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Liberian Women Share Nobel Prize

How deserved is the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee?
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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (left) and Leymah Gbowee.

Two Liberian women shared the $1.5 million Nobel Peace Prize with a Yemeni activist last week.

Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee jointly won the prize with Tawakkul Karman for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work". The award to Johnson Sirleaf has sparked controversy in Liberia, coming only days ahead of tomorrow's presidential election which Johnson Sirleaf is not certain to win.

Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee become the first Africans and the first women to win the prize since 2004. They are the second and third African women to win the prize, and the seventh and eighth Africans to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, after previous winners Albert John Lutuli (1960), Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk (1993), Kofi Annan (2001) and the recently deceased Wangari Maathai (2004).

Johnson Sirleaf, the first and currently only elected female head of state in Africa, won the Liberian presidency in 2005 and is much revered globally, although she has faced criticism at home. The former World Bank and UN staffer has overseen the country’s transition from a brutal civil war which claimed the lives of some 250,000 people into a representative democracy recording high rates of economic growth driven by increasing exports off the back of rising commodity prices and resurgent foreign direct investment (FDI). However, unemployment in Liberia currently stands at 85%, while Johnson Sirleaf’s first term has been dogged by allegations of intimidation of opposition politicians and corruption. In 2005 Sirleaf campaigned on the promise of only standing for one term, while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she established recommended that she should be barred from standing in elections for 30 years due to her initial support of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front rebel group, an issue she has expressed regret for.

Gbowee, director of the Accra-based Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, has already won a string of awards for her activism, including a peace prize from Harvard University and the Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights. She is renowned for her peaceful efforts in bringing a resolution to Liberia’s civil war. She mobilised Christian and Muslim women from across Liberia to pressure factions to end the conflict, famously pushing Charles Taylor to attend peace talks and then staging a silent protest in Accra ahead of the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2003.

While news of the award was met with celebrations in Monrovia, opposition leaders in Liberia have criticised its timing only days ahead of tomorrow’s presidential elections.

Johnson Sirleaf, affectionately known by some as “Ma Ellen” in Liberia, said she was “honoured and grateful” to receive the award.

“I believe it is recognition of my many years of struggle. But I also believe it is recognition of the Liberian people’s quest for peace. And the fact that the past eight years they have all collectively maintained the peace,” she said to Voice of America.

"I particularly want to talk about Liberian women. I am getting this award with Leymah Gbowee. And Leymah Gbowee is very deserving because she mobilized women to challenge a dictatorship - market women, rural women, professional woman, church women - and they sat in the rain and the sun for days advocating for peace.

"We owe it to African women and we can just recommit to working harder for equal opportunity for all women to reach their potential. I hope we become the role models and that that will motivate and inspire women the world over to go for leadership, to take a greater role in their societies.”

Feted abroad, criticised at home

The awarding of the prize to Johnson Sirleaf represents a timely intervention for her presidency bid, which she was far from certain of winning. Boosted by the national and international acclaim of the Nobel, analysts now believe Sirleaf, known at home as the “Iron Lady”, may win the election outright by garnering an absolute majority of the vote.

Opposition party the Congress for Democratic Change, led by Harvard-educated lawyer Winston Tubman and legendary footballer George Weah - who placed fifth and second respectively in the 2005 elections - criticised the awarding of the prize so close to the election as a “provocative intervention”.

"She does not deserve it. She is a warmonger,” Tubman said. “She brought war on our country and spoiled the country.

“Now she has said she will run again and on the eve of the election the Nobel Peace Prize committee gives her this prize, which we think is a provocative intervention within our politics."

"She won it but I don't know for what," said Weah. "Every Liberian is preparing for Madame Sirleaf to leave power and we will tell the world that we are tired of her inability to reconcile us and we will tell her that we are getting ready for her to leave power in October 11."

However, Sirleaf’s campaign has received a welcome boost with the return to Liberia of Gbowee who joined her fellow Nobel laureate on the campaign trail in Monrovia yesterday – Sunday.

"I always say to people my work is advocating women's involvement in politics,” Gbowee said. “If I support anyone other than a woman it would be hypocrisy."

A politicised prize?

While criticism of the award – and its timing - to Johnson Sirleaf may have some justification, it is nonetheless positive that African women have been rewarded for work on women’s rights, and moreover that recognition is being paid to the perennially undervalued necessity of involving women in peace-building. The commendation for Gbowee’s bottom-up approach to campaigning in particular is a welcome announcement.

However, it is difficult to escape the political nature of the prize itself, especially when cast in the light of some previous recipients. The awarding of the prize to Barack Obama in 2009 was widely criticised due to the lack of tangible work towards peace the US president had undertaken; indeed, the stark rise in extrajudicial killings under the Obama administration seems to make the moniker “Peace Prize” ring somewhat hollow. More controversial was the 1973 joint awarding of the prize to then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger played a critical role in the illegal carpet bombing of Cambodia, engendering the destruction which helped precipitate the rise of the genocidal Communist Party of Kampuchea - the "Khmer Rouge" - under Pol Pot.

For this year’s award criticism will be drawn more to the choice of Johnson Sirleaf than Gbowee. Clearly, Sirleaf has had a central role in the post-conflict stabilisation of Liberia, although she has been unable to rein in the poverty, 85% unemployment and the corruption that dogs a country where more than 80% of people live on less than $1.25 a day.

"Mrs Sirleaf has had almost six years now to demonstrate what she can do inside Liberia for the Liberian people," Tubman told The Associated Press. "I often wonder whether it is the popularity of our ticket or the unpopularity of the incumbent that draws the crowd to us." Sirleaf has stressed that “development takes time”, adding that, "They [average Liberians] had a lot of confidence in me when I took over and they figured I would just turn things around. There would just be a quick fix, a magic wand, everybody would have a job."

While the arrival of some 100,000 refugees from the conflict in the neighbouring Ivory Coast places a further burden on Liberia, economic growth is forecast at almost 9% for 2012 combined with a increased FDI in mining and oil exploration – Arcelor Mittal oversaw the first iron ore shipment to leave the country in 20 years last month - and aid from China raises the hope that Liberia can raise standards of living for the millions in poverty.

Chris Blattman, who teaches African development at Yale University, argues that Johnson Sirleaf’s greatest accomplishment has been in creating a Liberia where few see a return to war as possible. However, while this much-needed return to stability is to be lauded, he points to clear policy failures.

“I think her weaknesses are most apparent when you look at the persistent power problem. Eight years since peace and there’s not even a single and coherent plan to rebuild the hydro plants. The nation is run on generators. If you want a reason for a stagnant economy, that is a major culprit,” he said.

“It’s less the power issue itself than what it symbolizes–difficulty finding focus and getting things done. I can’t shake the feeling that she spent more time getting feted internationally, and running a US book tour, than [tackling] the big issues at home.”


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