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Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addresses UN General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2012. (KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS)
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addresses UN General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2012. (KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS)

DOUG SAUNDERS

Beware viewing African leaders through gilded lenses. Add to ...

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrives in Toronto on Friday to give a speech at a charity event, the Liberian President will be applauded as something of a secular saint, a Gandhi of West Africa, a miracle worker in a corner of the continent that badly needs miracles.

And no wonder: Liberia, long one of the most violent and devastated countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has just celebrated its 10th year of peace and democracy, most of it under Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s elected rule. She was the first of a wave of respected democratic leaders, many of them women, who have swept out the old strongmen and made Africa more stable and prosperous.

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Last year, Liberia became the first country to send a former head of state (old strongman Charles Taylor) to prison under international law on charges of terror, rape and murder – a year after Ms. Johnson Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to peace and reconciliation. That decade of peace has been accompanied by a rate of economic growth typically higher than 8 per cent each year, a sharp drop in the absolute poverty rate and a resource-driven economy that’s considered an African model.

Yet this may be a good moment to tone down the praise, and begin looking at Liberia – and Ms. Johnson Sirleaf – through something other than a gilded lens. She does offer many lessons for African leaders. But her country is beginning to discover the limits and hazards of personality-driven recovery, perhaps in part because she has received so much uncritical support.

Those limits became starkly apparent Tuesday, when Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s son Robert was forced to quit his appointed job as head of Liberia’s state oil company amid accusations of mismanagement. This occurred less than a year after she suspended another son, Charles, as deputy governor of the central bank during an anti-corruption sweep. A third son, Fumba, remains head of Liberia’s National Security Agency.

It does not stop at nepotism. In July, Liberia was ranked the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

The persistent corruption may be an effect of Liberia’s other big problem: An approach to economic development, promoted by Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, that often seems to consist of offering the country’s natural resources to the highest international bidder with little or no regard for transparency, responsibility or effects on people and environment.

That was also evident Tuesday when Ms. Johnson Sirleaf revoked 17 timber permits, signed under highly questionable circumstances, that allowed foreign licence-holders to claim 40 per cent of the country’s forests without regard for social and environmental protection laws.

According to a draft audit report seen by news agencies, only two of the 68 resource contracts worth $8-billion signed by Liberia since 2009 have been in compliance with the country’s laws.

Last year, the United Nations reported that Liberia was doing little to abolish the “blood diamond” trade. Likewise, Liberia has recently seen hundreds of peasant farmers thrown off their land, without compensation, in order to make way for big plantations run by Asian companies. While these deals have fuelled Liberia’s growth and helped end malnutrition by converting unproductive land to commercial agriculture, many consider them blatant “land grabs” in which Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s government has shown little concern for human or ecological impact.

This combination of record-breaking economic growth and poverty alleviation with extreme corruption and ill-considered resource deals makes Liberia an imperfect model. While Ms. Johnson Sirleaf deserves credit for making her country a peaceful and relatively stable place, it’s time to temper that with some caution.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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