Chasing Democracy in Liberia

In our first class meeting, when we sat around talking about democracy, it was evident that there is no one, cut and dry, way to define it. The democracy we know here in the west is different from democratic practices applied around the rest of the world. Democracy is variable, it is fluid, and it is ever changing. The western style of democracy practiced here in North America is not necessarily the most effective type of democracy that a developing third world country should adopt. Democratic practices must be molded by each country to best address the specific needs of its citizens as a whole.

In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President in the small west-African country of Liberia and is the first woman to ever be elected head of state in the continent. Taking the position after 14 years of civil war in the country, she was faced with great obstacles and demands from Liberian citizens, and international influences.  According to her memoir, “Liberians had not experienced government-provided electric power … Unemployment was unacceptably high … Pipe-borne water was non-existent … schools were in ruins … mortality rates among all sectors were frighteningly high” (p 273).  An enormous amount of national debt, transparency and corruption in the government, extremely low literacy rates, poverty and educating the “lost” children to the war, all had to be addressed. And she had to do it quickly.

The people of Liberia elected Ms. Johnson Sirleaf with the idea that she could “wave a magic wand, and the next day there will be total transformation” (p 273).  There is no doubt that she and her cabinet faced many challenges, and that the citizens placed many demands on the government to repair their lives from the war.  In Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s memoir, This Child Will Be Great, written after being elected, she addresses some challenges ahead for Liberia, and her plans to rebuild the country.

As stated in her memoir and during her Inauguration speech, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf planned to put great focus on children, youth, and young adults. The civil war destroyed schools, teachers fled, and the enrollment of children in schools was astoundingly low. President Johnson Sirleaf created the Liberian Education Trust, which is a program that aims to build (or revamp) 50 schools, train 500 teachers, and give 5000 scholarships to young girls. In one year after taking office, the enrollment rates in school increased by 40%.  The Education Reform Act led to tuition-free enrolment and mandatory attendance for all primary school aged children.

Helping the children gain access to education in hopes of a brighter future for themselves and for the country is one main focus of the President. Another is the youth and young adults of the nation, of whom many were ex-combatants and child soldiers. Creating jobs for this generation of citizens is necessary for building democracy in the country. Providing training and skill development to help rebuild the country is the goal of Ms. Johnson Sirleaf.  Rebuilding the infrastructure, paving roads, rehabilitating the mining, forestry and rubber trades will all help create jobs, and allow the generation to actively participate in the transformation of the country.

Although in her memoir, she also mentions political, economic, governance and reconciliation as other areas of focus during her term, I believe her focus on the younger generations is exactly where the spotlight should be.  Education is the tool for everything. For 14 years, most of the school-aged children did not attend school, and so an entire generation has missed that opportunity. It is essential to develop the skills and education level of these citizens, as they will be the future of the country.

I look forward to getting the “word on the street” about how satisfied (or dissatisfied) the people of Liberia are with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in regards to her educational and job creation policies during her term in office.  It is important to keep in mind when evaluating democratic progress, that the social educational systems that are in place here in North America may not be the best solution for this small west-African country.  To evaluate democracy, we must appraise the opinions of people of the country more heavily than a comparison to another country’s democratic practices; for each country must adapt her own style in the best interest of all citizens.

1. Johnson Sirleaf, Ellen. This Child Will Be Great. New York, NY: HaperCollins, 2010.      Print.

2. Title is a quote by Leon Trotsky

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