BY THE time its stop-start civil war ended in 2003, Liberia had all but collapsed. Fourteen years of barbaric fighting had killed some 250,000 people, or roughly 8% of the population. Many more Liberians were displaced by the violence. The economy had shrunk by 90%. Schools, hospitals and government buildings lay in ruins. Children ate tree bark to survive. This was the catastrophe that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf inherited when she was elected president in 2005.
Liberia will hold an election on October 10th (see article), presaging its first transfer of power from one elected president to another since 1944. Ms Sirleaf will step down next year. Her tenure has been imperfect, as Liberians will complain. Her successor will have his hands full. Even so Ma Ellen, as she is called, deserves praise for putting Liberia back on its feet.
She has achieved this, for the most part, by being unlike her peers. Start with the obvious. In 2005 she became the first woman elected president of an African country. Merely by stepping down on time, she is bucking the trend of African presidents for life. She has spoken up for human rights and tolerated dissent. Most important, she has been a champion of improved governance. The top layer of the state is stocked with first-rate technocrats, brought in by the president, who has used her fluency in aid jargon (from time spent at the UN and World Bank) to make Liberia a darling of Western donors.
The upshot has been new infrastructure and schools. The government has undertaken bold experiments, for instance in piloting charter schools. In 2010 Ms Sirleaf won a massive write-down of Liberia’s debts. A year later she was awarded a Nobel prize for securing the peace. The calm allowed the economy to grow at an average annual rate of 7% between 2006 and 2014, when it was hit by Ebola and a fall in commodity prices. Any fair assessment of Liberia’s economic and political progress under Ms Sirleaf would have to conclude that the country has made great strides, albeit from a low base.
Displeasure as a sign of progress
Even so, Liberians are no longer satisfied. The country remains among the world’s ten poorest. Voters complain that services are lacking and corruption rampant. Ma Ellen herself is hardly blameless. She appointed three of her sons to important posts, and dispensed patronage in return for support. Beneath the upper layer, ministries are teeming with unqualified workers (often former fighters). Her renegotiation of contracts with international companies that mine the country’s iron and harvest its rubber won her some plaudits. But too few Liberians have benefited, and some rural dwellers have lost their land.
Liberia’s next leader will have to work out how to wean the country off foreign aid, which accounts for over half of gross national income, and to spread the benefits of development. To start with, the next president should make it easier for foreigners to invest in the country. That means cutting red tape and corruption. He or she should encourage ministers to follow the lead of George Werner, the outgoing education minister, who pared nearly 1,900 dead or retired teachers from the government’s payroll. So far, though, the main contenders have shunned substance and played regional politics.
The fact that Liberians now complain of failing students instead of child soldiers, and of massive corruption instead of mass rape, is progress. But more will be expected of the next president. Liberia still has a long way to go.