Ten years ago this month, Liberia began its journey from peace to recovery. The peace accords signed in Ghana ended the second of two devastating civil wars, leaving more than a quarter of a million dead, my country’s infrastructure destroyed and the lives of exhausted survivors shattered. The task before us seemed overwhelming.
Today Liberia is recovering. A renewed sense of hope, strong economic growth and the development of a vibrant civil society have been possible through the work of the international community, but most importantly, the tenacity of Liberians themselves.
Yet judging progress is not always an exact science. Some indicators cannot be debated: economic growth and many of our Millennium Goals, such as the reduction of child mortality and action to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, show clear, audited improvement. Other developments can only be more subjectively viewed, such as the impact of judicial reforms and laws on freedom of speech.
There has long been a debate within the international media as to whether economic growth must be the priority for post-conflict countries, or whether freedom of speech and justice founded on the rule of law should come first. Many developing nations, including those in Africa, have found this debate puzzling. Of course, say some, how can a hungry man care for democracy or the right to assembly when he is starving?
In Liberia we find such arguments without merit. We see liberty and dignity as the ability to enjoy both economic opportunity and the right to criticize those in power. No man can be truly free when he enjoys only one, but not the other. We believe it is the inalienable right of anyone, whether an individual citizen or the holder of high office, to expect equality of justice from the courts if they believe they have been wronged. There can be no justice at all if some in society are exempt from the law through the office they hold or the profession they practise.
To that end, Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration on press freedom in Africa, the second African nation to sign. We have instituted a Freedom of Information Act so Liberians can question the decisions of government at all times. We have worked with international legal experts to ensure that our courts operate independently outside of the influence of the executive. Giving the government and elites the right to intervene in cases considered by an independent judiciary would be to continue the powers of impunity that previously led Liberia down the road to disaster. Recent calls for the government to intervene in a libel case between a leading journalist and a minister taken to court in a private prosecution would be to act against the laws we have instituted separating the powers of the executive from the judiciary.
We welcome a debate on the benefits of libel laws, and whether our own U.S.-style first amendment protection would better serve Liberia. No legislation can be judged as timelessly perfect, as the demands of any vibrant society must include the capability for change. But intervention in one case would inevitably lead to intervention in others, reasserting the ability of the strong to use public office to bend the law against private citizens.
The debate over this case, and the discussions in Liberia and beyond over the developments of the past 10 years should also be considered in a wider context about how African progress should be judged. There is an argument whether it is possible to judge the continent through the same prism as development in the West. Certainly, there is little in the West that is comparable to the devastation from which Liberia and other postconflict countries in Africa have had to rebuild. For that reason it can be argued we should be judged differently, or perhaps less harshly, when goals are not achieved or incidents such as the recent libel case present themselves.
Liberia and most nations of Africa are striving to be successful and full members of the international community. To be treated as equals requires us to be held to the same standards as others. It would be strange for us to want to be considered by different measures when all we wish for are the same standards for our citizens in opportunity and progress as in the more developed nations of the world.
But this also means we should be expected to uphold those changes we have made that provide similar equalities before the law for all our citizens, rich and poor, not contradict them. We should not expect Africans to act differently; but by the same turn we should not be judged differently.
Liberia’s progress is therefore rightly being considered, 10 years on from the ending of our civil wars. We are proud of the advances we have made, but we do not dwell on our successes, just as we redouble our efforts to address where we may have fallen short. We simply ask to be judged the same as others. Liberia seeks equality for all and, over our nation’s next decade of development, we plan to move closer to achieving it.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the President of Liberia and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.