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SIRLEAF: Africa’s young democracies, moving on up

- - Monday, September 30, 2013

As Liberia celebrates 10 years since the signing of the peace accords that ended our devastating series of civil wars, it is right to reflect upon not only the progress the country has made, but also the concurrent transformation of much of Africa.

Twenty years ago, few African countries could be considered democracies, and where elections were held, many were merely showcases for long-entrenched strongmen pretending they had public support. This was an age of coups and man-made disasters. Now, Africa is a continent dominated by young and genuine democracies with many, such as Liberia, emerging from a period of sustained conflict that severely weakened their fundamental institutions of state. Many of the real advances made across Africa in 20 years have been solidified during the past 10.

Reconstructing countries and their state institutions cannot be achieved overnight, but clear progress is being made. In the case of Liberia, the World Bank has highlighted our success in the redevelopment of our deepwater port, the rapid growth of our road network and the increase in access to potable water. We have swiftly moved up the rankings of the World Bank's Doing Business index. The International Monetary Fund has also recognized our advances, saying foreign direct investment and legislative changes have supported private-sector development and strengthened governance.

Key to Liberia's progress is our investment in national security and, domestically, implementing the rule of law fairly, ensuring that no one is protected from prosecution because they are wealthy or powerful or because they are members of a particular profession. While we have made many advances, there is still much to do. It cannot be expected that any country devastated by civil war should, 10 years on, be a fully functioning modern state. This is one of the reasons why recent criticism of Liberia's judicial system could be interpreted as egregious. The case is one of a local journalist who libeled a government minister and was found guilty in a private case brought before the courts.

It is possible to debate whether there should be libel laws in Liberia or, indeed, any other country, and whether sentences handed down in a case such as this were commensurate with the offense committed. What is not debatable, however, is that libel was committed here, which stands in stark contrast to newspaper headlines suggesting the media editor was "jailed for journalism" and the straightforward practicing of his profession.

We are, in fact, in the process of repealing our current libel laws. What they are replaced by should be subject to informed and reasonable debate. Indeed, as a country striving to be open and free, we welcome any opportunity to discuss the laws of the land and their impact. It is essential, however, that the debate on this issue is grounded in accuracy, given the seriousness it deserves.

Over the past decade, Liberians have witnessed the flowering of a robust, independent and investigative media, which is a key pillar in holding the executive to account and challenging abuse of public office. For a country that for most of its existence was effectively a one-party state, many laws that remain current were written at a time when the divide between the rights of those in government and the governed was considerable. At the same time, the right to freedom of speech now enjoyed by Liberians, and the consequent growth of media outlets expressing a broad range of opinions, is only a decade old. Just as the media of Liberia cannot be expected to have become perfect during this time, it cannot be expected for government to have addressed every governance, economic and social legacy of one-party-rule in the space of 10 years.

Yet we are making rapid progress, and so is the rest of Africa in many areas of governance, including legal reform. Credible courts with public support have seen general election disputes settled in both Ghana and Kenya. The African Union is developing its own intergovernmental legal institutions capable of settling cases from across the continent. Increasingly, African nations can boast a robust and independent set of legal institutions underpinned by legislation passed by free and democratically elected parliaments.

What is clear is that 10 years of peace, reconciliation and reform in Liberia, just as in Africa as a whole, have demonstrated measurable progress. There is much still to be done, and we welcome the involvement and support of international organizations willing to propose solutions and assist us with our task in the years ahead. There will, of course, be criticisms, and in this free and open society we are creating and nurturing, these will most certainly be listened to. This is a significant part of our future — one where the oxygen of debate and fundamental fairness, perhaps more than our economic progress, is the real story.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.