Liberia: Reaction to Sirleaf's Nobel

Some say Sirleaf shouldn't have won the prize.


Issouf Sanogo

MONROVIA, Liberia — Reactions were mixed to news that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni democracy activist Tawakkul Karman.

Johnson Sirleaf, 72, became the first African woman to be elected president in 2005, marking a decisive shift away from nearly two decades of bloody coups and civil war, a period in which women were marginalized and rape and other acts of violence against women were widespread.

Gbowee mobilized women across religious and ethnic lines to help end Liberia's second civil war and ensure women's participation in elections.

The announcement of the prize came on one of the final days of a heated campaign for the presidency.

Johnson Sirleaf is seeking reelection in a race against 15 candidates, including football legend George Weah, who came second to Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, and ex-warlord Prince Johnson, who presided over the torture and killing of former president Samuel Doe and is now a senator. Liberians go to the polls Tuesday.

Read more: Profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

While huge crowds rallied in the Liberian capital in support of Weah's party the Congress for a Democratic Change, Johnson Sirleaf entertained supporters, family and friends at her home. About a hundred people were sprawled out around the president's swimming pool, sharing the traditional Liberian dish of bitter leaf and fermented cassava.

Johnson Sirleaf told the gathering she was "pleasantly surprised" and that the award was a "recognition of the many years of struggle for justice, for peace and the promotion of development."

"For me it means a lot," said Etweda Cooper, the mayor of Edina, Liberia's oldest city. "Both [the president] and Leymah are people I've worked with in promoting peace and in maintaining peace. It's important for her, yes, but it's even more important for the country. It will remind Liberians that it was Liberian women who brought peace to Liberia."

The award should silence naysayers, said Miatta Fahnbulleh, a Liberian singer.

"There were a lot of people saying they didn't see what the president did, not appreciating what has been accomplished. I'm saying one of the most honored institutions in the world has recognized President Johnson Sirleaf."

The group of women Gbowee organized to petition for an end to Liberia's civil war — made famous in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell — continue to gather every day at the football pitch across from Johnson Sirleaf's home.

"We are so happy," said Bernice Freeman, who was among the women who traveled with Gbowee to Accra in 2003 to demand that Liberia's warring factions sign a peace accord. The women succeeded. "At last the world has recognized us. The whole world has won a prize."

Some thought that Johnson Sirleaf, who initially supported warlord Charles Taylor, shouldn't have won a prize for peace.

Johnson Sirleaf testified before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she established upon taking office that she had donated money to the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, rebel leader-turned-president Taylor's war machine.

Though Johnson Sirleaf subsequently withdrew her support, the commission recommended she and a host of other Liberian politicians be barred from public office.

Jerome Verdier, chairman of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the award "debases" the prize. "Corruption, lack of public integrity, impunity, inequitable distribution of public resources...do not ever build peace or contribute to it."

"She doesn't deserve that prize. She went to TRC. She said she gave $10,000 to NPFL, the same NPFL who killed members of my family during the war," Wellington Kintimba, 28, said as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of used clothing through downtown Monrovia.

One of Johnson Sirleaf's critics contends the award will alienate the president from ordinary Liberians.

"It will harden support against [her]," said John Morlu, Liberia's former auditor general whose contract was not renewed by Johnson Sirleaf after the two engaged in public spats. "Liberians already complained she spent too much time on getting international awards while they suffer."

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a majority living on $1.25 per day or less.

Wade Williams is an editor at FrontPage Africa, Liberia’s most widely circulated newspaper. She is also a fellow of New Narratives, a mentorship program for independent media in Africa. Mae Azango is a writer for FrontPage and a New Narratives fellow. Emily Schmall is New Narratives' country director in Liberia.  

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