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Is the Iron Lady Rusting?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the darling of aid NGOs, the Iron Lady of Liberia, an “uncompromising woman” and a champion fighter of corruption. So the recent appointment of her son as chief of the national oil company shouldn’t cause concern, right? Sirleaf is above nepotism. The development NGOs are behind her, and they know best.

To be sure, Sirleaf really is an improvement over the governments of her predecessors. Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor were neither peaceful nor effective presidents. But even the Iron Lady of Liberia can’t escape the habit in Africa of extending government largesse to friends and family members:

[A] former public works minister, Luseni Donzo, who was removed for mismanaging public contracts [was] then given . . . 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.

Sirleaf can afford to be so generous because international aid groups and development NGOs send her millions of dollars every year. Indeed, our own State Department’s 2013 budget sets aside $2.7 billion for “economic and transition assistance” in countries like Liberia and South Sudan, and a further $2.1 billion to support international peacekeeping missions in Liberia, Somalia, Congo, and elsewhere. To keep that money flowing, Sirleaf wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last year that gushed about the great improvements her administration has made to basic services and to build schools and roads, boost the status of women, manage finances, and many more wonderful things.

“Like most other developing countries, Liberia aspires to outgrow the need for aid. We look forward to a day when our economy thrives, when our children no longer suffer from preventable diseases and when the women of our country can move beyond mere subsistence and have genuine opportunity,” she wrote. How favoritism in parceling out lucrative government jobs serves to realize that beatific vision is far from clear.

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  • WigWag

    It’s not exactly like nepotism is absent from the state and federal governments in the United States or from the private sector for that matter.

    Remind me again why President Bush appointed Colin Powell’s son Michael to Chair the FCC.

  • Luke Lea

    According to Wikipedia there are 16 indigenous ethnic groups in Liberia speaking 32 different languages. Again according to Wikipedia, there are 15 counties in Liberia, each of which is subdivided into a number of districts. These districts in turn are subdivided into clans, which are large extended families united by blood and consanguineous marriages. In such tribal and clan-based societies not to favor ones relatives is considered wrong.

    If we want to foster representative democratic institutions in a country like Liberia it will have to be in ways that build on these realities rather than wishing them away.

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