as the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 (together with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman), as well as the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development 2012.

In June 2016, she was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold this prestigious position.

So yes: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s career is, by any measure available, an inspiration to anyone.

Somewhat: as a stabiliser of a highly fragile country

The simple fact is that after President Sirleaf’s two terms in power, Liberia has not returned to war.

However, the 2017 rank for Liberia on the Fragile State Index was 27 – the same spot it possessed already in 2007. Given the extraordinary amount of investments the president has managed to lure into the country after taking office in 2006, the score should be significantly higher today, regardless of the devastating economic impact of the Ebola epidemic of 2014–15. Similar tendencies can also be found from other popular indexes, such as the Human Development Index. Whereas in 2009 (the first year the country was ranked), Liberia was 169th of 182 countries listed, in 2016 its rank was 177/188.

Conclusion? Yes: we should applaud President Sirleaf for her efforts to maintain peace in Liberia. Nonetheless, more should have been achieved in terms of socio-economic development, especially given the amount of resources and contacts Sirleaf had at her disposal at the beginning of her first term.

Yes: on paper

Behind Sirleaf’s first successful presidential campaign was a huge number of women’s organisations advocating for their idol.  “Ellen brought women’s rights to Liberia” and “what a man can do, a woman can do better” were some of the phrases placed forward by her supporters around the country. In her inauguration speech, Sirleaf highlighted her ‘passion and commitment to gender equity’ and promised to ‘empower Liberian women in all areas of […] national life’. Expectations were high, but so were the policy outcomes at the beginning of her first term.

Ultimately, several pieces of legislation were passed during her first years in office. The “rape law” was revised, and a national programme to increase the education of girls was launched. During the same year Liberia also became the first African country to have its own National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and a Secretariat for its implementation was established at the Ministry of Gender. However, there is no budget set aside for the implementation of the NAP and it remains unclear what the Secretariat is actually supposed to be monitoring.

In addition, the 2008-2011 Poverty Reduction Strategy’s priority action matrix on peace and security requires the participation of women to reach 20% in the military and in other security sector institutions. In 2016, and after almost a decade of advocacy, the Liberian House of Representatives passed the “Affirmative Action Bill”, reserving  5 seats for women in “Special Constituencies”. Nevertheless, the resulting five seats are only half of those an earlier version of the Bill proposed.

Not: in practice

As Robtel Neajai Pailey & Korto Reeves Williams remark, “In the past 12 years, she [Sirleaf] has done next to nothing to position women favourably to win votes”.

The figures speak for themselves. Both in the House of Representatives and the Senate the percentage of women have fell since 2005. Whereas in the House the change is from 12,5 percent (2005) to 9,9 percent (2017), in the Senate the drop is from 16,7 percent (2005) to 10 percent (2017). With these figures, Liberia ranks currently as 160th on the list of 187 on the percentage of women in national parliaments. It is noteworthy that the drop is very significant if compared to the figure of 2005 (82/139). Neither does the Cabinet of Sirleaf – that has been under constant alteration –reveal an effort to parity. As of December 2017, only 3 out of 19 ministers were women.

In 2014, Liberia introduced a set of amendments to the 1986 Elections law. Among the amendments was a requirement that each political party “should endeavor to ensure that the governing body and its list of candidates has no less than 30% of its members from each gender.” As Carter Center remarks, however, only two parties were able to reach the goal in the 2017 presidential and legislative election.

The education sector does not look too good either. As a Harvard-educated economist and an advocator for girls’ education, Sirleaf was expected to focus on rebuilding the education sector from scratch. Although it is true that  primary school enrolment has grown at the phase of over 9% a year since 2005, and an Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) for older students has been able to absorb over 75,000 students and is now operational in all the 15 counties, several weaknesses remain. Despite of the momentum,  Liberia is still lagging behind most other African countries in almost every education statistics. For example, in 201336% of women had had less than 4 years of formal education and over 50% of the female population was illiterate. It is telling that President Sirleaf herself has described the education sector of Liberia as a “mess.”

Sirleaf has also neglected the overwhelming majority of those girls and women who took part in the civil wars of Liberia in various capacities. This is very sad and surprising from a woman who is known as the co-writer of Women, War and Peace report, a highly-cited assessment on the impact of armed conflict on women. It is stated in the report, for example (p. 7), that

“The beneficiaries of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes must not be limited to male combatants. Female combatants, the wives, widows and other dependents of ex-fighters must be included explicitly so that they are invested in rebuilding a new society and ending the cycle of violence.”

Definitely not: as an anti-feminist

Sirleaf’s refusal to label herself as feminist and her government’s resistance to collaborate with certain women’s organisations has made her lose key allies from the women’s movement that helped her to win the elections in the first place. For example, just one year after her appointment, Leymah Gbowee resigned from her position as the head of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, criticizing her fellow laurate for failing to tackle corruption and nepotism.

To make matters worse, Sirleaf’s government has had a direct responsibility in dismantling and depoliticising the once vibrant women’s rights movement in the country. It has done so firstly by controlling which women’s organisations get access to international funding to execute projects on ‘women’s issues’, and secondly, by setting up the Rural Women’s Structures of Liberia being hosted in the building of the Ministry of Gender. These Structures have divisions in each county of Liberia, whereas the Ministry controls who can be part of it.

In practice, the government has drastically increased its control over women grassroots organisations in the counties, at a time when international partners have been eager to spend resources on economic empowerment programs for rural women. For example, only this year, FAO, WFP and UN Women in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Ministry of Agriculture are implementing their US$ 400,000 “Global Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women”. The beneficiaries of the programme are selected in partnership with the Rural Women’s Structures of Liberia. Grassroots groups that are not part of the Structures have difficulties to survive due to lack of financial resources. Other daily practices, such as sending an important five year planning document on gender policy for feedback only some hours before the deadline have also been common.

Homosexual acts are criminalised in Liberia and LGBTI people run the risk of harassmenton a daily basis. When in 2012 Jewel Howard-Taylor, senator of the time and the vice president of Liberia today (!), advocated for a bill that would make homosexuality liable to a death sentence, Sirleaf stated that she would not sign any law concerning gay rights – pro or con. Sirleaf also defended the current state of affairs by referring to societal tradition and by noting that “we like ourselves just the way we are.” When in the midst of the Ebola epidemic of 2014 a prominent group of religious leaders stated that Ebola was actually a punishment sent by God over immoral acts such as homosexuality, Sirleaf remained quiet.

On international arena, Sirleaf has expressed her strong commitment to ban FGM in Liberia. But when the long-awaited Domestic Violence Bill was finally approved in July 2016, the original provision banning FGM had been deleted from the Bill altogether. FGM is a highly sensitive issue in Liberia; a practice undertaken by the ancient and powerful all-female secret society called Sande. It is certainly risky to meddle with Sande, and probably this is why Sirleaf has remained so quiet about the “matters of the bush”.

Just a few days before stepping down, however, President Sirleaf issued an executive orderto ban FGM on anyone under 18 years of age. Executive orders are in force for only a year, and it remains to be seen if Weah has more courage and political will than her predecessor to push the ban as a permanent law.

Conclusion? Lots of talk but little progress

During her first term in office there was a huge momentum for President Sirleaf to use her power and prestige for the benefit of all girls and women of Liberia, regardless of their societal statuses. She had the backing of women’s organisations, of grassroots actors, and of the international community. On paper – and personally – she seized the opportunity. But not much has changed in reality, and on some levels things are even worse for women than prior her 12-year regime.

Indeed, it can be argued that “Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s global stature has risen based not on credibility with her people but on endorsements from international institutions like Harvard, Citibank and the World Bank and figures like George Soros, Bono and Warren Buffett”, as Dayo Olopade wittingly argues. Or, quoting Veronika Fuest, a few “business women, some peace activists, leaders of women’s organizations tapping into the flow of foreign aid, and female politicians appear to have gained.”

Regrettably, the government of George Weah does not look too promising as far as gender equality is concerned. While at the beginning of her second mandate one third of Johnson-Sirleaf’s cabinet was female, just one woman, Williametta Piso Saydee-Tarr, has been appointed as a minister by Weah, as of 28 January. And yes, you guessed it, her post is that of Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection.

Crossposted in Mats Utas blog.