By: Jake Heller
It was a flash in the pan. On October 7, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The world’s media erupted. Sirleaf’s soothing smile was splashed across television screens, front pages, and computers the world over, and, if only for a fleeting moment, a small, impoverished, recovering West African nation found itself at the center of attention.
By the time Liberia’s election came around four days later, the news had moved on.
An A6 story from the New York Times, an online photo gallery from the Washington Post, and a next-day article about the prospects of a run-off election from the L.A. Times were all the nation’s top newspapers could muster.
Four days later, it no longer seemed newsworthy to mention that the election was only Liberia’s second since its civil war, that some of Sirleaf’s main opponents are warlords, and that eight of 10 Liberians still live on less than $1.25 a day.
Four days later, a 57-year life expectancy, a 58 percent literacy rate, and an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent no longer seemed relevant.
It was just another election in another far-away land.
Four days later, America’s news agencies proved that $1 million dollars and a shiny medal is always more interesting than the nuances of nation building, the importance of elections, or the precariousness of peace.
In the months that have followed, Liberia’s fragile stability has started to unravel. It turns out that there was a run-off election, as the LA Times predicted. And it also turns out that Sirleaf’s opponent in the run-off, Winston Tubman, boycotted the vote. He accused the Nobel laureate of rigging the elections, which were deemed free and fair by the Carter Center, a pro-democracy NGO that monitored the election.
He and his party are now holding massive rallies aimed at unseating Sirleaf, who won the second election with over 90 percent of the vote. (Though only 37.4 percent of people voted.)
Tubman has called for a “Great Victory Rally” to begin this evening and to last 30 days. At his last large rally, on the eve of the run-off election, national police killed at least two protestors, according to The Guardian.
The police are not capable of reigning in such massive unrest. Michael Keating, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston, called them “underfunded, undertrained and over anxious to use their authority” in an op-ed published one week after the killings.
The political apparatus is equally shaky. Liberia is beset by a legacy of imperialism, patronage, and local allegiances that continues to plague their rebuilding and reconciliation processes.
“Politicians campaign by handing out money from the back of their SUVs,” Keating writes.
The United Nations has a significant presence in the country, but the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is not powerful enough to prevent another civil war. Liberia is still far from returning to the carnage that claimed more than 250,000 lives over the last two decades—it did just hold two successful elections, after all—but it is a country characterized by all of the symptoms of a pending catastrophe: poverty, illiteracy, inequality, marginalized youth, and an elite hell-bent on preserving its importance.
Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington this February, Liberian activist J. Aloysius Toe described the potentially perilous permissive conditions that continue to haunt Liberia today. He declared that Liberia is “sitting on a time bomb of social unrest, and may soon explode with volcanic fury.”
Winston Tubman seems poised to set that bomb off.
So when Sirleaf delivers her acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10, media organizations around the world should do more than to concentrate on the palatial decor of Oslo’s City Hall, on the privileged few afforded an invitation, or even on her words. They should concentrate on her actions, and on the actions of her compatriots.
Because as important as celebrating the Nobel Peace Prize is, the prizes awarded for good work should not be more revered than the work itself.