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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Why Has She Changed?

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“In the past Ellen Sirleaf proved so desperate to help journalists in need. She literally begged to be the one to buy air tickets so that a wounded reporter could be airlifted to the U.S. for surgery. And when she learned that a journalist travelling on her campaign convoy has not gotten a meal or drink, she preferred giving him her meal and go hungry. But why has she suddenly changed?”

Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is said to have volunteered to pay for air tickets for a wounded Liberian reporter and a second party who would accompany him from Accra, Ghana, to the U.S. when Ghanaian medical doctors together with journalist colleagues and family-members of the disabled reporter first began discussing the possibility of transferring him to America for advanced medical treatment as his condition deteriorated rapidly.

Reporter Throble Suah, a former Inquirer staff reporter, lost his sight instantly and parts of his body paralyzed after a December 2001 gruesome attack in Monrovia by members of former Pres. Charles Taylor’s dreaded Anti Terrorists Unit known as ATU. The incident came in the wake of news reports written by Suah from Guinea concerning the refugee situation in which he mentioned that hundreds of Liberians were “hiding in the Guinean forests” at the time LURD rebels’ had attacked Liberia. Taylor is said to have been visibly angered by the news and thus accused Suah of “siding with the enemies.” As a result, on the night of December 11, while returning home after seeing a friend off, ATU’s men confronted Suah and beat him mercilessly using gun-butts that he passed out.

An official of the defunct Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) hinted me during a dinner in Philadelphia, Penn., 2002, that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, following the this incident stayed in constant contact with ALJA officials in the U.S., and often requested briefing concerning Throble Suah’s medical condition. The official told me that Johnson-Sirleaf even volunteered to purchase air tickets for the transfer of Suah to the U.S. the moment news began to circulate that his condition was too critical for Ghanaian medical doctors to handle and therefore needed to be airlifted to the United States for surgery.

Fortunately, after exhaustive twelve or more hours of operation, Ghanaian medical doctors managed to restore Suah’s sight and he didn’t have to be flown to the U.S. to undergo further medical treatment.

In 1997, when a journalist colleague alerted Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf that a photographer from The Associated Press traveling with her (Ellen’s) presidential-campaign group wasn’t served a meal or given a share of the “purse” she had gave for the press crew, a curious and pathetic Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf immediately ceased conversation with elders and her partisans to meet the photojournalist. Upon arrival, I saw rather a concerned “mother” who sounded apologetic for no apparent cause except that a “pressman” missed a meal. In no time, she asked a bodyguard to go and bring a plate of rice with soda (soft-drink) set aside for her so she could give to me.

I felt a little embarrassed that out of empathy my good old friend, Folley Siryon, a former Daily Observer award-winning photojournalist, would go this far to make my condition an issue for Johnson-Sirleaf. As we waited for the meal I grumbled Folley and explained that he shouldn’t have gone to complain on my behalf in that I was supposed to be responsible for my own feeding and lodging being an independent journalist. I reminded him of AP’s policy which strongly prohibits its correspondents from taking any type of “material” or “monetary” gifts/favors of values from news sources. That’s because, such act tends to compromise the objectivity of the reporter. Although Sirleaf’s “gifts” of “plate of rice with a soda” may not have qualified as “value” per AP’s policy definition, still, I remained very conscious about what “favor” or “gift” to accept from Madam Sirleaf and her campaign team.

In Folley’s mind, I was being ridiculous by citing AP’s policy. He argued this was unacceptable because, according to him, I (Fasuekoi) wasn’t “Whiteman.” To him, just by being Liberian and a typical Lorma man from upcountry, we ought put the Western dogma aside and follow the rules that conform to the dictates of our African tradition. African or Liberian tradition whether in rural or urban areas squarely places all burdens of a visiting guest, “stranger” on the shoulders of the local chief, host, and townspeople irrespective of one’s status (which included mine as foreign correspondent). Though fighting had ended about six months earlier followed by disarmament of rebel fighters, paving the way for elections, still, this once beautiful cross-road town connecting Dia (home of former first female head of state Ruth Perry), Dambala, No Way Camp (Kongo), the scene of the 1983 landslide disaster, was far from recovery.

This region had experienced massive gun battle which resulted to serious structural damages as the ULIMO inter-tribal war raged on. At the time of the campaign, not a single restaurant could be found to help feed the multitude of partisans who thronged the town, more less a motel to rent. Though I had money in both local and US currencies, they were useless! As I sat next to the woman who would later become Liberia’s president, the conversation took a different turn from the warm reception in Wangaykor and the impressive turnout in Tiene, to the anticipated huge crowd that was awaiting Sirleaf’s arrival in Roberts Sports the next day. Just when we’ve almost forgotten the food, the man sent by Johnson-Sirleaf returned and told us someone had eaten the food. However, just as Folley and I were about to leave Sirleaf’s presence, one man quickly appeared and offered me a can of soda.

As we cramped in one of Sirleaf’s tiny Jeeps to pass the night, I couldn’t help but wonder the genuineness of the care Johnson-Sirleaf had just shown for me. Then questions began to pour in. What if I weren’t a correspondent for the world’s most powerful news media, The Associated Press, could Sirleaf have been as hospitable as she appeared? What if she becomes president for Liberia, could she still show such care for me as Liberian even if I no longer work for the AP? What about a layperson dying of hunger around the street corner, could she also care to stop and speak or care for him? Questions beclouded my mind but with no immediate answers.

Readers might also want to ask what about the unfortunate situation reporter Throble Suah was caught in December 2001? Could Madam Johnson-Sirleaf’s response to this incident have been different if it turned out that Suah wasn’t a journalist?

Exactly a decade and half later, an outstanding publisher, Rodney Sieh, detained in connection to nearly US 2million “libel” lawsuit languishes in a filthy Liberian jail where he has suffered bouts of fever with pneumonia that led him twice to hospital. Rodney Sieh is in his second month in jail and his unlawful detention by Liberian authorities has prompted an avalanche of condemnations from professional journalists’ organizations and civil societal groupings worldwide; yet, his pathetic condition hasn’t claim the attention of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Liberia has a broken judicial system and many in and out of the country don’t respect rulings from the courts because for good reasons, they believe that outcomes of court rulings are influenced by bribes. Corruption has eaten deep into every fabric of Liberian society since Sirleaf took power and the judicial system isn’t an exception either. In fact, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf herself has openly expressed distrust in the ruling of the courts due to bribery in the courts. Still, she has evaded the Sieh’s issue which has gotten many people talking and wondering worldwide as to what manner of person she is. Pressed hard by Canadian journalists during her recent visit to Canada, she managed to give a knee-jerk response on the Sieh issue.

It is important that Madam Sirleaf be reminded the following wise sayings of King Solomon and it doesn’t matter whether she honors them or not. “The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters” says Proverbs 18:4. Proverbs 10:9 “He who walks with integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will become known.” Again, Proverbs Chapter 9: verses 8-9 warns, “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.”

Unlike the past, there is a striking component in the Rodney Sieh’s case with respect to Ellen Johnson. She’s currently president of the Republic of Liberia. What that means in the African world is that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf typically has power to decide who lives and who dies in Liberia. Also as Commander In Chief of the country, she has authority to grant executive clemency to free someone like the jailed editor. But there is one thing that continues to baffle this writer and perhaps many more people since Sieh’s sentenced and his paper subsequently closed. In the past Ellen Sirleaf proved so desperate to help journalists in need. She literally begged to be the one to buy air tickets so that a wounded reporter could be airlifted to the U.S. for surgery. And when she learned that a journalist travelling on her campaign convoy has not gotten a meal or drink, she preferred giving him her meal and go hungry. But why has she suddenly changed?

The answers are quite obvious and twofold. First, Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is presently twirling her second term and although she may be prohibited by law to contest a third, she has no desire to run for another elective post in the country. Therefore, Sirleaf stands to gain or lose nothing whether or not she intervenes in the “Chris Toe vs. Rodney Sieh” matter on editor Sieh’s behalf. Second, Sieh’s paper, the FrontPage Africa has treated both big and small equal in the Liberian society in its anti-corruption campaign sometimes, not sparing the first family of Sirleafs, entrenched deeply in nepotism and corruption. The paper’s move was prompted in parts due to the fact that Sirleaf, more than any other, preached against these very societal ills in the past only to come later and nurture same. The FrontPage campaign no doubt helps exposed the hypocrisy of Pres. Sirleaf. In light of this, the paper’s closure seems a blessing not only to Sirleaf but her many associates who also view the paper as a major obstacle against their desire to enrich themselves to the detriment of the Liberian people without penalties.

However, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s attitude of desperately trying to show favors to potential voters as well as aid local journalists in time of need isn’t unique to her alone. This is the typical character of every politician in the world. For the sake of gaining favors and votes, they may try to show some special favors or pretend to help needy individuals and groups during election seasons so that the mass media may project positive image of them to galvanize public favor for their campaign. Mind you, some may even be prepared to cross the lines i.e., the case of a US politician who reportedly kissed a family dog, just to win votes. And some might make discomfited statements that may later haunt them for life as in the case of former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney and his most famous remark: “I have a banner full of women,” during the US 2012 presidential elections.

For Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, she lived and attended college in the U.S. and knows the power of the mass media, especially The Associated Press. So she thought that by pretending to be the nicest person on earth she could perhaps manipulate me and other reporters on her campaign trail into giving her favorable reports. Similarly, with the Throble Suah episode, she tried to force some kind of “good” even though the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) had already paid for air ticket plus medical fees to get Suah to Ghana for treatment and WAJA still stood by to do more. Ellen Sirleaf’s belated kindness was done on purpose, mainly to attract publicity for her political life and not done out of honesty.

Let the word go forth that LIBERIANS ARE NOT FOOLS. As the next 2017 presidential elections draws near, Liberians should watch out for the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf kind of politicians who really don’t mean anything and may come running for “handshakes” while giving out election goodies like free t-shirts, caps and food. Watch out for some might also want kiss your little puppy, cuddle your babies and heap praises that they gorgeous all just to appease you to vote for them. But step back for a moment and ask yourselves: ARE THEY FOR REAL? If the answer you get is no, then scorn them and reject their handshakes-shut your ears to their useless speeches for you deserve better than be treated like commodities on sale!

By James Kokulo Fasuekoi in Excelsior, Minnesota

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