Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Nobel Peace Prize: Implications for Peace and Stability in Liberia

A few hours ago, Norwegian Nobel Committee President Thorbjoern Jagland announced the award of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to three courageous ladies: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. In making the announcement, Jagland noted the commitment of the three women to non-violent struggle, peace building and the advancement of women’s rights in their countries. Sirleaf and Gbowee are credited for their efforts to bring peace to Liberia after a prolonged war while Karman is credited for courageously defying the Yemen’s leadership in demanding Women’s rights in that country. These ladies have no doubt made their countries, and indeed the entire world, a better place. Congratulations are in order.

For Africa, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is especially significant in that the first African woman to win the award, Wangari Maathai, passed away just a few days ago. The award is also an appropriate recognition of the instrumental role women continue to play in Africa and other countries in advancing human rights and democracy. She joins a distinguished group of African Nobel laureates such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

For President Sirleaf, the winning of the Nobel Prize has broader and far reaching implications. The award comes just days before the hotly contested Liberian presidential elections. For a country that is still fairly fragile, winning of the Nobel Prize could be a huge boost to her bid for re-election. This notwithstanding, the award will have long-term implications on the future of Liberia.

The award could be instrumental in tipping the balance in Sirleaf’s favor—probably giving her enough votes in the first round to avoid a run-off. Her credentials as a peace advocate might boost her image internationally giving Liberia more favorable standing in the world. However, it is not quite obvious that the award will translate into long term stability of that country.

But the timing of the announcement may have been poorly calculated. To her opponents, the timing of the announcement will probably be seen as an attempt to influence the forthcoming elections. It may turn out that the many opposition candidates will see this as an attempt by the international community to promote Sirleaf’s chances of re-election. There is of course no evidence to support such claims should they arise but conspiracy theories have traction. Although it is too late, such a perception could lead the opposition candidates to unite against the incumbent president. Were this to happen, Liberia could become more fractured than it has been in the past.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a deserving winner of the prize, but timing of the announcement is unfortunate for Liberia.