Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of three Peace Prize recipients, including a fellow Liberian peace activist
Sirleaf looks on during a 2010 EU-Africa summit in Tripoli / Reuters
For all the good in this year's Nobel Peace Prize trio of recipients -- its affirmation of the growing global leadership of woman, its acknowledgment that neither peace nor democracy comes without their full support and participation, its deeply convincing suggestion that the efforts of peace in 2010 may have been due more to women than men -- the name Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seemed to draw mostly sighs from the academics and journalists who cover West Africa. "Most common complaint of Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia is she spends all her time pleasing the West and not enough building things at home," reported journalist Elizabeth Dickinson. Yale professor Chris Blattman wrote on his blog, "I can't shake the feeling that she spent more time getting feted internationally, and running a U.S. book tour, than [on] the big issues at home."
Sirleaf, the president of Liberia since 2006, is not exactly a controversial figure, but she's not the Dalai Lama either, and her inclusion among today's three Nobel Peace Prize winners might have as much to do with Liberia's domestic and international politics as about the transforming role of female leadership in the developing world. "Shocked response in Monrovia to Johnson Sirleaf's Nobel prize, there are serious misgivings about Ma Ellen in Liberia," UK Independent report Daniel Howden tweeted from the Liberian capital, noting Sirleaf's "murky" record during that country's bloody civil war and reporting "thousands of opposition supporters" rallying against the prize. A local told him, "[The International] Community put fine flowers atop the grave but there are dead bones underneath."
The prize, of course, has gone to less-than-saintly characters before: Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, and Henry Kissinger, to name just a few of the leaders who achieved acts of great peace as well as great violence. But does Sirleaf really fit on this list? She did help bring Liberia out of war, her 2005 election saw the highest rate of female participation ever recorded in Africa, and she's made slow but real work at rebuilding her country, one of West Africa's great hopes before war tore it apart. Still, there have been a number of peace-builders in Liberia. Blattman, considering whether Sirlead has been "a force for peace," answered with a tepid, "Yes and no, but mostly yes." University of Massachusetts professor Michael Keating wrote, "It was actually Leymah Gbowee, a co-recipient of this year's Peace Prize, who did all the heavy lifting of peacebuilding while Charles Taylor was still in power." So why not limit the prize to Gbowee, a prominent activist whose efforts to end Liberia's civil war were chronicled in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell? Why add Sirleaf?
Well, Sirleaf is up for re-election. In four days. And her prospects are looking awfully shaky. In Liberia and in the West, there seems to be a growing consensus that the Nobel committee was not unaware of this timing. "I want her to win the election so I'm glad but the timing is strange," a Liberian government official told Howden. "Happy for Sirleaf, but the Nobel comes *4 days* before the election??" asked Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development. Monrovia-based American venture capitalist Matt Jones tweeted, "Sirleaf's Nobel feeds hugely in2 the conspiracy that her 2005 election & 2011 re-election r determined by foreign gov'ts."
Conspiracy theories aside, it's natural to wonder if the Nobel committee was hoping to play some role in the election. Not to fix the results, exactly, but to throw their weight behind their preferred candidate in an effort to remind Liberians why they elected Sirleaf in 2005. It would be a bit reminiscent of their 2009 recipient, Barack Obama, a decision that was widely viewed as more about nudging him toward certain policies than about rewarding past behavior.
Even if Liberia had national polling, it would be unreliable and incomplete. But election-watchers tend to describe Sirleaf's reelection as uncertain. And her loss could have serious ramifications for the country and the region. Her leading opponent is Harvard-educated lawyer Winston Tubman, whose real electoral support comes from his running mate, George Weah. A football star who came close to winning in 2005, Weah answered then-criticism about his fitness for the job by, in the years since, enrolling at Florida's DeVry University.
But the real concern is not for the lackluster Tubman or running mate Weah, the Sarah Palin of Liberia. It's for a less prominent candidate named Prince Johnson, a former warlord who has left a long and bloody trail across Liberia. Johnson has close ties to fellow warlord Charles Taylor, who is responsible for much of West Africa's worst violence. Taylor is currently on trial at The Hague for war crimes, but that hasn't sapped his alarming popularity back home in Liberia. Alpha Sesay, who monitored the trial for the Open Society Justice Initiative, told TheAtlantic.com's Robbie Corey-Boulet that Taylor's verdict "could go either way."
Next week's vote could lead to a runoff in November. If that happens, and if Taylor wins his trial and comes home to throw his considerable popularity behind Johnson, Liberia could see a return to the days of child soldiers and chaos. That's probably not an especially likely outcome, but neither is it unforeseeable. Even if Sirleaf lost to Tubman, the instability and resentments that comes with so many African political transitions could provide an opening for Johnson, Taylor, or another Taylor-backed warlord to seize power. Probably the best way to ensure continued peace in Liberia, even if not exactly prosperity, would be for Sirleaf to win a second term.
This thinking informs much of the Western world's involvement in the politics of Sub-Saharan Africa. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has an abysmal human rights record that seems to get worse all the time, for example, but the U.S. and other Western powers continue to back him because, as diplomatic officials say privately, urging a political transition would too dangerously risk another division along sectarian lines that could lead to renewed war. Isn't that the lesser of two evils? Maybe, maybe not -- that's one of the questions that makes great power diplomacy in the developing world, and in Africa in particular, so difficult. But it would be an odd game for the Nobel committee to be playing.