Today’s Democrat, Tomorrow’s Tyrant?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has popped onto my radar screen three times in 2012, and none of the stories involved has done much to bolster the prevailing image of her in the West as a heroic liberal democrat.

First, in January, a New York Times op-ed called attention to a series of land grants Sirleaf has made over the past several years that have effectively put more than one-third of her country’s land under the control of foreign corporations while dispossessing the rural Liberians who live there. According to op-ed’s author, conservation prize-winner Silas Siakor,

More than a million people live in the regions where the palm-oil concessions were granted. And roughly 150,000 will be directly affected in the first five years of plantation development. Many could lose access to their homes, farms, cemeteries and sacred sites as well as the forest and water resources they depend on for survival. Yet the government negotiated these deals without consulting those who would bear the greatest burden.

Then came a mid-March interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which President Sirleaf defended laws in her country that effectively criminalize homosexuality. “We like ourselves just the way we are,” she said. “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”

Meanwhile, President Sirleaf continues to resist calls to remove her son, Robert, who also serves as her senior adviser, from his post as chairman of the country’s national oil company, NOCAL. According to Africa Review, President Sirleaf has repeatedly dismissed complaints of nepotism from watchdog groups who have questioned his motives and qualifications. “What’s wrong with me appointing my son on NOCAL Board as chairman?” she reportedly asked on a recent radio call-in show. “He is qualified. Why should I deny him the opportunity to work for his country?”

These stories have got to be causing some headaches among Western diplomats, who have frequently touted Sirleaf as the kind of little-d “democrat” of which Africa needs more. Indeed, when asked about President Sirleaf’s comments on her country’s anti-gay laws, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated Secretary Clinton’s position that gay rights are human rights and expressed concern about the president’s remarks.

Viewing these stories through a wider lens, I think Sirleaf’s slippage illustrates the risks we take when we personalize democracy promotion. For as long as I’ve been watching, Western governments have tended to view democratization as a Manichean struggle  between camps committed to “democratic” and “autocratic” values. These groups are usually identified in sociological terms, if not by proper name, and their identities are thought to remain fixed over time. Where the democrats gain the upper hand, democracy consolidates. Where the autocrats prevail, transitions stall or fail, and authoritarian rule continues.

What gets missed in this personification of democratization is how the interests of political elites often evolve with changes in their status. Checks on government power that sound like common sense to outsiders sometimes don’t always seem so appealing when you finally make it to the inside and are trying to get things done. Actions that seemed dubious when taken by someone else can make perfect sense when you know and trust your own motives.

As I discussed in a previous post, human psychology probably also plays a role. According to prospect theory, when considering possible courses of action, humans weigh potential losses more heavily than comparable gains, and we evaluate both against a subjective reference point–usually the status quo. Psychologists call this pattern loss aversion, and it’s easy to see how it might strengthen the temptation for one-time “democrats” to cling to the spoils of power once in office.

I don’t know Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and I don’t know enough about Liberian politics to predict with confidence where all this is heading. What I can say is that promoting democracy by picking heroes is a risky game. If our governments want to support democratic consolidation in places like Liberia, they would do better to eschew the search for “soulmates.” Far more important than these shiny personalities are the humdrum agencies tasked with protecting civil rights, channeling citizen participation, and constraining authority no matter who’s in power. If you’re going to champion someone, don’t make it the charming leader who spouts the buzzwords diplomats and bankers want to hear. Instead, make it the honest cop, judge, or civil servant who sounds like her neighbors.

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  1. Democratization by Heart Attack? The Peculiar Case of Malawi « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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