Is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf overstepping her boundaries?
During her installation on 16 January 2006 as Liberia’s president and Africa’s first elected female president, 67-year old Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said her main preoccupation would be to lead Liberia away from its turbulent past. She promised to end corruption in Liberia and work for its re-building after 14 years of devastating civil war.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf urged Liberians to join her in these tasks so that together Liberians could “ begin anew, move forward into a future that is filled with hope and promise”. As concerns corruption in Liberia, she promised to “wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists or by whom it is practiced”. Her insistence on corruption was understandable given that Liberia has often been cited as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International for example ranked it among the 25 most corrupt countries in its 2005 global Corruption Perception Index. Donor countries and institutions have pledged to give millions of dollars to Liberia in its rebuilding efforts but have insisted that the money would only be given when corruption is wiped out in Liberia.
If anybody doubted the will of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to work towards her pledges, then it would have lasted for less than a month. Soon after her installation, she started appointing members of her cabinet. A major feature has been the “break-away with tradition” and the appointment of a woman to head notably the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce, and that of Youths and Sports. A woman is also at the head of the National Police Force, the Auditing Bureau and on the Commission on Refugees Repatriation and Resettlement.
As part of her crackdown on corruption in Liberia, the actions of President Johnson Sirleaf, less than a month after her installation have held observers spell-bound. In an unannounced visit to the Ministry of Finance, a Ministry she once headed, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sacked all officials appointed by the former government and announced that civil servants in the Ministry would remain in place pending investigations.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has vowed to audit the more than 300 members of the previous government and as such, she has ruled that they cannot travel abroad until the auditing is completed. Prior to becoming president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had indicated both her disgust at the rate of corruption in Liberia and her willingness to eradicate it. Before her election, she had declared her support for an internationally produced anti-corruption plan called the Governance and Economic Management Programme which recommends that international experts will be appointed as co-signatories in institutions such as the Central Bank and the main revenue generating agencies like the National Ports Authority, Forestry Agency and the Petroleum Refining Corporation.
Barely a month in office, the speed and level at which president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is tackling the corruption issue in Liberia has baffled those involved in the practice and encouraged anti-corruption campaigners worldwide. If in sacking the workers of the ministry of finance and banning all members of the previous government from traveling abroad till further notice Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stepped on the toes of many people, then her most recent appointment of some senior officials of her government has raised eyebrows and opened avenues for her actions to be questioned.
During activities to commemorate Liberia’s Armed Forces Day on Saturday, 11 February 2006, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced that she has appointed a former Commander of the UN Mission in Liberia, Nigerian born General Luka Yusuf as the new Army Chief of Liberia. She said Gen. Yusuf would be in charge of restructuring and forming Liberia’s army. This decision stirred ire among some military officials. But that was not the end of the controversial appointments. President Johnson Sirleaf announced further that an American, whose name would be revealed later, has been appointed as Senior Military Advisor. The Liberian Ministry of National Defense would second Gen. Yusuf and the American Senior Military Advisor, the President went on to add.
Then came another unexpected announcement. President Johnson Sirleaf has appointed Frances Johnson Morris, Chairperson of the Liberian National Elections Commission, NEC, as the new Minister of Justice. If the Liberian Senate approves her appointment, then it would be the first time a woman is appointed to head the justice ministry in Liberia. After the proclamation of the results of the disputed presidential elections by the NEC, headed by Johnson Morris late last year, Johnson Sirleaf’s main rival, international soccer star George Weah, cried foul even though foreign observers dismissed the charges of fraud tabled by him. The appointment of Johnson Morris was literally the last drop that spilled the bucket of hidden grievances pertaining to the president’s recent decisions.
In its reaction after the appointment of NEC Chairperson, Johnson Morris as Minister of Justice, Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change, CDC party, issued a release which stated that “The nomination of Frances Morris is a reward for her role in depriving the vast majority of the Liberian people of their legitimate victory during the presidential elections”.
After watching the Johnson-Sirleaf-directed drama unfold for just a month, some Liberians have started thinking that the president is beginning to overstep her boundaries. Her appointment of a non-Liberian to head the country’s army is seen by some Liberian military officials as a slap on their face. They think a Liberian would have been appointed to head the country’s army both as a patriotic sign and testimony that Liberians can take charge of their destiny. But President Johnson Sirleaf thinks otherwise.
Justifying the appointment of Gen. Yusuf and the American as Army Chief and Senior Military Advisor respectively, President Johnson Sirleaf said she decided to accept the “bilateral assistance” from Nigeria and the US because the challenges of maintaining credible peace and security are elusive without the support of regional and international partners.
The constitutional legality of the president’s action aside, the justification advanced by her is not only one-sided, it is inconclusive. Indubitably, Liberia needs regional and international assistance to move out of its ugly past, but the reasons advanced by President Johnson Sirleaf to appoint a non-Liberian to head the country’s army are not enough. Leading an international peacekeeping battalion, like Gen. Yusuf once did is different from leading a national army. That is why President Johnson Sirleaf’s decision risks becoming a boomerang when the authority of those appointed is disputed on the ground.
If the Liberian army needs to be led by non-Liberians in order for it to be “credible”, then the country itself should have been ruled by or handed over to a foreigner since credible peace and development would be elusive without the support of regional and international parties.
Supporters of the president’s decision hold that during the country’s 14-year civil war, both government forces and rebels partook in activities that violated fundamental human rights and as such their sad legacy disqualifies them for the strategic post of Army Chief. Consequently, it was prudent, they argue, to appoint a neutral person capable of performing the task. Laudable. But what of the appointment by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Kabineh Janneh, a former leader with the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, LURD, as Supreme Court Justice?
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia, being Africa’s oldest republic, has added its mixed legacy by being the first African country to elect a woman as president. As she attempts to hastily put Liberia back on track after 14 years of derailment, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf needs to act in manners that do not give room for suspicions and pessimism to start crawling into the minds of Liberians and observers.
In an attempt, ostensibly, to prioritize meritocracy over ethnicity, tribalism or party allegiance, President Johnson Sirleaf has been appointing people with varying caliber in the hope that they would be veritable partners in nation building. Whether or not she is overstepping her boundaries as head of state by appointing a non-Liberian at the helm of the country’s army, President Johnson Sirleaf needs to break with the tradition of appointing people with questionable allegiance. The calling to question by the CDC of the competence of Frances Johnson Morris as Justice Minister might be too far a criticism but calling her appointment “morally inappropriate” is certainly reasonable.
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