Ethical Case Analysis of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Administration


Ethical Case Analysis of the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Administration
Written by Bernard Gbayee Goah
5/18/2009


The West African country of Liberia had one of the bloodiest civil war ever recorded in human history that took away the lives of over 300,000 innocent women and children. The war was so massive and destructive that it created lots of hate and hard feelings across the entire country.
The war lasted for over 15 years. The 15th peace accord signed brought an end to the violence. Stipulation of the peace accord was that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be set up within two years when a democratically elected administration was put in place.

The elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was one of the major architects in the 15 years civil war. Her administration includes dominantly people who have committed human right abuses. This is the same administration that designed and implemented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia. The same people who committed the crimes were the once who were collecting the stories of the victim of the civil war. The TRC was designed to reconcile atrocities committed by everyone; this includes top current government officials.

The design and implementation of the Liberian TRC presents many ethical issues. The most blatant is the fact that those who committed crimes were collecting stories. While living on the refugee camp I heard stories of victims being asked to recount their story to the same person who committed the crime. Obviously people did not share their stories, deeply cutting the power the TRC had in the healing process. The other main ethical issue is that persons, such as President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, refused to profess her responsibility in the war in front of the TRC. She offered instead that people could read about it in the book she would be releasing. Several months later, under immense pressure, she spoke in front of the TRC, but only to profess her regret about the war, taking the focus off of her part she played. Even if she had come to the TRC with the honest truth, it was too late. Hope and belief in a just Liberia had been lost.

The TRC was highly ineffective. Liberians from around the world believe in retributive justice more now than ever, even though they are tired of violence. Refugee camp that was visited by TRC staff collecting stories often felt that the current administration was spying on them, trying to identify those that would be against the government when repatriation started. A short time after stories were collected the administration announced that the country was not ready for the large influx of refugees to return, furthering the belief that the TRC was used as a cover to spy. The refusal of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and other top officials to come forward during the TRC created distrust between the government and the citizens. Due to the high amount of distrust, the TRC has be somewhat swept under the rug, this has been the resolution if it could be called that.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf displayed what is referred to as an agency problem, in part due to the conflicting interests of her administration and those of the citizens. Geuras and Garofalo (2005) write, “The public administrator is often forced into an ethical decision when the public interest conflicts with that of his or her agency.” Although, people knew she played a major role in the war, she was elected under clouds of suspicion, but citizens accepted the situation hoping for the best. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf skillfully infiltrated the TRC by putting her loyalists in key positions in order to protect her interest, when in fact the TRC should have been a neutral body that citizens could trust.

Ellen’s actions are a completely opposite to what Geuras and Garofalo identify as the “virtue theory”. Ellen did not act as a person of good character. She did not set a good moral example for other to follow. Had Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf thought earlier about the aftermath of her actions, the consequences of credibility would not be plaguing her administration today. Ellen’s failure to ask herself “what are the consequence of my action, what are the long term effect of my action, and will my action promote the greatest happiness” give rise to a contra positive reflection on her administration. Ellen continues to suffer from moral stress as she attempts to justify her actions. While she did everything in her power to protect herself at the TRC, the lack of clarity in her explanation proves that she could not be seen as a person who could make conscious ethical decisions as well as her lack of experience in ethical analysis and judgment (Geuras and Garofalo, 2005).

Even though people hoped for the best after the elections, when they realized that the best could not come, there was a nationwide outcry for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to correct the wrongs she committed in the past as well as to stop current transgressions. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf displayed what Geuras and Garofalo call ethical relativism which “is the belief that there is no single ethical standard that applies to all people at all times. The ethical relativist believes that different societies have different standard and that there is no one universal standard that applies to all.” While Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf pushed for Charles Taylor, her co-architect in the civil war, to go to the war crimes court she was refusing to come forward to the TRC. Her actions were no different than those of Taylor, and yet she did not feel that she should be held responsible to the court or to the citizens she now pledged to protect.

This case has similarities with the 1974 Watergate case involving President Richard Nixon. The President resigned to avoid almost certain impeachment and conviction in the Watergate scandal Geuras and Garofalo (2005) and (Moore and sparrow 1990). “Although he was never conclusively connected to the break-in itself, his own tape recordings proved that he participated in a massive cover-up Geuras and Garofalo (2005), Morgan, Douglas F., Green, Richard, Shinn, Craig W., & Robinson, Kent S., (2008). Although the Johnson-Sirleaf case is not exactly the same as the Nixon case, there are some similarities to compare.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf did not physically partake in the killings of over 300,000 innocent women and children during the 15 years of civil madness in Liberia, but she was the master planner of the whole idea and she hugely supported rebel leader Charles Taylor financially to carry out such massacres and other atrocities. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf once upon a time denied every allegation of supporting rebel leader Charles Taylor until the BBC played her statement ordering Taylor’s rebel to level down the capital city of Liberia and the presidential palace. Ellen tried to keep the information of planting her loyalist on the TRC to protect her interest.

Another thing that reflects in my mind is about the case of confidentiality, and trust that was lacking in those who were designated as front line supervisors of the TRC during the process of collecting stories from war victims. I quickly noticed that those collecting the stories were the same people who in one way or another initiated some form of inhumane aggression against the Liberia people, or committed atrocities against the very people who they were interviewing. These front line “supervisors” or stories takers were ignoring stories that were brought up against them as well as passing on information to the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government. The moment these things began to surface, victims began to decline to tell their stories. Such behavior negated the very purpose of the TRC which was supposed to be neutral, have people with untainted character, and people whose presence on the TRC would create a safe environment for victims to explain their stories without fear of intimidation.

The fact that those who were planted on the TRC carried out such inhuman behavior and did not refuse to accept such roles is very much unethical. Geuras and Garofalo clearly elucidated about the virtue theory and questions one should ask oneself in anything he or she does. Some of these questions include, “What character traits does this action express? What effect will this action have on my character? What effect will this action have on the character of other people? If only these questions were asked by the story collector before agreeing to collect stories of victims, they would have come to know that accepting such a role given their previous role in the civil war was in itself unethical.

Had the ethical issues surround the TRC been addressed in the beginning or in the middle of the process, the outcome would have been drastically different for the current Liberian administration and more importantly the Liberian citizens. It is amazing how one unethical act can dash the hopes of so many. Yet, on the other hand, one act of good faith can also restore hope. Citizens of Liberia, not wanting more conflict and violence, accepted the election results. They believed Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her administration would act in good faith on their behalf. Had she done that, Liberia would have had a shared history reflecting both the victims and those who master minded such behavior. Liberian would have had a credible image amongst nations of the world today. Such action would have been seen as an ethical behavior. Such action would have paved a way for transparency and fairness thus paving a way for democratic elections in Liberia. When there was no good faith to be seen, citizens lost their faith. The distrust in government, a feeling that has plagued Liberian citizens for a century, was once again reinforced simply by a lack of human decency and ethics.

References:
Geuras, Dean , Garofalo, Charles. (2005).

Practical Ethics in Public Administration. Management Concepts, Inc.
Morgan, Douglas F., Green, Richard, Shinn, Craig W., & Robinson, Kent S. (2008). Foundations of Public Service. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
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