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The Iron Lady’s Ultimate Test

9 minute read

On nov. 13, 71⁄2 months after Ebola first came to Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took to the radio to announce what Liberians had been longing to hear: the tide had turned in the battle against the virus. The 90-day state of emergency that Sirleaf put in place in August to counter Ebola would be lifted. Curfews would be relaxed; markets would reopen. Life in Liberia, suspended by the virus, would again approach normality.

Sirleaf’s address was no victory speech—it will be months, if not longer, before Liberia can be declared Ebola-free. But the order acknowledged what many humanitarian groups on the ground have been whispering for weeks: the number of infected is declining in Liberia, and, for the moment at least, the nightmare of an out-of-control outbreak has been averted. In her address, the President promised to beat Ebola by Christmas. “We feel that we now have the ability to bring this disease under control,” Sirleaf told Time a day later in her offices on the top floor of the Foreign Ministry. “I feel very confident now that we can move ahead.”

Despite the recent progress, the Ebola outbreak has been devastating for Liberia, not just in the number of dead—at least 2,964—but also in how it has dashed Sirleaf’s long-gestating plans for development. In many ways, Ebola has exposed the limitations of a government that has soaked up billions of dollars in international support and loan forgiveness over the past decade, raising questions about endemic corruption and the legacy of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate long regarded as a bright star among Africa’s leaders. “There was this impression that Liberia had achieved so much, that with Ma Ellen as our President, we were doing fine,” says Catherine Cooper, a doctor at Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, using a common nickname for the President. “But that progress was not sustainable. Ebola has shown us that we didn’t really build a solid foundation.”

Sirleaf, 76, has spent the past eight years attempting to build a viable state from the smoldering wreckage of civil wars that raged over 14 years and led to the deaths of some 250,000 Liberians. Three years away from the end of her second, and constitutionally mandated last, term, she is now watching the fragile edifices of her 10-year plan collapse around her. Liberia’s economic growth had averaged 8% over the past seven years but has come to a standstill during the Ebola outbreak. Vital infrastructure projects were put on hold as international contractors fled in fear. Commerce has ground to a halt. The International Monetary Fund projects an inflation rate of 13.1% by year’s end, nearly twice the rate before Ebola arrived. Hunger and women selling sex for food, scourges of the civil-war years, are on the rise. Most painful of all for a President who promised to focus on education, schools have yet to reopen after being shut down in July in an effort to stop the virus’s spread.

For all this and more, Sirleaf blames the virus. “We have not reached the full goals of what we planned,” she says, citing her pledge to reduce poverty by bringing water, electricity, roads and good governance to the country. “We were just poised to implement all of those things. And Ebola has introduced a real setback toward the achievement of those goals.” But Sirleaf’s critics wonder, Was Ebola truly unstoppable, or did the virus expose the shallowness of the President’s reforms? The President’s legacy will hang on the answer.

The Iron Lady

With ebola still spreading in Liberia, albeit much more slowly, Sirleaf’s decision to end the state of emergency may seem premature. But Sirleaf believes the shift will encourage investors and contractors to return and jump-start Liberia’s economy. The Ebola crisis, she says, cannot be allowed to completely derail the country. “A state of emergency imposes certain fears and prevents those who should be returning home, including our contractors, our investors, and citizens who need to come back to their jobs, from coming back.”

That kind of unsentimental decisionmaking is as much Sirleaf’s trademark as her string of pearls and elaborate head wraps. Born in Monrovia, educated at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a high-ranking veteran of both the World Bank and Citibank, Sirleaf straddles the line between technocrat and politician. After the civil war ended in 2003, Sirleaf, a former Finance Minister, campaigned for the presidency on a platform of good governance and poverty reduction, becoming Africa’s first elected female leader in 2006. In 2011 she won the Nobel Peace Prize, with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, for her efforts to secure peace and promote women’s development. She adroitly leveraged billions in debt relief for her country, and in September she persuaded President Barack Obama to deploy thousands of soldiers to Liberia to combat Ebola. “She’s been successful in getting international support and encouraging some new investment into Liberia—and that’s really important,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, an international-affairs-policy institute based in London.

But that international support hasn’t protected Sirleaf from accusations at home that her government bumbled the fight against Ebola. “There’s been tremendous frustration at the slowness of the ­Liberian government to respond,” says Vines. One of the reasons Ebola spread rapidly in the capital was a distrust in the government so profound that many believed the virus was a hoax manufactured by the government to drum up financial support from international donors. Health care workers’ promised salaries were steeply reduced, and sometimes not paid at all—an issue Sirleaf says she will fix. It didn’t help that one of the most visible manifestations of foreign largesse was a fleet of bright new SUVs parked in the Health Ministry parking lot, even as the country’s half-dozen ambulances struggled with the rising number of Ebola patients. “We needed more ambulances in the streets and transportation for our health care workers, not air-conditioned cars for ministers,” says Kenneth Martu, a community organizer in the West Point slum of Monrovia.

More important, despite tens of millions of dollars invested in the government’s health sector since the end of the civil war, Liberian officials were unable to implement basic infection-control measures in the country’s hospitals that might have stemmed the spread of the virus. In some cases, attempts to control the virus backfired. Sirleaf’s decision, without warning, to quarantine the densely packed West Point slum in August resulted in riots, the death of a 16-year-old boy shot by overzealous guards and further distrust. Residents had no food, no water and no access to medical care. “The quarantine was a catastrophe,” says Martu.

Sirleaf personally apologized to the family of the dead boy but maintained that the quarantine was necessary to control the virus. The quarantine, which was denounced by international health organizations, was lifted after 10 days. The only thing it achieved, say residents, was a deeper dislike of the government.

Family Trouble

Perhaps no one could have readied a country like Liberia for the biggest Ebola outbreak ever. But some of Sirleaf’s mistakes predate the virus. She promised “zero tolerance” for corruption, but by her own account, Sirleaf has failed to stem the corrosive force, citing an overburdened justice system and a lack of skilled prosecutors. For those who voted her into power on those promises—twice—her failures sting. “That Iron Lady image is rusting,” says Estelle Liberty, a newscaster and reporter for Power TV. “She can’t fight corruption like people believed she would.”

While Liberians in Monrovia are proud of Sirleaf’s global prestige, many say they are frustrated with her inability to deliver on the ground. The biggest gripe is her tendency to put friends and family in positions of power. She placed a stepson in charge of the national-security agency, appointed one son as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Liberia, and made another an adviser and chairman of the state-owned National Oil Company of Liberia.

Nor does it help perceptions that when it comes to Ebola, the President’s family members stayed on the sidelines. Even as Sirleaf begged the world to send health care workers in October, her youngest son stayed in the U.S., where he is a Georgia hospital emergency-room physician. Dr. James Sirleaf has said the symbolism of going to Liberia wasn’t worth the risk of “potentially getting Ebola.” The President halfheartedly defended her son’s action, saying he was helping in other ways—and added sternly that “he will be back, and he will work in the health service.” But the political damage has been done. “Charity begins at home,” says Liberty. “You want other people to come help you? Then let your son take the lead.”

Despite the lapses, Sirleaf can take credit for muscling her country through an unprecedented catastrophe. “Sirleaf has been a 24/7 advocate on the Ebola question for months,” says Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. With Sirleaf’s continued focus on government and international efforts to isolate and treat the ill, monitor their contacts and educate the populace, she may yet achieve her goal of no new cases by Christmas. Getting the economy, and her development goals, back on track is likely to be far more difficult. Keeping Liberia Ebola-free would bolster a legacy stained by other failures. But it’s still far less than the ambitions the Iron Lady once had. —with reporting by Naina Bajekal/London

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