Sierra Leone and Liberia: The Prospects for Development, Peace and Prosperity

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gestures during her inaugural address at the capitol building in Monrovia, Liberia, on January 16, 2006. (Photo: Jim Watson / AFP-Getty Images)

Sierra Leone and Liberia have many things in common: They are English-speaking neighbors, home to the descendents of freed slaves (Freetown, Monrovia), have had two identical menaces in the forms of Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, have recently ended acrimonious civil wars, and have postwar presidents who were once employees of the United Nations.

Notwithstanding these striking similarities, the seeming dissimilarities of their presidents, as revealed in their inaugural speeches, are of peculiar interest. Although given 10 years apart, one would expect some likeness in the speeches of leaders who have identical problems. But in an examination of Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's inaugural speech (1996) and newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's inaugural speech (2006), you will notice little resemblance.

The apparent unlikeness of these two postwar inaugural speeches underscores the action of disgruntled soldiers who successfully toppled the government of President Kabbah in May 1997. It also helps us to understand why Sierra Leone, 10 years after President Kabbah's first inaugural speech, is still unable to wiggle its way out of despondent poverty and control the chronic unemployment of its youth — key factors that fueled its civil war in the first place. On the other hand, it may explain why President Sirleaf's Liberia has more potential for development, peace and prosperity.


The recently ended, decade-long civil wars, which began Liberia and spilled over into Sierra Leone, were marked by some of the most unsightly war crimes against humanity. They were caused by factors such as economic and social marginalization, and political intolerance of certain sectors of society by the aristocratic and paternalistic regimes of the past. Foreign realpolitik was also a factor, pursued through covert and overt action and compounded by popular youth movements in both countries. However, the true origin of both wars can be traced back to the minority Americo-Liberian's (freed slaves) anachronistic and paternalistic government that ruled the majority native population in Africa's first republic — Liberia — for many years, that is until Samuel Doe put an end to it on April 12, 1980, in one of West Africa's bloodiest military coups.

Unlike the United States, which in 1847 set up and abetted the regime of freed American slaves that invariably marginalized the native population on the rubber plantations of Liberia, Britain probably foresaw such a problem when it ended colonization in Sierra Leone by handing power to Sir Milton Margai, a native from the majority Mende-speaking people.

But it was through the advocacy of people like U.S. Senator John Tyler Morgan, who argued on the late 19-century senate floor, "Africa was prepared for the Negro as certainly as the Garden of Eden was prepared for Adam and Eve," that Africa indeed became the Garden of Eden for freed slaves and colonization: In Mobutu's Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Charles Taylor's Liberia, in Foday Sankoh's Sierra Leone, in Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola, among many others.

After pouring over $500 million dollars in aid on the Doe regime between 1981 and 1985, former secretary of state George P. Shultz would later think aloud, "Perhaps I made a wrong career choice, if it was people like that I was going to meet. Doe was unintelligible."

Howard W. French, in his well-researched book, A Continent for the Taking, puts it this way:

"As they settled the land, the Americo-Liberians fondly strove to reproduce the only model they knew, the plantation society of the American South. Affecting top hats and morning coats, the freedmen ruled Africa's first republic in a clannish and conservative manner, established their own curiously paternalistic brand of apartheid, systematically excluding so-called aborigines from positions of privilege and power."


Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was born on February 16, 1932, in Pendembu, in the eastern district of Kailahun. He was educated in Sierra Leone and England, studying economics at the undergraduate level before going on to study law. He worked briefly with the British colonial system before working as a civil servant in independent Sierra Leone. Before his twenty plus years of service with the United Nations Development Program (U.N.D.P.), he was once a subject of a commission of inquiry for corruption in Sierra Leone (1967) at the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (S.L.P.M.B.). Otherwise, he traveled widely and mustered much experience in diplomacy during his international service with the U.N. He served in the West Africa Division of the U.N.D.P. in New York, as the resident representative of U.N.D.P. operations in Lesotho, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. He retired from the U.N.D.P. head office in New York as a coordinator of assistance between the U.N. and liberation movements such as the African National Congress (A.N.C.) and the South West African People's Organization (Swapo). His entry on the Sierra Leonean political stage came when the military junta of the National People's Reform Council (N.P.R.C.) asked him to chair the National Advisory Council, which was established to facilitate the restoration of constitutional rule and the drafting of a new constitution for Sierra Leone following a 1992 military coup. He was elected president of Sierra Leone in 1996, when he became chairman of the Sierra Leone People's Party (S.L.P.P.).

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the Liberia's capitol, on October 29, 1938. Unlike Kabbah, Sirleaf is a descendant of Americo-Liberians. She was educated in Liberia and the United States. In the U.S., at Harvard she earned a masters degree in public administration. She entered politics very early, serving as Minister of Finance from 1972-73 in then President William Tolbert's cabinet, a position she would abandon because of a public spending disagreement. She was twice a political prisoner in Liberia. She narrowly escaped Samuel Doe's witch-hunt in the 80's. After fleeing to Kenya, she began an international civil service career. (Note: Kabbah chose self-exile following his 1967 corruption investigation; Sirleaf had to flee political persecution.)

Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 to participate in politics during which she was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for opposing Samuel Doe — she served two years. She was again locked up briefly by Charles Taylor, who she had supported against Samuel Doe. Like Kabbah, Sirleaf has vast experience with the U.N.D.P. From 1992-97 she worked at the U.N.D.P. Regional Bureau for Africa as assistant administrator, and later became the director. She returned to Liberia, defeated world football star George Weah in a presidential campaign, and became the first African woman head of state.


An overview of both speeches:

President Sirleaf's inaugural speech is well organized. The same cannot be said of President Kabbah's inaugural speech. After a few lines of dedication, Sirleaf goes straight to the issues. Although her victory brought important dignitaries to Liberia for the inauguration, she did not dote on them.

President Kabbah in contrast, before accepting the position, burned four long paragraphs on thanking and praising almost everyone in attendance. Thereafter he proceeded to identifying and magnifying the graveness of the state of the nation but with nary a concrete plan of action statement.

In retrospect of the wars:

President Kabbah: "The tasks ahead are monumental. You are aware that our country stands virtually in ruins, with thousands slaughtered, soldiers and civilians alike, tens of thousands maimed and mutilated, and hundreds of thousands displaced, traumatized, living in poverty, diminished in spirit and body, and the country's moral, physical, and social infrastructure destroyed."

President Sirleaf: "Today, we wholeheartedly embrace this change. We recognize that this change is not change for change sake, but a fundamental break with the past, thereby requiring that we take bold and decisive steps to address the problems that for decades have stunted our progress, undermined national unity, and kept old and new cleavages in ferment."

In his following paragraph, Kabbah went on to discuss the cause of Sierra Leone problem while Sirleaf went straight to the solution of Liberia's problem when she said, "We pledge anew our commitment to transparency, open government, and participatory democracy for all of our citizens."

"Political Renewal":

President Sirleaf: "First, let me declare in our pursuit of political renewal, that the political campaign is over. It is time for us, regardless of our political affiliations and persuasions, to come together to heal and rebuild our nation. For my part, as President of the Republic of Liberia, my Government extends a hand of friendship and solidarity to the leadership and members of all political parties, many of them sitting right in front of me, which participated in our recent presidential and legislative elections. I call upon those who have been long in the struggle — and those who recently earned their stripes — to play important roles in the rebuilding of our nation."

There is nothing for comparison here except that president Kabbah concluded his speech by asking Sierra Leoneans "to show tolerance for the views of others, magnanimity to our transgressors for their many grievous wrongs to use of the past, and turn a new page for the future and for the good of Sierra Leone," as if he were not a part of that past.

"Economic Renewal":

Both leaders acknowledged the devastation of the economies of their nations by years of warring and the excessive corruption of successive regimes. Unlike President Kabbah, President Sirleaf pledged to change that trend by outlining specific plans such as encouraging those investors that will add value to Liberia's environment in the process of exploiting its natural resources. She discussed how to encourage and give small loans to farmers to jumpstart the economy. She also discussed one common and sensitive topic in both countries that Kabbah never dared to touch: the land tenure system, which is among the greatest enemies to many African economies. She promised to revisit the land tenure system to give investors more flexibility and access to land. "This will call for a transformation of our economic vision into economic goals that are consistent with our national endowment and regional and global dynamics," she said.


President Sirleaf outlined how she will make government effective in Liberia:

"The workforce in our ministries and agencies is seriously bloated. Our Administration will therefore embark on a process of rationalizing our agencies of government to make them lean, efficient, and responsive to public service delivery. This will require the creation of a meritocracy that places premium on qualification, professionalism, and performance."

President Kabbah made a promise to the people:

"The outlines of my government's policy in the coming years have been set out in my Party's manifesto. The practical details will be spelt out to you when I publish my government's legislative programs, hopefully in my maiden speech to Parliament."


On this very important matter of grave consequence to the economies of both nations, President Sirleaf was emotional when she outlined how she is going to handle corruption in Liberia. She made a pronouncement — "Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy." — and took a very clear stance on corruption when she said that members of her administration would declare their assets and that she will declare hers first to lead by example.

The same cannot be said of President Kabbah who went on making promises on every important issue of statecraft, sometimes referring people to his party's manifesto.

The word "corruption" appeared only once in President Kabbah's speech when he blamed past regimes without any insight of how he would make a difference in that area of governance. Whereas President Sirleaf stated, "My Administration will also accord high priority to the formulation and passage into law of a National Code of Conduct, to which all public servants will be subjected," hammering a big headed nail of credence into her stance on corruption.

Foreign Policy:

On foreign policy, President Sirleaf stressed noninterference in other countries and good neighborliness whereas President Kabbah praised foreign dignitaries in almost every paragraph of his speech. He seemed to be more concerned with celebrating his victory than talking substance.


On the Web

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's Inaugural Speech, Freetown, Sierra Leone, March 29, 1996

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Inaugural Speech, Monrovia, Liberia, January 16, 2006

Sirleaf's presidency is the first true representation of a non-strongman leadership democracy in Liberia since 1980. Her recent inaugural address perfectly qualifies as the first postwar democratic inauguration in Liberia. If President Kabbah had had good action plans in his 1996 inaugural address, Sierra Leone would have marked the end of hostilities that year. Instead, his lethargic approach to leadership created the need for a 17,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.

The threat of violence still looms in Sierra Leone as it approaches its third "democratic" inauguration in 2007 — a journalist was beaten to death recently, and Paul Kamara could barely stand when he came out of the infamous Pandemba road prison after the supreme court acquitted him for reprinting the outcome of an inquiry into President Kabbah's 1967 corruption charges. Many journalists are fleeing persecution and many more are leaving the country after imprisonment. The authorities in President Kabbah's government are dragging their feet with regard to the registration of formidable political parties. Excessive corruption and chronic unemployment of the youth are all signs that President Kabbah's 1996 inaugural address lacked substance.

President Sirleaf, who recognized her opponent in her inaugural speech, showed signs of tolerance. It signaled in itself the commencement of outstanding leadership. And she did not stop short of stating categorically that anyone who attempts to disturb the hard-earned peace in Liberia would be dealt with accordingly.

Until President Kabbah and his team start looking at the issues transparently and pragmatically, Liberia's progress will take place in leaps and bounds over Sierra Leone's.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Karamoh Kabba.