The Men Who Would Be Queen

Can anyone unseat Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf?

MONROVIA, Liberia — "Monkey still working, let baboon wait small," reads a banner hanging prominently over bustling Broad Street in central Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The message might seem opaque to outsiders, but in this politically obsessed country, the meaning is quite clear. The "monkey" -- a traditionally clever animal in Liberian folklore -- is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asking voters for another six-year term to continue the work of rebuilding this shattered West African state from the ravages of more than a quarter-century of dictatorship and civil war. The "baboon" -- or, "ugly baboon" in some variations of the slogan -- represents Liberia's fractured opposition movement.

While Liberia is often depicted in the international media as West Africa's great post-conflict success story, the country's politics remain bitter, divisive, and remarkably personal. In a busy political year for Africa -- roughly half the countries on the continent are holding national-level elections this year -- Liberia's, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 11, bears watching as both a measure of the country's stability and as a referendum on one of today's most intriguing world leaders.

Africa's first elected female head of state is well known and highly respected in the United States, to an extent unmatched by any recent African leader not named Mandela. She's a frequent visitor to Washington -- President Barack Obama calls himself an "extraordinary admirer" or her work -- is a ubiquitous presence on most-powerful women lists, wrote a well-reviewed memoir, has yukked it up with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and was this year's commencement speaker at her alma mater, Harvard.

Sirleaf's presidency has brought the country international respectability, slow but steady economic growth, and the longest period of peace since a military coup in 1980 that put in place dictator Samuel Doe's corrupt government and eventually devolved into the fratricidal civil wars of 1989-1996 and 1999-2003. Her pitch to voters is simple -- her "area" is development: "The construction of roads throughout Monrovia, clinics, schools, and hospitals in this country, that my area.... Back are light and water when there was none, and now you can open a pump in your house, that my area. Rebuilding Liberia's image with the international community and bringing back to Liberia those partners of ours who left this country, that my area," she told supporters at a recent campaign rally. She describes the country as "eight years into a two-decade process of recovery and development." But that process has often been excruciatingly slow.

The former World Bank official's international profile has helped bring in investors like ArcelorMittal and Chevron -- the latter attracted by recently discovered offshore oil reserves -- and had billions of dollars of the country's debt written off, but results have been slow to reach most Liberians, who, ranked 162 out of 169 on the U.N. Human Development Index, are still among the world's poorest people.

Even in Monrovia, most residents and businesses have to rely on generators for electricity -- this city of more than one million people has no working traffic lights -- and outside the capital, paved highways are still few and far between despite a highly publicized road-building campaign. There are few reliable statistics, but even Sirleaf's staunchest supporters put the unemployment level at 55 percent. Liberia remains dependent on a U.N. peacekeeping force of around 10,000 troops for its security, and the U.N. mission's mandate has been extended twice.

Sirleaf has made tackling corruption a centerpiece of her presidency, but the commission set up to deal with the problem has been criticized for a lack of independence and prosecutorial power. The president has also raised eyebrows with the appointment of her sons to plum jobs at the Central Bank, National Oil Company, and National Security Agency. The 73-year-old has also faced criticism for her decision to run again this year, despite having pledged to serve just one term.

Most controversially, Sirleaf has ignored a recomendation by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that she herself helped set up, recommending she be banned from holding public office for 30 years because of her activities during the 1980s raising funds for warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, now on trial for crimes against humanity at the Hague. Sirleaf describes this support as "paltry" and says she distanced herself from Taylor once she became aware of the extent of his human rights abuses.

All of which is to say that Sirleaf, despite her high international profile, is hardly invulnerable. Between 25 and 30 political parties are likely to contest this election, but only two are thought to have a real chance of unseating the president: the Liberty Party, led by attorney and former senator Charles Brumskine, and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by former justice minister and diplomat Winston Tubman. A recent online poll showed Brumskine's ticket narrowly edging out Sirleaf with all parties running, but showed Sirleaf as the heavy favorite in a second-round runoff. A runoff will be called if none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a likely scenario given the number of parties running.

A fourth candidate not to be ignored is former warlord Prince Johnson, who despite being implicated in thousands of deaths during the Liberian Civil War, including the videotaped torture and execution of former President Samuel Doe, is currently a senator with a substantial base of support in his home county, Nimba.

But Tubman, nephew of Liberia's longest-serving President William Tubman, has one significant ace in his deck: his running mate George Weah, a former international soccer star and the country's most famous man by a long shot. (In U.S. terms, it's something like Robert Kennedy Jr. running on a ticket with Michael Jordan.) Weah was the runner-up to Sirleaf in the 2005 election and actually won the first round of voting, though he was widely criticized for his lack of governing experience and education. He's attempted to rectify the last charge by traveling to the United States to earn a degree in business administration from the for-profit Devry University in Florida. The idea is that the combination of Tubman's resume -- a degree from Harvard Law School and a stint as a U.N. special envoy to Somalia -- and Weah's mass appeal can power the ticket past the political juggernaut of Sirleaf's Unity Party.

In an interview with Foreign Policy last month at his campaign headquarters in an unadorned office building in downtown Monrovia, Tubman described what he saw as the fundamental problem holding the country back.

"What has plagued Liberia is the disunity between Congo people [the descendents of the freed American slaves who founded the country in the 19th century] and country people [the indigenous Liberians, politically disenfranchised for most of the country's history]. I've seen it up close because I'm part country and part Congo.... After the country has suffered this huge setback because of the war, which I did everything in my power to stop, and all the killings, we need to go back to address that basic divide.... If we don't, once the U.N. troops leave, it could easily come back." Tubman, a member of the country's elite political class like his rivals Sirleaf and Brumskine, sees his partnership with Weah, an indigenous Liberian who "for a long time saw things the old way," as the first step of bridging this divide.

Tubman, a former official in Doe's government who spent most of the war years out of the country, frames his differences with the president less in terms of policy than biography, saying that he would do "many of the things she is doing," but his "credentials, to get things done, are better than hers." These "credentials" go back to Sirleaf's controversial support for Taylor during the war.

"When the war was raging, she ... was legitimizing those atrocities -- people who were killing, disemboweling pregnant women, cutting off limbs -- instead of saying ‘stop that, this is your own country,' she supported that. People in the international community support her because they're contrasting her with Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, but she sponsored Charles Taylor."

Brumskine, speaking to Foreign Policy at his house in the Congo Town area on the outskirts of Monrovia, also felt the international community was missing the real Sirleaf. "The Ellen Sirleaf that you portray in the United States is not the one we know in Liberia," he says. "We give to her that she's a historical figure -- the first woman president of our country, the first female leader of an African nation, but it ends there. People in the United States don't realize that Ellen cannot resolve the fundamental issues because Ellen is part of the problem. Ms. Sirleaf has been involved in just about every war this country has had. She cannot reconcile our people."

Like the president, Brumskine was once a supporter of Taylor and served as head of the Liberian senate under his presidency. But his relationship with the president soured and he fled into exile in 1999 -- as he puts it, "I realized the government was no longer acting in the interests of the people." Today, Brumskine is promising to reduce the powers of what he says has become an "imperial presidency."

"There is a provision in the constitution that requires the president to sign off on every expenditure," he says. "Right now, if you are a political adversary of the president or perceived as one, and do contract work for the government, when it's time to get paid and the payment bill is sent to her for approval, you don't get paid and there is no legal recourse."

Naturally, given the historic nature of Sirleaf's presidency, her opponents can't avoid the issue of gender entirely. Sirleaf has been widely lauded for public campaigns against sexual assault and for female literacy, as well as for appointing a significant number of women to government posts. But Tubman denies that the president has delivered the goods for Liberian women.

"Women aren't rushing out to support her, they aren't saying, 'you can't push a woman out,'" he says. "She hasn't really improved the lot of Liberian women. She only makes that claim among foreign audiences. All they've done is have seminars, rather than having a more constructive, practical working approach to get women more involved."

Sirleaf and her supporters have been equally harsh in describing her opponents. She has urged voters not to put the country in the "hands of those who can contribute and will contribute nothing to our people." Her son James, general manager of one of the country's largest banks, has said that Liberia under Tubman and Weah would be a "failed state" rife with "rampant fraud, abuse, and corruption ... at the highest echelons of political leadership."

When asked if he expects a free and fair election, Brumskine replied, "That's the easiest question you've asked. It cannot possibly be, without a direct intervention from God." Brumskine alleges that Unity Party loyalists in the National Election Commission have gerrymandered Liberia's voting districts in Sirleaf's favor and that media outlets loyal to the president have falsely accused him of holding unauthorized campaign rallies. The accusations are difficult to verify, but the potential for fraud certainly exists. The National Election Commission recently discovered that more than 10,000 people had registered to vote more than once in the upcoming elections.

This year's first major test of Liberia's electoral system will come on Aug. 23 with a national referendum on a series of proposed constitutional amendments. If the referendum passes, it would, among other changes, push back the date of the presidential vote by a month. The CDC is calling for a boycott of the referendum to protest what it sees as the pro-Sirleaf bias of the National Election Commission.

Elections are always a tense time, especially for a country with Liberia's history of political violence. The more than 3,000 refugees who are still living in Liberia having fled post-election violence in neighboring Ivory Coast are another stark reminder of the potential consequences of a disputed result. The CDC's chairman was recently attacked by angry party members during a disputed primary vote. 

Brumskine says the Liberty Party's conduct following the 2005 election demonstrates that Liberia has reached a point where candidates can lose without resorting to violence, but says the easiest way to prevent post-election chaos would be a "free, fair, and transparent election."

For all that this election is about shaping Liberia's uncertain future, it's hard to avoid the sense that it's also the swan-song of a generation of Liberian political leaders. The three main candidates in the race were among the top four finishers in the 2005 race (Weah, the vice presidential candidate, being the fourth); all were educated in the United States, spent years living in exile, and served in the administrations of previous presidents who were eventually executed or arrested.

Critical as this election may be, it could pale in comparison to 2017, which will likely also be the first vote conducted without U.N. troops providing security. The real test for the next six years may not be whether Sirleaf can complete her process, or whether a new president takes the country in another direction, but whether young Liberians -- the generation that grew up during the war rather than the one that got the country into it -- can develop a new class of political leaders to help the country finally escape its violent past.



How The Wire Explains Lebanese Politics

Does it matter who killed Rafiq al-Hariri? Ask Slim Charles.

At the end of the third season of The Wire, the fictional HBO series, a Baltimore drug gang led by Avon Barksdale is arming up to take revenge on a rival gang for the murder of his top lieutenant, Stringer Bell. Barksdale, however, knows that Stringer wasn't killed by the rival gang, but rather had fallen as part of a conspiracy of his own making and tries to explain to his top enforcer what really happened.

But the enforcer, Slim Charles, doesn't want to hear it. Knowing that the gang is in the other room, arming up to go to war over the murder and with a canny understanding of the tribal vengeance dynamic that's in play, Charles cuts off his boss.

"If it's a lie," he empathically tells Avon. "Then we fight on that lie."

The hard-nosed world of David Simon's Baltimore can go a long way to explaining the reaction on all sides to the conclusion of an international tribunal that Hezbollah operatives stalked and assassinated Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in a massive 2005 truck bombing along Beirut's seaside that also killed more than 20 members of his entourage and innocent bystanders.

The killing of Hariri, one of the region's most prominent Sunni political and business figures, sparked a wave of domestic and international outrage directed at Hezbollah's key ally, Syria, which at the time dominated Lebanon's security and political apparatus. Using the momentum of a popular uprising that formed at least a momentary unification of major Lebanese factions -- minus Hezbollah, of course -- Syria was forced to relinquish its 30-year hold on Lebanon.

But the idea that Hezbollah, the strongest and most ruthlessly competent faction in Lebanon, not to mention a close ally of the Syrian regime, might have been involved was hardly mentioned for years after the killing. In retrospect, the prospect that the vaunted "Resistance" of Lebanon had a hand in killing a national symbol would have punctured the myth that Hezbollah had never turned its formidable arsenal on Lebanon. And the idea that only Hezbollah would attack Israel and its collaborator allies in the occupation of southern Lebanon was a critical myth to the survival of the state.

Yes, people wanted the truth when everyone was convinced that the hit was a heavy-handed Syrian attempt to rein in a growing demand for Lebanese freedom. That fit the narrative arc of Lebanese oppression at the hands of a Syrian regime that never shied away from overdoing the brutality when threatened, but it also didn't upset the careful balance of denial and self-delusion that has allowed this deeply troubled and fractious little country to stumble along despite massive internal divisions and malignant external actors.

When a series of media leaks first suggested that in fact Hezbollah might have been involved in the killings, the response from Hariri's political supporters was near panic. Rafiq's son and political heir, Saad, who actually took a brief turn as prime minister in the aftermath of his father's killing, alternated between suggestions that Hezbollah wasn't involved and calls that everyone should ignore the media leaks and let the tribunal do its job in peace. The Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, Rafiq's close friend and political ally, actually described the allegation of Hezbollah's involvement as dangerous and a potential threat to the survival of the state.

As I reported on these early allegations, I was struck by the sheer terror in the voices of Hariri's Sunni supporters of what it might mean if these claims turned out to be true. But even more telling was the reaction of my sources that were close to Hezbollah. For political supporters or Shiites who had grown up with the notion that the Party of God was a protector and liberator, their reaction was as it remains today: a steadfast denial followed by a specious claim that Israel must have been involved. But the closer the sources were to Hezbollah, the more interesting the reaction became.

After weeks of being told by both sides that it was dangerous to even suggest such a thing, with many Hariri supporters even suggesting that they were praying it wasn't true, I casually mentioned the allegation to a Hezbollah commander that I had known for some time, expecting a pat denial and finger extended toward Tel Aviv.

Instead, he calmly looked at me and explained that he had no idea if Hezbollah was involved in Hariri's killing, but if it had been, the group would have had its reasons. It wasn't his refusal to reject that theory that shocked me; it was his absolute certainty that if they had killed him, that meant it wasn't only justified, but necessary.

Of course, the public stance of the party remains a flat denial, even if it's becoming abundantly clear that most Hezbollah supporters don't really care if their team did, after all, kill the former prime minister. Hezbollah's normally articulate and logical leader Hasan Nasrallah took to the airwaves on the night of Aug. 17 to argue that even accusing a member of the resistance of such an act was tantamount to treason, when everyone knows that Israel has infiltrated Lebanon's telecommunication sector and could have manipulated the data pointing at a cell of Hezbollah operatives. He stressed that the tribunal has been a witchhunt from its inception -- first focused on Syria until the initial witnesses were discredited, and later shifting to Hezbollah itself -- and that the entire process is designed to weaken the Lebanese state by pitting Sunni Muslim supporters of Hariri against the mostly Shiite supporters of Hezbollah.

In keeping with any good myth, many of Nasrallah's allegations are based in solid facts. Israel has been caught spending considerable effort to infiltrate Lebanon's phone networks and certainly has been credibly accused of assassinating its enemies in Lebanon over the years. And the first year of the tribunal's investigation was marred by overzealous pursuit of leads brought by witnesses who were later revealed to be misleading at best, and flat out lying at worst.

But Nasrallah's arguments can't overcome the necessary leap of logic to address the most important issues: that beyond the Israelis' easily understandable desire to spy on Lebanese phones in their constant intelligence battles against Hezbollah and Palestinian militants based in Lebanon, there's not a single shred of evidence that points in their direction on the Hariri assassination. No one has offered a credible theory as to why Israel would want to kill Hariri, a figure popular in the West and a symbol of the post civil war stability in Lebanon that Israel so obviously craves.

With all of the evidence released thus far pointing to the killers putting tremendous effort into making it appear that the attack was the work of Sunni jihadists based in northern Lebanon -- a fake video claimed the attack in the name of a fictitious group, using a young Palestinian refugee who, the indictment claims, was last seen in the company of one of the accused, while the phone SIM cards and truck used to deliver the blast were purchased in Tripoli, a city with no Shiite population to speak of -- it stretches belief that the Israelis would frame Hezbollah by pretending to be Hezbollah guys pretending to be al Qaeda guys. (Although it is theoretically possible.) There's just not a single bit of evidence to support the notion beyond a Lebanese sense that it's something the diabolical Mossad might do.

Despite these weak arguments, even if the tribunal provides strong evidence at trial to bolster what the prosecutors admit is a mostly circumstantial case, there's little chance of changing anyone's mind. Hezbollah's supporters don't back the party only because they believe in the group and its cause (although the vast majority certainly does), they support it for the same reasons all Lebanese political factions maintain their support: because Lebanon's static sectarian system is built around fear and bribery. Wavering in support of the sectarian or political machine that you and your family have been backing for decades would bring uncertainty and empower your rivals. The confessional system is deeply embedded in Lebanese society: Many Lebanese rely on the sectarian connections for their jobs, their children's educations, and a societal safety net of patronage opportunities. In a world where every party is seen as corrupt, fear-mongering machines, it's best to stick with the known quantity of your own kind. And as bad as things might be in Lebanon, everyone is afraid of what the other guys might do if your side shows weakness.

A perfect example would be Hezbollah's top Christian ally, former Army chief of staff Michel Aoun. "The General," as his fanatical supporters like to call him, made his name as a strong opponent of Syrian and foreign influence in Lebanon during the late 1980s. Seizing control of the Lebanese government and military at the tail end of the civil war, in 1989 he first assailed Christian militias in East Beirut before turning his sights on the Syrians, who were trying to consolidate their control over Lebanon. Defeated by the Syrian military, which bombed him out of his bed in the presidential palace, he escaped into exile for 15 years in Paris before returning after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. After a series of bitter fights with the anti-Syrian coalition over seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Aoun defected to an alliance with Hezbollah, with Syria's blessing.

His supporters, who were previously unified in their distrust of Hezbollah and its Iranian allies -- not to mention sharing a deep-seated hatred of the Syrian regime, which had disappeared scores of Aoun loyalists into mass graves and secret prisons throughout the 1990s -- didn't even flinch. Today, Aoun warns the region of the dangers of trying to overthrow the embattled Assad regime and even parrots its absurd claim that the only uprising in Syria is by criminals and terrorists.

How much support has this reversal cost General Aoun among his ferociously anti-Syrian, mostly Christian supporters? None. He's perhaps the single most popular Christian figure in Lebanon. It as if Michelle Bachmann suddenly came out in support of gay rights and socialized medicine and stormed to victory with the same backing she has today.

In other words, there's virtually no chance that any revelation about Hezbollah's involvement in the Hariri killing will change a thing for the group in Lebanon. The party's supporters look around at its enemies -- Israel to the south, Sunnis and Christians collaborating with the Americans -- and see the Syrian regime under massive international and domestic pressure. They just don't care if Hezbollah really did kill Hariri. If the group did do it, he must have had it coming. And if it's a lie, they're going to fight on that lie. It's the Lebanese way.