World Africa Focus

Africa's first female president set new course for Liberia. But what about for its women?

putting it in perspective

For 12 years, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has presided over peace – and controversy. On the eve of her successor's election, Liberians say 'Ma Ellen' is leaving a mixed legacy, particularly for women.

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attends a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Monrovia, Liberia on Oct. 12, 2017. As Ms. Johnson prepares to step down, many Liberian women are wondering what happened to the promises that their 'Ma Ellen' made when she was first elected 12 years ago.
Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
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Update: This story was updated at 12:10 p.m., Nov. 6., after Liberia’s Supreme Court halted the runoff election.

Beside a busy strip of road near the downtown of Liberia’s capital city, a tall mural tells the story of the country’s recent history – or at least, someone’s version of it.

“MA ELLEN,” it says in the familiar language Liberians often use to describe their president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “THANKS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT AND FOR THE PEACE.”

Below the words are a portrait of President Sirleaf, her face creased by smile lines, and a series of idyllic scenes – a lush university campus, a tidy hospital, a bridge flanked by palm trees.

To many who have watched Sirleaf’s career from afar, this is a neat summary of her legacy. Since she became the first woman elected president of an African country in 2005, Sirleaf’s accomplishments have been, in many ways, soaring.

She presided over a dozen years of peace – no small feat given the more than a dozen years of war that preceded them. Her administration built roads and schools and clinics, and convinced the international community to write off nearly $5 billion of Liberia’s wartime debt. There is a Nobel Peace Prize on her mantle. Bono has called her a hero. 

But for Liberians, who will soon elect her successor, Ma Ellen’s legacy is far less settled. Here, in the informal debating halls of the country’s taxis, markets, and bars, the glittering accomplishments that have earned Sirleaf international acclaim are tallied alongside an equally long list of perceived failures: Her administration pledged to fight corruption, then turned out as nepotistic as its predecessors. She presided over a dramatic economic downturn. She didn’t do enough to stop the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history.

And for Liberian women, there’s one more.

“When she first ran [in 2005] she spoke a lot to us, and about us,” says Quita Paye, who sells dented water bottles full of neon-red palm oil in Monrovia’s Nancy Doe market. “So I was really surprised to see there was no change for women when she became president.”

Many Liberian women, indeed, speak of Sirleaf’s tenure in ways at once proud and wounded. She rewrote the script for what was possible for Liberian women, they say, but most women still don’t have a part in that story.  

“She was able to shatter the myth that women cannot be leaders,” says Korto Williams, country director for ActionAid Liberia and a leading feminist activist. And just having a woman in the Executive Mansion, she says, gave a gravity to the concerns of women’s rights activists that they had never had before. “Symbolically her presence was very important. But in terms of concrete actions to dismantle the oppression of women, there’s been much less of that.” 

Activists demonstrating against proposed changes to Liberia's anti-rape law pass a mural commemorating President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf near downtown Monrovia in October 2017. Many women's rights activists in Liberia feel the country's first female president has not done enough to support their interests during her 12 years in office.
Ryan Lenora Brown
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Women waging peace

Indeed, in many ways, it wasn’t a female president who radically changed the shape of the world for Liberian women so much as the garish civil war that came before.

For more than a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, much of Liberia all but emptied of men and boys, an entire generation abducted or recruited to fight the country’s brutal guerrilla conflict.

In Liberia’s lush green villages and rundown cities, in the walled estates of the wealthy and the poorest rural hamlets, that left only one option for who would run society: women.

Women took over households, but also family pocketbooks. At the time, the country had almost no functioning formal economy, but hundreds of thousands of women made their way as small-time traders, so-called market women, hustling bright pink kola nuts and jugs of palm oil and crumbling hunks of soap to whoever could still afford to buy. 

And when the war grew too interminable to bear, it was these same market women who brought it to an end. In 2003, the activist group Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace met with the country’s then-president, Charles Taylor, and cajoled him to attend peace talks with rebel leaders in Ghana. Some went to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where rebel leaders were staying, and convinced them to come too.

Where the men went, the women followed. For eight weeks, the women gathered daily outside the negotiations in Accra, Ghana’s capital, singing and praying. But as the talks dragged on and violence in Liberia continued, they took a more radical tact. Two hundred women surrounded the building, locking arms. When police tried to disperse them, they threatened to take off their clothes – meant to shame the men into submission. 

Three weeks later, Mr. Taylor resigned.

And suddenly the idea that a woman could lead Liberia didn’t seem so radical anymore.

“By the end of the war, women had realized they could be political beings, and some men had too,” says Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian political analyst who also worked for Sirleaf during her first term and recently co-authored with Ms. Williams an opinion piece on the legacy of her presidency. “It’s no coincidence that Sirleaf was able to ride this wave of renewed autonomy.”

'I'll fix this'

But Sirleaf was in some ways an unlikely figurehead for that new awakening. Harvard-educated, she had grown up among the country’s Americo-Liberian, or “Congo,” elite – descendants of the American slaves who had settled in Liberia in the 1820s and built a new plantation society, this time with themselves at the top. Though she herself wasn’t “Congo,” and spoke often of a grandmother who was a market woman, Sirleaf’s résumé was white-collar all the way down, with high-level stints at the World Bank, the United Nations, and Citibank.

Still, she endeared herself to Liberia’s women, many of whom were fed up with the way men had run their country into the ground.

Mary Flomo remembers the first time she saw Sirleaf during the presidential campaign in 2005, hiking up her dress and wading through the flooded market where Ms. Flomo worked as a trader. During the war, big chunks of the market’s tin ceiling had been stolen. Sections of the walls had collapsed. During the rainy season, the place flooded almost daily. 

“And she just walked right through the water and gathered us around and said, ‘I’ll fix this,’ ” Ms. Flomo recalls. “We were so proud of her.” 

In November 2005, women like Flomo went to polls for her in the hundreds of thousands. When the results came back, they’d done something that had eluded even many of the world’s most “developed” countries – they had elected a woman to their highest office.

“Liberian women endured the injustices during the years of our civil war, gang-raped at will, forced into domestic slavery – yet it was the women who labored, who advocated for peace throughout our region,” Sirleaf told the crowd of international notables gathered at her inauguration in January 2006. “My administration shall endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all the affairs of the country.”

At first, that goal was evident. In Sirleaf’s early days in office, she appointed women to head crucial ministries like finance and justice. She put a woman at the helm of the national police force, and another atop the commission on refugees.

She also quickly pledged her support for the country’s new anti-rape law, which activists had passed through the country’s transitional parliament the year before her election.

During the war, rape had been a devastating and common weapon. For many Liberian women, simply laying down a punishment was a way of writing their struggles back into history.

Then, in 2008, Sirleaf announced the creation of a special court, dubbed Criminal Court E, to deal exclusively with sexual violence, so those cases could be fast-tracked through the backlogged criminal justice system.

Post-vote disappointments

But many activists grew restless. For all her campaign talk about women’s empowerment, they thought, it hardly seemed the focus of her administration. And many gestures stung of tokenism. 

Criminal Court E, for instance, had vanishingly few successful prosecutions, in large part because the country still had no system for collecting forensic evidence, and many police officers were too poorly trained and resourced to follow through on sexual assault cases.

Meanwhile, she appointed two of her sons and a stepson to high-level government posts and filled her cabinet largely with men – many of them unusually young and well connected, notes Ms. Pailey.

“What it comes down to is this: President Sirleaf is a politician, not a feminist,” says Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist and former ally who in 2011 shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman. “She needed votes to get elected, she needed international limelight for her political program, and it was women’s agenda that could give it to her.” 

A few years in, market women like Ms. Paye and Flomo were beginning to lose hope. Sure, their markets were cleaner now; they had electricity. Some even provided childcare – all Sirleaf initiatives. But the economy wasn’t improving as quickly as they had hoped. People were still too poor to buy most goods, and for market women, customers were everything.

Not all of that was Sirleaf’s fault. Many Liberians looked back fondly on Taylor’s war-time presidency, when strict price controls had kept staples cheap. And a massive outbreak of Ebola gutted Liberia’s still-fragile economy in 2014 (though many say the president’s slow and heavy-handed response also made the crisis worse). 

Some activists, meanwhile, noted with regret that although she regularly made time for meetings with up-and-coming African female politicians, she was a stranger to most Liberian women.

“Most women in this country didn’t get to know her story,” says MacDella Cooper, the only female candidate for president in this year’s election. (She was eliminated in the first round). Sure, Sirleaf had grown up privileged, but she had experienced the stinging sexism of Liberian society all the same. She left her husband in the early 1960s, for instance, after he regularly beat her. “But not many people know her struggle,” Ms. Cooper says. “She didn’t appeal to women in that way.” 

Still, to many of her critics, she would always be remembered not merely as a president who failed, but as a woman who failed.

“After this, any woman who says she wants to be president, I will not vote for her,” says Flomo, the market trader. “We have seen now that women are too soft to lead.” 

Voters turn the page

And as Liberia’s election season cranked up earlier this year, many of the candidates played on that backlash. “Our pa marry! Our pa marry!” chanted supporters of former soccer star George Weah at a rally for his campaign in early October, using Liberian English.

Translation: Our candidate is married, a family values man. Sirleaf, on the other hand, divorced in 1961 and hasn’t remarried.

And from the ruling Unity Party, Sirleaf’s own: “Our ma spoilt it, our pa will fix it.” Sirleaf, in other words, had messed up the country. But her vice president, Joseph Boakai, could be counted on to set things right. (Mr. Boakai recently joined a last-minute challenge to the election results, which contends, among other things, that Sirleaf interfered in voting by meeting privately with electoral officials shortly before election day. On Nov. 6, the Supreme Court halted preparations for the runoff vote, originally planned for Nov. 7, until the National Elections Commission investigates those allegations.)

But for activists, there were soon bigger concerns than sexist trash-talking. Less than a week before the first round of the election last month, Liberia’s senate quietly voted in favor of an amendment to the country’s anti-rape law, which would allow accused out on bail before their trials.

The timing felt calculated. By the time the law traveled through the House of Representatives and to the desk of the president, it was very likely that president wouldn’t be Ellen Johnson Sirleaf anymore. None of her would-be successors had shown much interest in protecting the law whose implementation was a signature accomplishment of her presidency. (In an interview with the Monitor and other foreign journalists, Mr. Boakai said he “couldn’t say” whether he would oppose the amendment or not. “We should not be hasty,” he explained.)

So on a bright blue morning the day before the election, a few hundred activists gathered in Monrovia and began marching down the city’s main drag, Tubman Boulevard, toward Congress. As they streamed past the mural of Sirleaf, they waved their own version of the country’s history in front of their president’s.

“Liberian women deserve better,” read one of their hand-painted signs.

“Over ten years later and we still have to fight about rape,” said a second. 

As another woman walked past the hopeful pictures of hydroelectric dams and vocational schools built by Sirleaf’s administration, she heaved an even blunter message skyward: “Why is this happening?” 

But as the women – and a few men – streamed past, men gathered on the sidewalks eyed them suspiciously.

“If someone says they were raped, there’s no investigation. They just throw him in jail,” muttered Abemego Bomwin.

“Police believe everything a woman says,” his friend Timothy Rodell agreed. “They never even ask a man for his side.” 

Further down the road, another man cupped his hands and shouted, “You wear short pants, you ask for this.” 

The activists didn’t reply.  

“As much as Sirleaf had her issues, there was something symbolic about having a woman president to keep us and our issues going,” says Naomi Tulay-Solanke, executive director of community health for ActionAid, who helped organize the march. “The small things we got, they were a foundation. But now we could lose it all.”

Tecee Boley contributed reporting.

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