Sirleaf: Warmonger or Africa’s Mother Teresa?

Caitlin Williscroft

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rivals Nelson Mandela in celebrity status in Africa. She is Africa’s first democratically elected female Head of State. She allegedly has ties to Charles Taylor—currently indicted in The Hague for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone—and now, Sirleaf is a Nobel Peace Laureate.

Sirleaf, undoubtedly, has made significant contribution to peace in Liberia; however, the Nobel Committee neglected to tell you some interesting facts about the newest member of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize club.

Sirleaf—“Ma Ellen”—supported Charles Taylor during his early days when he overthrew Samuel Doe’s regime. She financed his political quest, and later apologized and removed her endorsement once Taylor’s political ambitions became fiercely ill-guided. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended banning specific politicians from Liberian politics for 30 years, though later declared unconstitutional by Liberia’s Supreme Court, Sirleaf’s name appeared on the list.

Controversial Past 

Sirleaf is frequently appeasing the West rather than finding real solutions to domestic issues. Crime, unemployment, and corruption are chronic issues, threatening Liberia’s stability. Poor disarmament programs have resulted in ex-soldiers perpetuating crime rather than re-integrating and contributing to society. Even with controversial past, the Nobel Committee awarded Sirleaf with a Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Sirleaf is an uncompromising woman. Beyond her personal story of perseverance—an abusive husband, being exiled in Kenya and placed under house arrest—Sirleaf has brought Liberia out of a debilitating civil war.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund slashed $4.6 billion of Liberia’s debt thanks to Sirleaf’s fiscal reforms. “Ma Ellen” has attracted foreign investment of approximately $16 billion in mining, agriculture and offshore oil exploration. Her government’s budget has increased from 80 million to over $350 million in four years.


The international community is enamored with Sirleaf’s leadership and macroeconomic reforms, but even a Nobel Peace Prize cannot erase the memories of the outstanding challenges post-war Liberia faces.

Did Sirleaf deserve the prize? Yes, and well, no.

Like many other Noble Peace Laureates, her debatable prize raises questions about the motivations and relevance of the Norwegian institution. Established in 1900, the Nobel Peace Prize sought to celebrate individuals and organizations that embody the principles of non-violence and peaceful solutions. At its core, Nobel Peace Prize winners “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The first winners, Henri Dunant—Swiss founder of the Red Cross—and international pacifist Frédéric Passy, undoubtedly, embraced the fundamental qualities of a Nobel Peace Laureate, in 1901. Since its inception, the Nobel Peace Prize is riddled with questionable choices. In 2002, former President Jimmy Carter won the prize, the two short listed candidates: Blair and Bush, neglecting Carter’s covert operations in Afghanistan or training of Nicaraguan contras and Blair and Bush’s illegal occupation of Iraq.

Obama, in 2009, received the award only months after inauguration, raising questions about the political motivations of the Nobel Committee. After a century of contentious choices, the Nobel committee is straying from its original mandate. Or is it the way the world experiences peace and war shifting, rendering the naïve notions of peace described by the Nobel Peace Prize obsolete?

Sirleaf’s award is another scandalous decision that plagues and taints the purity and prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her award comes at a time when the dichotomy of peace and war is blurred, and standing armies are an archaic military strategy.

Sirleaf’s accepted her award four days before Liberia’s Presidential elections. The Norwegian team claimed coincidence rather than deliberate endorsement of Sirleaf’s candidacy, dismissing all claims of meddling in Liberian politics. Her strongest Presidential contender, Mr.Tubman told Reuters that “she does not deserve it. She is a warmonger. She brought war on our country and spoiled the country.”

Sirleaf is a provocative choice, but she is not the only Peace Laureate with a shady past. Perhaps controversy is inevitable as peace and war are intertwined and a delicate matter.

Nobel Peace laureates are not all saints and often come with baggage and less than peaceful pasts. Sirleaf is no different.
Note: Liberia successfully managed its first elections on October 11 since the end of their civil war. Official results state that Sirleaf is leading with approximately 44%. Behind her, Tubman sits at 31% and Johnson at 12%, meaning that Liberia is preparing for run-off elections between Sirleaf and Tubman in upcoming weeks.