DALLAS – Last month, Liberians witnessed something remarkable: a peaceful transfer of power in their country. After 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepped down as president, and former soccer star George Weah was inaugurated. It was the first time since 1944 that one democratically elected leader voluntarily made way for another.
To be sure, one well-managed election does not a stable democracy make. But in a region often associated with coups d’état and authoritarian rule, Liberia’s progress is worthy of celebration, as it can help to lay the foundation for a better, more democratic future. As representative government in Liberia enters a new phase of maturity, it is worth reflecting on how the country got here.
In 2005, when Sirleaf was elected, Liberia was a shambles, following 25 years of civil war and dictatorship. Few predicted that Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, could set her country on a better path. But, though her tenure was not without challenges – from the Ebola crisis to endemic corruption and fiscal difficulties – she did just that.
Perhaps Sirleaf’s defining legacy will be the improved rights of Liberian women and girls. Female voters powered Sirleaf to victory; the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which helped end Liberia’s second civil war in 2003, was among her strongest political backers. During her tenure, Sirleaf increased the participation of women in all aspects of society and aimed to ensure greater rights and protections for women and girls. Sirleaf, along with another Liberian, Leymah Gbowee, and a Yemeni, Tawakkol Karman, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize largely for her work in this field.
The empowerment of women was only one area where Sirleaf made gains. She recognized that peace, strong governance, and growth would be the pillars of her country’s future. So she spearheaded efforts to secure justice for human-rights abuses that had occurred during the civil wars; reignited the economy through debt relief; rebuilt war-torn infrastructure; improved access to clean water and sanitation; and strengthened Liberia’s democratic institutions, including by enacting the country’s first Freedom of Information Act. Much work remains to be done, but this progress should not be underestimated.
As Sirleaf noted in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “rebuilding a nation nearly destroyed by war and plunder” was her greatest political priority. While “there was no roadmap for post-conflict transformation,” she continued, “we knew that we could not let our country slip back into the past.” Her government’s “greatest responsibility,” therefore, was to “keep the peace.”
Sirleaf’s leadership served as a catalyst for a more stable, prosperous, and freer Liberia. In its 2017 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House concluded that Liberia has made significant progress in human and political rights. Sirleaf’s commitment to democratic ideals were instrumental in enabling these gains. They helped her country to secure greater international support.
For example, in October 2015, the United States awarded Liberia a $257 million grant for energy and infrastructure initiatives under the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This type of assistance is granted only to countries that show improvements in democratic governance and economic development.
Still, Liberia faces many daunting challenges. Human development indicators, such as life expectancy and per capita income, remain well below the regional average. A sluggish economy and rising inflation are also testing economic stability. Liberia’s new president will need to focus on these and other issues to ensure continued progress.
For starters, Weah should continue Sirleaf’s work of investing in women and girls; after all, improving gender equality is a proven catalyst for enhancing national prosperity. Moreover, Weah and his government would do well to embrace Sirleaf’s statement that “poverty, illiteracy, disease, and inequality do not belong in the twenty-first century.” Empowering all Liberians is the only way to keep the country on its positive trajectory.
Finally, like Sirleaf, Weah’s government must embrace coalition-building and active engagement at the local, regional, and global levels. Cooperation will be essential to strengthen existing partnerships and to open new avenues for development.
Liberia now has in place a democratic system that will support continued progress. But that system cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary, Weah must build on the good work of his predecessor to strengthen and sustain it. By embracing and deepening their country’s democracy, Liberians and their new president can ensure a better future.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts is Deputy Director of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. Lindsay Lloyd is Deputy Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
By Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Lindsay Lloyd