Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has seen, heard and done it all: First Woman African Head of State, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the latest former African Head of State to claim the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which celebrates excellence in African leadership.
In London Thursday, Sirleaf was in her element, attending her second event in two days, as she delivered the keynote address at the Royal African Society (RAS) annual lecture, which this year is focusing on the rising generation of African women, who are demanding greater inclusion in the political process, and offering contextualized solution.
Sirleaf was quick to acknowledge Tuesday the obvious concerns from many about the age and continued presence on the talk circuit, just few months after her presidency.
Back at home, in Liberia, the trail of controversy and growing uncertainties, dismal economic meltdown of her predecessor now drawn into a messy missing L$16 billion saga, appear to be giving Sirleaf, now a former president some food for thought, retrospectively offering a haunting reminder about what she endured over the past decade.
Sirleaf appeared to be comfortable in her latest venture on the talk circuit – even as questions linger amid perceptions widely held by many Liberians that she was instrumental in the election of football legend George Manneh Weah and his Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC).
“In 20 days, I will be 80 years old,” she marveled before an impressive gathering of intellects, still interested in what the former President has to say.
Foreign policy was Sirleaf’s strongest attributes as President and one she still seems to master in her post-presidency.
But even at near 80, she explains why at this point in her life’s journey, she remains unbashful about her age. “I celebrate it – all eight decades.”
The successes and failures, she Sirleaf said, offer the hopes and despairs, and the tender moments of unexpected kindness.
For quite some time now, Sirleaf said, friends and family have been pressing her to slow down pointing out that: “I have done it all, paid the price and earned the stripes. But I still wake up each morning reflecting on the past, hoping that I will discover something new, realize a truth that was not obvious to me before, see a problem from a fresh perspective, change my mind and deepen my hope. I know it is a cliché to say but I fundamentally believe that “you are never too old to learn.”
The irony of course is the dilemma her successor, the football legend George Weah appears to be struggling to master in his first year – burdened by early missteps and the lack of strong forces within his circle to offer good pieces of advice and show him the ropes. “That’s why we are all in this room today, expecting to profit from an exchange of information and ideas; a flexibility of thought which allows us to view anew the challenges in front of us,” Sirleaf told the gathering Tuesday.
One of her new challenges is pushing what she describes as the “Unstoppable March of Democracy in Africa.”
A Hard-Fought Peace
Back in January, she recalls a poignant moment of celebration for her and for the people of Liberia, following her successful transfer of power from one democratically-elected government to the next. “Three months earlier, Liberians saw the first transfer of presidential power from one elected leader to another in 75 years. Just 15 years prior, Liberia was considered a pariah state. Decades of ruinous civil and regional wars had decimated our democratic institutions, state infrastructure, and left a generation of young people without the constancy that learning provides.”
Liberians, according to the former President, secured a hard fought but fragile peace. “In 2005, we voted for hope, stability and prosperity for our nation. We voted with the hope that Liberia would change, attitudes would be reformed, peace would prevail, prosperity would be within reach.”
But even amid the successful transition in her homeland, Sirleaf acknowledged here Tuesday that there is no linear path to the achievement of democracy, citing current issues in Zimbabwe where she was an observer to the recent elections. “We abhor …missed opportunity in Zimbabwe’s first election post-Mugabe where I co-led the US observer delegation and the restrictive political climates in Uganda and Cameroon that could lead to violence and the disenfranchisement of their youthful populations. These contrast the emergence of Abiy Ahmed Ali as Ethiopia’s 15th Prime Minister and the pace of dramatic change that he has ignited. Some say it’s like watching a different country. And with sadness the unexpected passing of our dear friend and icon, Kofi Annan, and the aspirations he held for all of us in the mist of the realities of an increasingly polarized and uncertain world.”
For Sirleaf, the essence of her current debacle is her eye on the future, the next generation. “I feel a greater urgency then I did in April, a sense that incremental change in Africa is not enough. The demand of the youths rings louder and clearer. We must strive for transformational change, the type that can be unleashed when the politically marginalized have a seat at the table.”
While appearing content about helping complete a successful transition of power in Liberia, Sirleaf still feels strongly that a change in attitude is necessary for Liberia to progress. “In Liberia, we say one successful transition is not enough and transformation cannot be achieved by dictates or by leaders alone. It requires attitudinal change, the collective commitments and actions of civil society, media, religious institutions and business entities. As we herald the transition and identify the potential concerted efforts will be required for the transformative process to gain momentum.”
For now according to her, the missing link is women and youth, who she described as the catalytic force for transformation.
Women Trailblazers Inspire young Girls
The former President recalled that sub-Saharan Africa has seen some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in women’s political representation in national legislative bodies.
Citing the Brookings Institution, which logs that the number of female legislators on the continent more than doubled within the last 20 years, growing from 9.8 percent in 1995 to 23.2 percent in 2016, Sirleaf declared that five of the world’s top 15 countries for the number of women serving in parliament are found in Africa with Rwanda standing out with the highest ratio at 61 percent, followed by South Africa (42.3 percent), Senegal (41.8 percent), Namibia (41.3 percent) and Mozambique (39.6 percent). Eight other African nations have parliaments with more than 30 percent female membership.
In Liberia’s recent 2017 elections, the former President averred, women participated strongly, including one presidential candidate and six vice presidential candidates, one of which was successful. Moreover, close to 160 women sought seats in the Legislature.
On the whole, she said, Africa has produced women trailblazers who inspire young girls across the continent to get involve in political and civic life. “These extraordinary women include Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, the late Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Joyce Banda of Malawi, Graça Machel of Mozambique, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa, Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic, and Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria, who is now Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations.”
The former President recalled last week’s Nobel Prize win for Nadia Murad of Iraq and Dr. Denis Mukwege of DRC Congo as major achievement for the effort to combat sexual violence against women. “The needle was pushed a bit further last week when the Nobel Prize Committee granted the Nobel Peace Prize to two champions who have taken courageous actions to combat violence against women – Nadia Murad of Irag, who herself a victim, campaigned to free her people and end sexual violence as a weapon of war and Dr. Denis Mukwege of DRC Congo, who treated tens of thousands of victims of rape, an affliction well known to my country, Liberia.”
Sirleaf recalled comments made when she received her Nobel Peace Prize regarding how International Tribunals have correctly declared that rape, used as a weapon of war.
The former President described rape as a crime against humanity. “Rape in times of lawlessness continues unabated. The number of our sisters and daughters of all ages brutally defiled over the past two decades staggers the imagination, and the number of lives devastated by such evil defies comprehension.”
In the country she recently exited, the issue of rape remains as prevalent as ever. Young girls are being raped with impunity and the justice system appears to lack the will to enforce and prosecute offenders.
For Sirleaf, due to the mutilation of bodies and the destruction of ambitions, women and girls have disproportionally paid the price of domestic and international armed conflicts. We have paid in the currencies of blood, of tears and of dignity.
Obstacles to Political Participation for Women
The realities she said still apply. “If you look beyond these statistics, you will see that true governing powers remain largely closed to women.”
Amid the lingering and recurring challenges, Sirleaf further stated the obstacles to political participation of women are beyond patriarchal and misogynistic, they are institutional, societal, and cultural. Rather, she added: “They come from a legacy of winner-take all politics, from states where power is highly centralized, and from weak institutions where accountability to the people is still aspirational.”
Sirleaf said it is necessary for the world to move beyond counting the few achievements of women at the highest levels and urge for the new dispensation to seek to build a strong and well-resourced bench across a wider cross-section of society.
While trumpeting the successes and power of the #MeToo Movement and the global wave that it now represents, the former Liberian leader was quick to push for the consideration of others disenfranchised from the political process and take them along. “I speak especially of the youths. I do not believe that we can bear the costs of failing another generation of young people, not when one in five people on earth will be African by 2030, and of those, 65 percent will be youths. We must seek out the force-multipliers, capture the political energy of the youth, connected through their virtual communities in social media. Why can’t the “Not Too Young to Run” campaign, be integrated into our own goals?”
Sirleaf said what is needed now is a coalition of the politically disenfranchised, connected by a shared vision for fundamental change. “We need to engage civil society and non-governmental organizations with their transnational networks, religious and faith-based institutions, journalists, entrepreneurs, academics, artists and entertainers, those advocating for the disabled, the economically disempowered, the peri-urban and rural dwellers. We must move out of our safe and confined spaces. An obstacle to one, is an obstacle to all.”
Fighting Corruption With ‘Available Tools’
Touching on one of the major Achilles of her ten-year reign in Liberia, Sirleaf said it was important to prioritize in any “coalition of the politically marginalized, recognizing that each issue could have been built into its own speech for discussion: “Endemic corruption, patron-clientelist politics in Africa is the most formidable barrier to making democracy work. It must be fought with all tools available. There must be no place to hide.”
Sirleaf said institutions must be made stronger than the individuals, there is no substitute for this in Africa, or anywhere in the world. “This transference cannot be imposed, it must be demand-driven. Citizens need to be empowered through civic education, decentralization of government, democracy practiced at the community level.”
The former President said the only sustainable power comes from the support of one’s people. “While the club of legacy leaders grows smaller, the damage they inflict moves beyond borders, and across continents. Love of country is about letting go.”
She added: “We must take on constitutional reform to address malpractice and inequalities. Campaign finance law is essential as in many African nations unregulated monies pollute a political system to a point where the voters will become unrecognizable. Further, quotas, to be phased out over time, should be utilized as a tool to address inequities for women, and considered for the disabled, who have no seat at the table in most African nations. Regional and local leaders, including governors, should be elected locally, as a means of accountability of the office, and empowerment of the citizens. Such appointments should not be the spoils of presidential elections, and when they are, they tend to be one of the greatest sources of political disenfranchisement.”
Tuesday’s speech here offered yet another chance for Sirleaf to use her new role as a post-president, a rarity for Africa, to cement her status in one of the few surviving African presidents making the rounds after two years in office.
Looking to the Future
Not lost on her reflection of her time in office, was the contribution some of the few young people she mentored as she laid emphasis on how transformational change starts with a single step – or one qualified youth who steps up and take leadership. “For that, I wish to return to Liberia to the talented young women who served in my government in the Presidential Delivery Unit at the Ministry of State. One talented young lady who has studied in Liberia and abroad, has become an entrepreneur, and has mobilized other young Liberian women to establish an organization the Young Women Empowerment Network (YWEN).
While many remain focused on roles in government, Sirleaf says Liberia’s future is in the hands of those young women and men, those empowered through education and new technologies, those who are part of the “Not Too Young To Run Generation,” and those willing to take on the sacrifices that come with nation building. They, she said, are change-makers, representing a coalition of those dedicated to making democracy work and breaking down barriers.
Ironically, Sirleaf’s immediate sense of urgency mirrors what is unfolding in the country she left behind. But even amid the disagreements with her successor over the alleged missing L$16 billions saga, the former president appears hopeful that at the end of the day, all Liberians should focus on putting the country first – and pressing for the current government to succeed. After all, her legacy depends on it, the future demands it.