Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Re-elected: International and Donor Communities Breathe A Sigh of Relief

EllenJohnsonSirlea_2020543cLast week, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was reelected to serve a second term as President of Liberia. Between the general and run-off elections, President Sirleaf did not win with an overwhelming majority. Yet, the fact that she won another term is definitely a positive outcome for a fragile country still recovering from decades of violent conflict. Even more significant was that democracy worked: a free and fair election was held, sanctioned by most international observers. Given the high stakes of peace teetering on the edge of instability and the significant post-war investments made by donors to help rebuild Liberia, a sigh of relief can be heard by the international as well as philanthropic communities.

When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was first elected in 2005, bilateral donors, foundations and individual philanthropists rallied behind President Sirleaf with tremendous confidence in her ability to reconstruct a war torn country and help Liberians heal from years of brutal civil warfare. As an experienced economist and the first ever female head of state in the history of the continent, President Sirleaf quickly became a darling of both donors and the international community, with good reason. In the face of daunting challenges of a gutted infrastructure, dismal economy, depleted capacity and resources and a traumatized society, she accomplished a lot with very little. In this context, there was tremendous vested interest to see her win reelection. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize just days before Monrovia took to the polls was certainly no accident and was well deserved.

Why so much hope and confidence in Sirleaf’s ability to steer Liberia forward? Besides being an incredible role model for young girls throughout Liberia, and bringing an impressive Harvard education and World Bank training to a country with a ravaged infrastructure, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf placed Liberia on a bold, dual development track by prioritizing both economic development and human rights. Because of her demonstrated commitment to good governance in the early days of her first term, the philanthropic community took notice (in addition to traditional bilateral donors) and either shifted or focused significant philanthropic support to help Liberia rebuild and move closer to sustainable peace. If peace is ultimately measured by a country's ability to hold free and peaceful elections, e.g.: political freedom to form opposition parties; to create and run independent media; to assemble and exercise political self-determination, then I believe President Sirleaf completed her first key deliverable: Democracy.

As a footnote, it must be recognized that President Sirleaf has been rightly criticized because of accusations of her early support of Charles Taylor; the insidious corruption that plagues Liberia to this day; the dangerously high rate of youth unemployment; the lack of implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings; and the lack of progress on other important social issues such as police reform and access to justice. Yet, democracy and nation-building does not mature overnight and even against this backdrop, the future remains hopeful for Liberians because of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's savvy economic "know how,” commitment to reconciliation and to human rights principles. She deserves the time to finish the job she started.

So, at the end of the day, it makes sense that President Sirleaf was favored by both citizens and onlookers to remain at the helm for another term. Though potentially reelected without a strong mandate due to low voter turnout, her reelection will sow confidence and unlock significant and much needed funding by donors and social investors, who until now, have been sitting on the sidelines out of fear of the unknown - the uncertainty a new regime would bring at a critical juncture of post war reconstruction. Liberia still needs tremendous support to achieve sustainable peace. Relieved by the status quo, Liberia can expect to see more support by donors as a result.

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