Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the 24th president of Liberia in 2005. She’s made history as the first elected female president, or even head of state, in the entire continent of Africa. Johnson Sirleaf got her start as the Minister of Finance for President William Tolbert, but had to leave the country after the 1980 coup d’état. She continued to have off-and-on involvement in Liberian government, effectively running and being nominated from 1985 to 2011. Johnson Sirleaf was unafraid to speak out against rigged and unfair elections, even turning down a seat in the Senate. In 2005, the Unity Party selected her to represent them in the presidential election. She ended up victorious, and even opted to run for a second term in 2011! Her campaign was rooted in the desire to reunite a long divided nation long plagued by civil war and unrest.Without a doubt, I consider Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a ‘cheetah’ for Liberia. From her very first term in office, she made it clear that she wanted to improve the state of human rights, as well as ease the tensions and divisions present in the country. In 2007, she made education free for all elementary school aged children through an executive order. She continued to make history with groundbreaking initiatives. In 2010, the Freedom of Information bill was signed by Sirfleaf, allowing both journalists and the public to access information from any person or party under government authority. She has also been a champion for women’s rights and movements for peace.
(Liberia’s score according to the Polity IV)
When it comes to the task of defining democracy, Steven Radelet first recognizes that there is no universally accepted definition of what democracy is. There is no clear cut way to categorize a country as democratic. As major elements, though, he highlights “popular sovereignty through either majority rule or representation, freedom of speech and the press, the rule of law, protection of minority rights, civil liberties and basic human rights, civilian control over the military, and systems for accountability and checks on power” (pg. 68). In chapter 3 of his, Emerging Africa, however, he indicates that there are a handful of internationally reputable indices and rankings of democracies that can be used to evaluate countries. Most notably, “Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index and the University of Maryland/George Mason University Polity IV Index of Political Regime Characteristics and Transition” (Pg. 68). Each source focuses on components considered critical to a democracy, and measures how countries across the world stand up to these measures. For example, Freedom House uses a scale of 1-7, with scores of 2.5 or lower considered “free,” and scores of 5.5 or above “not free.” Radelet points out that using this scale, a score of 4 or under would be categorized as a democracy (pg. 69). He goes on to describe how the Polity IV index focuses on institutions and the process of elections along with other components related to “institutional measures of authority and governance” (pg. 69). This index uses a range from -10 to +10 to indicate whether or not a country is more autocratic or democratic. Radelet again indicates that for our purposes, a country with a score greater than 0 would be considered a democracy. I proceeded to explore how the country of Liberia ranked according to both Freedom House and the Polity IV. Freedom House issued a score of 61, indicating that it was a “Partly Free” nation. Its “Freedom Rating” was a 3.5, with a 3 for “Political Rights,” and a 4 for “Civil Liberties” (Freedom House). When I checked the Polity IV index, it showed that as of 2013, Liberia has a score of 6 (Systemic Peace.org). These scores demonstrate how Liberia has made strides in the right direction; combating its long history for civil strife and political division.
A prolonged period of civil war in Liberia catapulted the country backwards in terms of progress, especially compared to other countries. In terms of education, there has been an ongoing collaborative effort between Liberian government and international organizations to rebuild and improve the education system. Steps in the right direction include the aforementioned Education Reform Act, which President Johnson Sirleaf signed into law in 2011, to provide young children with free elementary education.One organization that has been working to improve education conditions in Liberia is USAID. The American organization strives for “improving the quality of teaching and learning, and increasing equitable access to safe learning opportunities for girls,” and other youth (USAID.gov). There is also a focus on improving higher education opportunities, and emphasizing the domains of engineering and agriculture, both disciplines that would contribute to development in Liberia (USAID.gov). While there is much work to be done, in terms of closing the gender gap and improving the quality of education, I think that Liberia is heading towards significant improvement.