- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

IN IT TO WIN IT

Liberia’s former ambassador to the United States is planning to challenge one of the world’s most influential women when he returns to his West African homeland after Christmas to run against President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

M. Nathaniel Barnestold Embassy Row this week that, despite Ms. Sirleaf’s popularity, he is in it to win it.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think she could be defeated,” Mr. Barnes said of his candidacy in the October presidential election.

He criticized Ms. Sirleaf for failing to fulfill campaign promises to improve the lives of the 3.5 million Liberians. Five years after her election victory, unemployment is estimated at 80 percent to 85 percent, and most Liberians scratch out a living on less than $1 a day. Ms. Sirleaf pledged to serve only one six-year term when she was elected in 2005 as the first female president in Africa.

Corruption remains so rampant that Ms. Sirleaf last month fired all but one of her Cabinet members.

The reform-minded president also was embarrassed last year when Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that she be barred from public office because of her past association with Charles Taylor, the former warlord and president indicted on war crimes charges and now in U.N. custody in The Hague. Ms. Sirleaf helped raise money for Mr. Taylor in the 1989 civil war against Samuel Doe, who grabbed power in a 1980 coup and soon proved corrupt and dictatorial.

Mr. Barnes has his own past association with Mr. Taylor and, ironically, credits Ms. Sirleaf for helping to reform him politically. Although he was one of 22 candidates in the 2005 election and leads the opposition Liberia Destiny Party, Ms. Sirleaf appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations in 2006 and as ambassador to the United States in 2008.

“Serving in Sirleaf’s government vindicated me for Taylor,” he said. “This helped remove the guilt by association.”

Mr. Barnes was finance minister for Mr. Taylor from 1999 to 2002, when he resigned as Mr. Taylor asserted increasingly dictatorial powers.

After Mr. Barnes finished 12th among the candidates in the 2005 election, he immediately endorsed Ms. Sirleaf over her runoff candidate, former soccer star George Weah.

“She was certainly the lesser of the two evils,” Mr. Barnes said.

Ms. Sirleaf asked for his resignation as ambassador in August after learning of his plans to run for president. Mr. Barnes said he expected his dismissal and that he and Ms. Sirleaf departed on cordial terms.

Mr. Barnes said one of his motivations for running against Ms. Sirleaf is generational. He is 57, she is 72.

“A whole different leadership style - one with energy, one with vision - is needed,” he said, adding that his campaign theme is “empowering people by creating wealth.”

“We need a Liberian middle class. Our middle class is our diaspora,” he said, referring to Liberian exiles including more than 300,000 in the United States. “It’s time for a change.”

He said his political party is center-right and strongly embraces free-market policies.

Mr. Barnes also is concerned about the ethnic divisions that remain in Liberia, a nation founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. The capital, Monrovia, was named after James Monroe, the U.S. president who supported the recolonization effort in West Africa.

Mr. Barnes traces his own roots to a freed American slave: his great-great-grandfather Nathan.

However, tension between the descendants of the American slaves, called Americo-Liberians, and the indigenous tribes of the region continue to this day. Liberia has 16 ethnic groups.

“We need a unifier, and I see myself as a unifier,” Mr. Barnes said. “I don’t see her as one.”

However, much of the world reveres Ms. Sirleaf. Foreign Policy magazine named her among the top 100 “global thinkers.” Time, Newsweek and Fortune magazines also have ranked her among the world’s foremost leaders.

Mr. Barnes remains unimpressed.

“Foreign Policy magazine and people who read it don’t vote in Liberia,” he said.

- Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.