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APARC Director Charles Stith on new hope for Liberia

Time for the West to ‘stop talking the talk’ and start ‘walking the walk’

Charles Stith, director of BU's African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARAC) and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was sworn in as president of Liberia on January 17, said during her inauguration speech that her priorities are maintaining peace and law and order in the African country, which has seen more than two decades of war. The 67-year-old former World Bank economist won a runoff election in November, defeating George Weah, a former international soccer star.

Liberia had enjoyed a relatively stable economy until a bloody military coup in 1980 led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Conflicts after Doe’s execution in 1990 killed more than 200,000 people before President Charles Taylor — known for misrule and corruption — took refuge in Nigeria in 2003 when another wave of insurgency brought on the collapse of his regime. Johnson Sirleaf promised to “wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists or by whom it is practiced.” Today, 16,000 UN troops are keeping an uneasy peace in Liberia.

Charles Stith, director of BU’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, talked with BU Today about the challenges that Johnson Sirleaf faces as she tries to rebuild Liberia, which has an unemployment rate of 80 percent and whose capital, Monrovia, has no running water.

BU Today: Do you think Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be able to lift Liberia out of more than 25 years of war and instability?

Charles Stith: The short answer is yes. She certainly is the right person at the right time to help this country, which has been mired in violence and corruption over the past couple of decades, to right itself. She’s had a career in which she has personified courage and discipline and integrity, and that’s exactly the kind of leader the country needs at this point. Now, having said that, the lifting is a lot heavier than she can do alone, and the world has an opportunity and an obligation to help her begin to lay the kind of foundation that will enable the country to develop, and at some point prosper.

There is talk of the United States canceling a portion — or all — of Liberia’s $3.3 billion debt,  and giving the new government supplemental funding of up to $100 million. Do you think this is a good idea?

Debt forgiveness is important because it enables Liberia to reposition itself in the global marketplace, but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that the country is going to need, certainly in the short term, significant amounts of assistance, both bilateral and multilateral, to get back on its feet. In order to ensure stability in the region, we want to try to make sure that Liberia works. It wasn’t always a poor country. Liberia has tremendous natural resources in terms of diamonds and rubber, but it’s been mismanaged and exploited. And there are countries all around the world that have benefited from the natural resources and riches that the country possesses. Now is the opportunity for them to step up and help this woman of great integrity to reconstruct her country.

Johnson Sirleaf has to contend with senators who were involved in factional fighting over the years and the fact that there was postelection rioting by Weah’s backers. Does she have enough support to do what she needs to do?

She has a lot going for her. She’s highly talented, recognized, and respected as somebody who is committed to the country and doesn’t have a personal agenda. Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership is certainly a great departure from the succession of kleptocrats that have been running the country over the past three decades. She won with 60 percent of the vote, but 40 percent of the people in the country wanted somebody else. A 60-40 plurality is certainly significant in many democratic elections, but that’s within the context of countries that are stable and have not been involved in civil war over protracted periods of time. She’s got quite a job ahead of her in trying to please not only the folks who voted for her, but also the folks who voted against her. But quite frankly, I think there is every indication that people are prepared to give her some support. Then again, it’s incumbent on us to appreciate that she can’t do it by herself. And for all the rhetoric we hear coming out of the West about the necessity of having capable, competent, honest leadership as a precondition for support — the Liberians have done it. Now it’s time for the West to step up to the plate. We talk about the need for Africans to elect competent, capable, honest leaders. Now we have one in Liberia, so let’s stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. This is a person we need to get behind.