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.