A Nobel Intervention?

Why did the Nobel Committee Award the Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf one week before the Presidential election?

Victory Assured?


By Jack Hamilton, 7 Oct, 2011

Today’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has stirred controversy.  The ‘Iron Lady’ said this morning that she is humbled by the award and has stated that it is an award for the people of Liberia.  However, the timing of the award, coming one week before the Presidential elections in Liberia, has brought forth claims of the Norwegian-based Nobel Committee interfering in the internal politics of the West African state.

President Sirleaf’s main rival in next weeks’ election, Winston Tubman, has lambasted the decision of the Nobel Committee instead declaring that “She brought war here, she is a warmonger” to the BBC Voice on Africa programme.

Such vitriol is nothing new to the first elected female leader in Africa having risen to prominence in 2005 following a civil war that left a quarter of a million people dead and the Liberian economy in tatters.  This is not the issue.  Rather it is the question of the timing of the award in such close proximity to the election.

Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland has told reporters today that the committee does not consider domestic politics in its selection process and the spokesperson for the Liberian National Election Commission, Nathan Mulbah, has already stated that the election will go ahead as planned on October 11, four days from the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Peace by ‘Peace’

The Nobel Committee is no stranger to controversial timing.  Awarding the prize to Barack Obama was seen by many as an over-zealous attempt by the organisation to garner attention by affixing itself to a popular President who had achieved little in the way of international peace at the time of the presentation (aside from the snide observation that he may have won due to the simple fact that he was not George W Bush).  That has since been described as an incentive for the President to foster peace and security throughout the globe.  This function of the peace prize should not be overlooked.

In 1998 David Trimble and John Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their roles in facilitating the Good Friday Agreement and ushering in a more peaceful era in Northern Ireland.  This was by no means a solid peace deal.  Similar agreements had been reached at Sunningdale in 1973 and at Hillsborough in 1985 but failed spectacularly.  The prize was a recognition of the start of a process and acted as a lightning rod for the global attention at a time when atrocities in were being carried out in the Balkans and al-Qaeda had struck in Nairobi.

While the Peace Prize did not create the peace in Northern Ireland it associated the terms of ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘peace’ at a global level which certainly acted as a catalyst to maintain some semblance of dialogue. It is difficult to ascertain the motives of the Committee with any great deal of certainty but one assume that they are attempting to bring the world together piece by piece: peace by ‘peace’.

Ballots not Bullets

This brings me back to Liberia.  The elections will take place in a few days and there is no doubting that the Nobel Peace Prize has again drawn attention to an ongoing peace process.  The Committee is surely aware that their award will have an impact on the election.  Is it so wrong that they have chosen a woman who so clearly embodies the values the Nobel Committee stand for?  Sirleaf has been instrumental in transforming Liberia from a post-conflict country to a developing one.  Under her the economy has grown by 6.5%, free and compulsory primary education has been introduced, and doctors’ salaries have doubled.  Furthermore, the election has so far been described by the electoral observers of the Carter Center as “peaceful” and “fair” as healthy competition remains between the two frontrunners, Sirleaf and Tubman.

The timing of the decision will be used by the opponents of Sirleaf to frame her as a puppet of foreign interests but it was not her choice.  However it was Sirleaf’s actions led to her accolade and these actions will surely prove to be more influential come October 11.  Neither Sirleaf nor the people of Liberia are the puppets of foreign intervention and such a claim devalues the progress that has been made in the past six years.

Today’s award is recognition of those achievements as well as an incentive to continue the difficult rebuilding process, whatever the outcome of the election.  However with the objectives of the Nobel Committee being repeatedly questioned, the jury is out on the future of the prize.


Jack Hamilton can be followed on Twitter @jmhamilton

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