Liberia’s ‘Iron Lady’

I must admit that I didn’t know that Liberia’s current president was a woman.  I found this out recently when my husband and I were watching TV.  Elections are just around the corner.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th and current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert from 1979 until the 1980 coup d’état, after which she left Liberia and held senior positions at various financial institutions. She placed a very distant second in the 1997 presidential election. Later, she was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. Sirleaf is the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa.

Just recently Sirleaf was jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.  The other recipients were peace activist Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.  The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

It seems that not everyone is thrilled about Sirleaf”s receiving this high honor.  Apparently thousands of Liberians took to the streets of the country’s capital Friday morning after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, calling for her removal from office.  The announcement that she had received the prize came the same day that the opposition party,  Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) was holding a rally in the capital ahead of Tuesday’s election.  CDC candidate Winston Tubman was “shocked” to hear about the peace prize.  In his opinion she contributed to the war in Liberia.  Kolu Diggen-Eagle, a 21-year-old schoolteacher shares Tubman’s sentiments.  She believes that the prize had been misdirected because, “Ellen contributed to the war that killed over 250,000 persons,” she said as she stood among thousands of  CDC supporters who sang and danced as they waited for the rally to start. “I, as an individual, deserve the award more than President Sirleaf.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu supports the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision.  “She deserves it many times over,” said the South African who won the peace prize in 1984. “She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”  Prince Worzie, a 25-year-old petty trader who watched the rally from his roadside stall on Friday, October 7, feels the same way. According to him since Sirleaf took power, “ she has brought peace to Liberia.  She’s served as a role model for many — most especially through her style of appointing women to key positions in government. That alone justifies that indeed she should deserve the award.”

Sirleaf’s opponents view her peace prize as an unfair advantage going into the elections which are scheduled to occur tomorrow, Tuesday, October 11.  Despite the criticism, Sirleaf is still widely viewed as a top contender.

Sirleaf has been criticized for her early financial support of Liberia’s warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in The Hague. A coup launched by Taylor in 1989 led to 14 years of civil conflict in Liberia that claimed more than 250,000 lives.  It is true that initially Sirleaf supported Taylor at the outbreak of the first Liberian Civil War in the rebellion against Doe by helping to raise funds for his cause.  However, she later went on to oppose him.

The CDC also claimed that Sirleaf as being too busy impressing her international contacts to help ordinary Liberians.  She does have an international image.  Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st most powerful woman in the world in 2006.  In 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, while Time counted her among the top ten female leaders. That same year, The Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had.”

When Sirleaf took office six years ago she was seen as the country’s reformer and peacemaker.  In a 2005 interview with the Associated Press, Sirleaf expressed that it was her wish that young girls would see her as a role model and be inspired. “I certainly hope more and more of them will be better off, women in Liberia, women in Africa, I hope even women in the world,” she added.  It was not easy getting to where she is now.  “If you’re competing with men as a professional, you have to be better than they are … and make sure you get their respect as an equal.  It’s been hard. Even when you gain their acceptance, it’s in a male-dominated away. They say, ‘Oh, now she’s one of the boys.”

Notes to Women celebrate this iron lady, world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state .  She was sentenced to 10 years in prison of which she served a partial sentence before she was released and sent into exile.  While Liberia was absorbed in a bloody civil war from 1989-96, Johnson-Sirleaf worked as an economist for Citibank and the World Bank, and as the director of a U.N. development agency in Africa.  Her unwavering grit and determination earned her the title, “Iron Lady”.    We wish this grandmother who pledged to bring the “motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” which was greatly needed to heal the deep problems that plagued Liberia after many years of violence and warfare.  To her credit, in 2003, Johnson-Sirleaf pushed for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with claims of war crimes during the civil war. She told AllAfrica, “A [war crimes] tribunal is not just meant to indict the guilty, but also to exonerate the innocent. This way, many people who have been accused — including myself — would have the opportunity to clear themselves and face their accusers.”

Sirleaf once declared, “Africa is ready for a female president. Women all over are poised to enjoy this victory.”  On 23 November 2005, Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president.  Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.  Yes, women all over the world were able to enjoy her victory.  We hope that there will be another one tomorrow.  We also hope for a democratic, violence free election which would be ideal for Liberia.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Liberia as they go to the polls and vote in their second post-war election.

If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.

Why are some countries able, despite their very real and serious problems, to press ahead along the road to reconciliation, recovery, and redevelopment while others cannot? These are critical questions for Africa, and their answers are complex and not always clear. Leadership is crucial, of course. Kagame was a strong leader–decisive, focused, disciplined, and honest–and he remains so today. I believe that sometimes people’s characters are molded by their environment. Angola, like Liberia, like Sierra Leone, is resource-rich, a natural blessing that sometimes has the sad effect of diminishing the human drive for self-sufficiency, the ability and determination to maximize that which one has. Kagame had nothing. He grew up in a refugee camp, equipped with only his own strength of will and determination to create a better life for himself and his countrymen.
― Ellen Johnson SirleafThis Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President



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