Could the Nobel Peace Prize Hurt Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Chances at Re-Election Next Week?

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced this morning that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, a leading pro-democracy figure in Yemen, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Committee, they were recognized for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

The reactions concerning Sirleaf’s award have been mixed, however. While many believe that this is a great day for Liberia, some are concerned that the timing of the prize actually plays against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s re-election bid, a mere four days away. Indeed, among Liberians, there is a persistent notion that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not truly dedicated to the welfare of her country.

There are a number of reasons for this: the Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission put her on a list of individuals who should be barred from public office because of their role in the civil war. In Sirleaf’s case, it had to do with her early support for Charles Taylor at the beginning of the war. During the war, Sirleaf lived abroad for a long time and occupied various positions in international organizations, distancing herself from her home land. In fact, an opposition party launched a challenge before the Supreme Court of Liberia arguing that Sirleaf “violated a constitutional clause requiring candidates be residents for 10 years before the election”.

Only just a couple of days ago did the Liberian Supreme Court throw out the case.  Finally, Sirleaf’s privileged family background and the fact that she has few ancestors and family lines tying into traditional Liberian ethnic groups also play against her, and further strengthen the divide between her and “ordinary” Liberians.

On Twitter, expats based in Monrovia see the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize as bad news for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Some argue that this will play in the hands of the opposition (“We told you that EJS was supported by the West, and now they’re trying to meddle with our election.”) Indeed, especially given the strange timing, there is room for rumors to swirl concerning the intentions and motivations behind the prize.

I thought these quotes, shared by journalist Daniel Howden on Twitter, were helpful to get a sense of the reaction in Monrovia:

For all her weaknesses as a politician, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has actually done a lot for her country, and certainly has put it on the path to peace. I liked Chris Blattman’s take: “Six years ago, I’d hazard that a majority of Liberians figured their country could easily slip back to war. Today, they may feel poorer than they hoped, but few see a return to conflict. A lot of people deserve credit, but this is no doubt her greatest accomplishment as President.”

There isn’t a lot of time for Liberians to digest this news, and I’m ambivalent about the “Nobel effect” on the election, particularly because her main opponent, like her, comes from elite circles. Winston Tubman, whose uncle was President of Liberia for years, was educated at Harvard, Columbia and LSE. While he was not a supporter of Taylor, he served under Samuel Doe, who wasn’t exactly a force for peace either. His credentials as far as a politician who cares for Liberia, in my view, are not stronger than Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s. But given the existing discontent with Sirleaf, receiving the Nobel Prize might indeed backfire.