Ebola’s Erasing Gains
Liberia’s Crisis Puts President in Harsh Light

MONROVIA, Liberia—The president waited until her family members were seated around the dining table before announcing, with no fanfare, the latest defection from her Cabinet. “I lost my justice minister today,” she said, picking up a spoon before heading out to visit Ebola treatment units.

As the table erupted with questions, the president, having said all that she intended to, finished up her lunch of Libby’s tinned corned beef and rice—the Liberian equivalent of ramen noodles—and rose. “We’re late,” she announced, not mentioning that everyone had been waiting for her for four hours. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

For the last eight years, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 76, has walked a precarious political tightrope. As Liberia’s first elected leader after a devastating civil war, she has juggled enemies and allies while pushing this country on its first sustained course of economic growth in decades.

Now, Ebola has brought many of those gains to a screeching halt. The foreign investors so lovingly wooed by President Sirleaf, a former World Bank bureaucrat, have fled. Today, ordinary Liberians on the street fling around the obscure phrase “force majeure” to describe why businesses have closed, employers have left and road construction has ended. Public schools, in a country where less than 50 percent of primary-school-age children were enrolled, have been shut for months. The World Bank warns that Ebola could slash Liberia’s fragile economy by nearly 12 percent. All but two foreign airlines, which President Sirleaf had proudly welcomed back to the country after two decades of isolation, stopped flying here. “Right now, all the international attention is on Ebola,” she said of critics, including at the United Nations, who say she has been more worried about the economy than a health catastrophe. “If we don’t focus on our economy, we will not be able to sustain it when they are gone.”

President Sirleaf is the first woman elected president of an African country, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and arguably the most recognized leader on the continent. Rising from a junior bureaucrat, she became one of the few top Liberian officials not executed by firing squad during the 1980 military coup. From a jailed dissident in the 1980s, she became one of Newsweek’s 10 top leaders in the world. But Ebola is threatening to derail that legacy. The epidemic has exposed crippling weaknesses in the public health system, decrepit infrastructure that has still not been dealt with more than a decade after the war, and endemic corruption that, despite President Sirleaf’s protestations of “zero tolerance,” continue to characterize the interactions between Liberians and their government. “The international community has arrived and is now seeing our backyard for the first time,” said Francis Dunbar, a former deputy finance minister who now supports Benoni Urey, a Sirleaf rival who was once a close adviser of Charles Taylor, the former president convicted of crimes against humanity.

“The front yard is clean but the backyard is dirty.” Karin Landgren, the United Nations secretary general’s special representative here, echoed a similar theme. “Ebola has shone a very harsh light on the many things that had not been done adequately. Very tangible things, like the health care system.”

With the global spotlight on Liberia, President Sirleaf’s many domestic critics have found an international audience. Last month, the asthmatic daughter of Rep. Edward Forh, a legislator, died after nurses refused to admit her until Ebola tests were run.

Distraught, Mr. Forh took to the airwaves to denounce President Sirleaf’s government, saying that the president was “surrounded by two groups of people: one group completely ignorant and the other group completely deceitful.”

But just last year, Mr. Forh’s colleagues in the Liberian Legislature voted to arrest one of the president’s allies for releasing a recording in which Mr. Forh suggested that public funds should be given to him in a kickback scheme.

“You eat some, I eat some,” Mr. Forh was recorded saying, meaning kickbacks and bribes. The epidemic has inflamed such longstanding fights. President Sirleaf says the criticism does not take into account how hard Liberia’s culture of corruption is to overcome, and how widespread the postwar problems she inherited were.

When she took office in 2006, unemployment was so high no one bothered to calculate it. There was no running water and no electricity, as gunmen had bombed the country’s hydro plant. Downtown Monrovia at night looked medieval: candles in shopfronts cast their dim glow on the ribbons of dirty water running down the gutters.

Children routinely died of curable diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and measles. Even among the unafflicted, few went to schools, and those who did had no textbooks. Liberia was $4.7 billion in debt, no longer considered creditworthy.

By just about every economic indicator, the country has come a long way since. Growth shot up to 8.9 percent in 2013, from 5.3 percent in 2006. President Sirleaf prodded international lenders to forgive Liberia’s debt. Monrovia now has electricity, although many cannot afford it, while running water has been making a slow return around the country.

“Look, I know that I’m a soft target for criticism right now,” the president said. Her SUV hit a pothole so deep she had to reach out to grab the armrest. President Sirleaf glanced out the window, at an enormous pile of trash in front of a long-shuttered paint factory. Muttering “trash like you wouldn’t believe,” she instructed her security detail to call the property’s owner to clean up.

“People have forgotten the environment in which we used to live, because things now have become so free,” she said. “What moves a lot of the perceptions out there is our free talk on the radio, and in the press.”

In the past, critics of the government were often jailed or even executed. President Sirleaf was jailed after calling members of the military government of President Samuel K. Doe “idiots.” Today, the radio in Liberia buzzes with critics denouncing President Sirleaf for nepotism (she appointed her son to run the national oil company), corruption (she has dismissed a string of officials in her government for corruption but has not prosecuted them) and, most recently, for supposedly manufacturing the Ebola epidemic as a ruse to get foreign aid money. Many Liberians, including some critics of President Sirleaf, say that Liberia has no political leader more capable of steering the country out of its latest crisis, especially given her international reputation. When she sat down on the night of Sept. 9 and wrote a letter to President Obama pleading for help, the response came days later and dwarfed anything that neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea have been able to muster: 4,000 American troops, to build 18 Ebola treatment units in Liberia.

Now, President Sirleaf is trying to leverage Ebola help for broader economic projects--like fixing the runway at the airport. “The support that’s coming must not all go into Ebola,” President Sirleaf said.

On a muddy highway, her motorcade came to a small market along the road, with women selling fruits and vegetables. “Aye, man, I need to buy those women them bananas,” President Sirleaf said. “Buy those women’s red potatoes and bananas. And some of those guavas them.” The motorcade stopped, and from one of the cars, an aide jumped out with a wad of cash and cleaned out the market.

The weeks since Ebola hit have been dotted by crisis after crisis, some big, many minuscule. Two days before, Justice Minister Christiana Tah had sat unspeaking at a meeting with international donors. Everyone argued around a massive table at the foreign ministry, with President Sirleaf at the head, looking like a stern teacher trying to rein in a bunch of unruly children. Her health minister harrumphed about international “free agents” doing as they pleased without so much as a by-your-leave from the Liberian government. The American ambassador shot back that there were plenty of mechanisms to keep aid groups in their proper place.

And the minister of defense, Brownie Samukai, was heckled for 15 minutes by a Liberian women’s empowerment leader to pass one of the platters of Spam and cheese offered as snacks. He ignored her, trying to pay attention to the meeting, but his heckler raised her voice louder. “I say, Brownie, you will not pass people de food?” the advocate demanded. “This how you treat women?”

Finally, an exasperated President Sirleaf called a timeout. “Very well,” she said. “Y’all can take a break to have some chips.” On the drive to visit Ebola treatment units, she recalled that moment with a shake of her head.

“We’re accustomed to the president being at the pivot of everything, making every decision, because we’ve been used to an imperial presidency,” she said. “And even if I’m not so inclined, they almost make you make every decision.”

Just hours before, the justice minister, Ms. Tah, used her resignation news conference to accuse President Sirleaf of trying to block a corruption investigation into Liberia’s National Security Agency, which is headed by another of the president’s sons. President Sirleaf denied the charge; it was the same son, Fumbah Sirleaf, who helped American agents pull off West Africa’s largest drug bust in 2010. Ms. Tah’s resignation came on the heels of President Sirleaf’s firing of officials who had abandoned the country during the Ebola outbreak. And now Mr. Forh was on the radio again, saying her government should take responsibility for his daughter’s death.

Her S.U.V. had driven only 44 miles from Monrovia, but the potholes and rain--the Chinese contractors hired to pave the road left in August along with others fleeing Ebola--meant the drive had taken an hour and a half. The trip would be an additional 143 miles, on an even worse road. But President Sirleaf was determined to go and return by the next night--she had more Ebola-related meetings to manage. “My adrenaline flows better in a crisis,” President Sirleaf said as a line of buses--each stenciled with slogans like “God’s Appointed Time” and “God is in Control”--pulled over to let her motorcade pass. She grinned. “This will end up as one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in a life of many challenges,” she said. “And like all the other challenges, we will overcome this.”

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