Liberia: Sirleaf Dissolves Cabinet

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, dissolved her cabinet yesterday. Her press secretary explained that this move was driven by a desire to provide herself with a “clean slate” ahead of next year’s presidential election, given that “the president has not been too happy with the performance of some of her cabinet ministers.”

There are several elements that are interesting about this decision. Today is a holiday in Liberia, and the choice to announce such a big political decision on the eve of a nation-wide holiday means that the rumor mill is going strong today in Monrovia. Furthermore, Sirleaf just left Liberia today for an overseas trip which includes a stop in the United States for her annual medical check-up. While it has been announced that deputy ministers would take over the duties of the sacked ministers, a lot of uncertainty remains. Rumors have been swirling for months that Sirleaf was mulling over the possibility of restructuring her cabinet (I personally first heard of this back in March), and the decision to go ahead with it now is difficult to understand from a strategic perspective.

Last week, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was chosen by the ruling party, UP (Unity Party), to be their candidate in the upcoming presidential election (October 2011). This came as no surprise, as Sirleaf had indicated earlier this year that she would seek a second mandate. Joseph Boakai, the current vice-president, was also selected as Sirleaf’s running mate. Sirleaf will have to face serious competition and defend her record in next year’s election, and it’s not clear whether keeping the UP’s ticket intact is the best strategy: many Liberians are disgruntled, feeling that progress is too slow and development too focused on Monrovia. Issues ranging from lack of basic services – healthcare, education, sanitation – to corruption and access to justice are indeed tarnishing Sirleaf’s record.

Of course, given the tremendous work to be accomplished in a post-conflict state, particularly in the early years after the end of a 14-year civil war, Sirleaf and her government cannot be expected to have completely turned the country around. Nevertheless, candidates running against her will be able to deploy arguments about the dusty “old guard” and elite politicians clinging on to power to push their own agendas, while a vast majority of the country continues to lag behind in terms of education, employment, quality of life…The same exact ticket as the last presidential election and a significant challenge to defend her record pave the way for other candidates to claim they represent a clean break, the new generation of leaders.

Some analysts note that sacking her cabinet gives Sirleaf an opportunity to provide some very visible, tangible results to please Liberian voters. It seems, though, that doing this 11 months prior to the election will not be enough time to deliver anything of substance. The government shake-up announcement also noted that some of the ministers may be reinstated , which begs the question: why sack the entire cabinet?

Speculation abounds, as analysts and observers are hesitating between calling this decision a strategic move and others describing it as rash and seemingly desperate. It is, from  my perspective, too soon to tell what the real intention of the shake-up was. What’s clear, though, is that “Ma Ellen” is gearing up for an aggressive  re-election campaign next year.