Tarnishing the Iron Lady of Africa

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may be the best president Liberia has ever had. But now even she faces criticism for failing to crack down on corruption.

MONROVIA—Drive through Liberia's capital today and one of the first things you notice are the clusters of new construction developments dotting the city, including some extravagant-looking concrete mansions. Just seven years ago, Monrovia's walls were riddled with bullets, parts of the town flattened in a rebel assault that forced out the country's infamous dictator, Charles Taylor. By the time he left office for exile in Nigeria, Liberia had seen 14 years of conflict, and an estimated quarter of a million people had been killed -- a significant cut of the country's population which is today just 3.8 million.

But these days, Africa's oldest republic is a darling of the donor community. And many believe the country's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, deserves most of the credit for the dramatic change. Sirleaf, the first female head of state ever elected in Africa, has won international adulation for stabilizing Liberia's political economy and admiration from, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A former senior World Bank official, the Liberian president has persuaded the United Nations to drop sanctions on Liberia's lucrative diamond and timber sectors, won IMF support for canceling the last of the country's $4.9 billion external debt and increased the size of the national budget from $80 million in 2005 to $350 million today. Roads have been repaired in parts of the country and electricity restored to parts of Monrovia.

That's the good news -- and good it is, particularly given the starting point. But in recent months, Sirleaf's untouchable image as the "Iron Lady," a moniker she earned during her hard years in opposition, has begun to tarnish around the edges. Critics, including members of her own government, have accused her of doing too little to tackle the country's rampant corruption; Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that she be barred from public office for 30 years due to her fleeting support for Taylor, now facing war crimes charges in The Hague; and she has decided to stand for a second term despite having vowed not to when she first took office. These are far from the worst accusations one can imagine in a post-conflict state, but they have weighed on her reputation nonetheless.

Sirleaf is the first to admit that her promise of a "zero tolerance" approach on corruption, arguably Liberia's biggest problem, was cut short by the political exigencies of winning support for her initial package of economic reforms. "The agenda before the legislature is so large that I needed to calculate where I put my weight. I have to cut my losses," she said in an interview with FP. She feared a legislative rebellion against her broader reform agenda if she tried to push through a number of anti-corruption laws too early on, she said. That's one reason the 71-year-old Sirleaf has said she will need a second term: so she can finish the job of cleaning up government.

Sirleaf is certainly fighting an uphill battle; corruption has deep historical roots in Liberia, tracing all the way back to the republic's founding. When the families of freed American slaves who returned to the continent to found Liberia in the 19th century failed to establish coherent governance, politics took its cues from other influences: the shady freemasonic lodges of the Americo-Liberian settlers and indigenous secret societies. Patronage and connections took precedence over procedure. And although those elite families saw their hegemony crumble when Samuel Doe seized power in 1980 in the wake of food riots, the old habits persisted and grew. Taylor's rebellion ousted Doe, and in so doing destroyed much of the remaining fabric of Liberia's government institutions. Then, Taylor's presidency became a case study in kleptocracy and warlordism. By political necessity, the transitional government that followed, preceeding Sirleaf's administration, was made up by many of those who made money during the Doe and Taylor years. Even some members of Sirleaf's government retains shady figures from the past.

The effect is evident. In recent months, Sirleaf has had to sack a number of ministers amid a wave of scandals. Her justice minister was fired for soft-pedaling an important corruption case; her information minister was suspended this year for pocketing the salaries of fictional employees; and her minister of the interior (who is also her brother) was also recently forced to stand down over the disappearance of county development funds. Five ministries, including finance and mines, have now been put under the spotlight by auditor general reports highlighting the disappearance of millions of dollars of public funds. Aside from the most visible offenders, diplomats also point out that a number of political untouchables have burrowed into the bureaucracy, many of them from Americo-Liberian elite families.

Sirleaf's defenders say the president is doing her best to keep her government clean, evidenced, for example, by the public sackings and her support for the audits exposing corruption. "We always knew there was a monster sitting in the dark room for years, with feces everywhere," says Augustine Ngafuan, Liberia's finance minister. "But now the lights have been switched on by the audit, people are confused and think the mess has been created today."

Critics, however, say she is being selective with how she tackles corruption. One oft-cited example is a former public works minister, Luseni Donzo, who was removed for mismanaging public contracts -- and then given as a job as a presidential advisor. Sirleaf's sister and brother-in-law are also top advisors, and her son is the director of the national security agency. Finance ministry insiders said in interviews that 40 percent of the national budget is spent on government salaries, ministerial costs, and perks --  high-profile officials can earn over $15,000 a month in salary payments. Some of the extravagant mansions that have sprung up in Monrovia's new found construction boom belong to well-connected political figures.

Frances Johnson Morris, the head of Liberia's anti-corruption agency, which has struggled to prosecute many high-profile cases, says there are "some merits in the public perception that not enough is being done on corruption." Due to a lack of resources, a condition that afflicts most programs in Liberia, Morris spends the majority of her time on public awareness campaigns.

Vowing to finish the job if she wins her re-election bid, Sirleaf is now expanding her political base. She won less than 20 percent of the vote in the first round back in 2005, defeating the soccer star George Weah in a hotly contested second round of voting. This time around, she is making sure there is not a similarly close repeat. She recently merged her Unity Party with two other parties, though her detractors say she unduly pandered to elite families to pull off the new coalition.

Sirleaf has also come under fire from the country's Truth and Reconciliation commission, which last year published a report advocating she resign the presidency for her role in supporting Taylor's rebellion. She has publicly apologized for her association with Taylor, but many Liberians still feel that her past makes her part of the problem rather than the country's salvation. "My fear is that those who have shaped the politics of this country continue to play an active role, there will be a vicious circle of bad governance, corruption and human rights violations," says Jerome Verdier, the chairman of the commission.

All this comes as the United Nations, which currently has just over 8,000 peacekeeping troops in the country, is assessing whether to draw down its mission or stay on and bolster what many observers expect will be a second term in office for Sirleaf. Worryingly, a potential drawdown coincides with evidence -- now circulating in diplomatic circles -- that Liberia, like its neighbors in West Africa, could become a host for narco-trafficking with rogue members of the security services complicit. U.S. officials are said to be monitoring this closely.  

Yet even with these worries, Sirleaf still has a lot going for her. She has the support and goodwill of the donor and diplomatic community, which wants to see her win a second term in office. Liberians will be hoping that she can use a second term to impose state authority, make government work for the people, and free the country from the shackles of its past. Because in spite of the recent criticism leveled at her, Sirleaf is arguably the best president Liberia has ever had.

Shaun Curry/WPA POOL/Getty Images


Mikey Weinstein's Crusade

Meet the man who's trying to purge evangelical Christianity from the Pentagon.

"Good morning Mikey, you f*** Jew. Let me be the first to call you a f*** Jew today."

Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein shares his hate mail with both friends and strangers the way elderly people show off photos of their grandkids. He has plenty of it to share. For the past four years, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been doing battle with a Christian subculture that, he believes, is trying to Christianize the U.S. armed forces with the help of a complicit Pentagon brass. He calls it the "fundamentalist Christian parachurch-military-corporate-proselytizing complex," a mouthful by which he means holy warriors in contempt of the constitutional barrier between church and state.

"The scary thing about all this," Weinstein says, "is it's going on not with the blind eye of the Pentagon but with its full and totally enthusiastic support. And those who are not directly involved are passive about it. As the Talmud says, 'silence is consent.'"

You may recall the headlines in January, when a company called Trijicon, the lead supplier of rifle scopes to the U.S. military, was found to have inscribed them with coded references to passages in the New Testament. That was Weinstein -- his organization threatened to sue Trijicon, which eventually agreed to discontinue the practice and distribute kits that would enable troops to retroactively secularize their scopes. Weinstein grabbed headlines again last month by pressuring the Pentagon to withdraw an invitation to the Rev. Franklin Graham, known for his Islamophobic oratory, to speak at a National Day of Prayer Task Force service. That provoked a stiff rebuke of Weinstein and his group from Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson and the task force chairwoman.

Built like a cinder block, with a bare cranium shaped like a howitzer round, Weinstein -- a former Air Force judge advocate general -- has the air of a born fighter. This battle is personal for him: Nearly 30 years ago, as a Jewish cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, he was twice beaten unconscious in anti-Semitic attacks. (There wouldn't have been much of a choice of targets -- only 0.3 percent of the members of the U.S. military identify themselves as Jewish. Ninety-four percent are Christian.) Visiting his son, Curtis, on the eve of his own second year at the academy in the summer of 2004, Weinstein was stunned to learn little had changed; over lunch at McDonald's, Curtis told his father that he had been verbally abused eight or nine times by officers and fellow cadets on account of his religion. Weinstein filed a complaint, in response to which the Air Force launched an investigation that revealed a top-down, invasive evangelicalism in the academy. Among other things, it revealed that the commandant of cadets taught the entire incoming class a "J for Jesus" hand signal, that the football coach had draped a "Team Jesus" banner across the academy locker room, and that more than 250 faculty members and senior officers signed a campus newspaper advertisement that proclaimed: "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world." Weinstein has been a First Amendment vigilante ever since.

Although he is frequently attacked for waging a war on Christianity, all but a fraction of Weinstein's clients are practicing Catholics and Protestants of mainline denominations who claim to be targeted by proselytizing evangelical superiors. The root of the problem, Weinstein believes, is a cluster of well-funded groups dedicated to Christianizing the military and proselytizing abroad. They include the Navigators, which, according to their website, command "thousands of courageous men and women passionately following Christ, representing Him in advancing the Gospel through relationships where they live, work, train for war, and deploy." There is Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, which has a permanent staff presence at U.S. military academies and whose directors have referred publicly to U.S. soldiers and Marines as "government-paid missionaries." Such groups, Weinstein argues, "are the flip side of the Taliban. They're like Islamic officers exercising Quranic leadership to raise a jihadi army." (A spokesman for the Navigators said the group had had no interaction with Weinstein and no comment on his activities. Military Ministry representatives didn't immediately respond to inquiries on the subject.)

Although Weinstein's past lawsuits have garnered plenty of attention, they were just a warm-up for his next battle. Last week, he announced his group was preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Zachari Klawonn, a Muslim U.S. Army specialist at Fort Hood, Texas, who claims he was harassed and threatened after a Muslim psychiatrist's deadly shooting spree there last fall claimed the lives of 13 people on the base. "The way [Klawonn's] commanders have dealt with this is either incompetence or it's intentional," Weinstein told the Washington Post. "But either way, it's just wrong." The subtext to Klawonn's case -- that the November assault by Maj. Nidal M. Hasan may have been provoked by an entrenched Islamophobia in the ranks, rather than the product of an isolated pathology or a terrorist conspiracy -- makes this among Weinstein's most controversial legal adventures.

Klawonn says he turned to MRFF for the same reason thousands (by Weinstein's count) of other service members have contacted the organization: It was the only group that was willing to help him. "I reach out today in a desperate and final last ditch attempt in search of answers, guidance and quite frankly, justice," Klawonn emailed Weinstein on May 8. He detailed how, since he joined the U.S. Army two years ago -- before Hasan's massacre -- he had been exposed to "a constant blast of the most degrading, humiliating and dehumanizing religious and cultural discrimination." Klawonn has accused his superiors of fostering a "blatantly false, propagandized" idea of Islam that conflates its minority radical elements with the Islamic faith generally. "This is outright bigotry," Klawonn wrote in his email, "officially sanctioned and taught by the U.S. Army itself."

Commanders at Fort Hood rejected Klawonn's allegations, insisting they had responded swiftly to claims of anti-Islamic bigotry since the killings. "This base takes the concerns of its Muslim soldiers and all its soldiers very seriously," spokesman Christopher Haug told the Washington Post. "His commanders are really trying to help him." 

Is Weinstein mad? To his enemies, he is demonic and hell-bound. "The joy I get when i realize you are put away for eternity in the Red Hot Hotel and the rest of the Muslims [sic]...keeps me going," reads one of the many digital turds in Weinstein's in-box. Others take a more proactive approach to Weinstein's soul. "Lots of people prayed to Jesus for Mikey today," says another email Weinstein received on May 6, the National Day of Prayer. "Spiritual struggle going on my friend - Praise God."

Barack Obama's administration, Weinstein says, is apparently less interested in his work than some Christians are in his spiritual well-being. He has made several requests for a meeting at the White House to plead his case for presidential action, just as he did during the Bush years, but to no avail. Asked about Weinstein's work, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith declined via email to comment on it directly but said that the Defense Department "places a high value on the rights of military members to observe the tenets of their respective religions. [It] does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services." In fiscal year 2009, she said, the Pentagon fielded just 15 formal complaints from its 1.4 million active-duty members relating to religious matters.

Weinstein, however, is not inclined to accept such assurances. "Fundamentalist Christianity in the military is like magma," he says, "and every hour or so it bursts up like a little volcano and you have to beat it down."