by Dino Mahtani
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.