“Africa now knows what a woman President can do.” –Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
On the heels of international women’s day on March 8, former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave her first U.S public address since the announcement of her historic win of the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Speaking at Wellesley College’s 2018 African Women’s Leadership Conference, Johnson Sirleaf addressed an enthusiastic audience dressed in a chic brown tailored suit with her signature-matching turban.
“For the first time in 75 years, Liberia successfully completed the peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another despite an uncertain electoral period,” she said.
Johnson Sirleaf described this transition, which went from her hands to former footballer-turned-politician George Weah in January, as one of her greatest achievements. A success shared with the four-million-plus Liberians she once led.
Reflecting on her leadership journey, the Harvard-educated former head of state described her tenure in office as having “built a foundation for democracy, economic development and the rule of law,” that gave “a voice and hope to women, the girl child and to civil society.” In the end, the legacy of her time in office meant, “the next president inherited an empowered people. Africa now knows what a woman president can do.”
The former president then chronicled her arduous ascent to Liberia’s highest office. Her story began with a prophecy only days after she was born; an old man proclaimed to her parents, “this child will be great.” A foretelling she manifested though not without tragedy and trials. Despite Johnson Sirleaf being born into a family of great privilege — her father held an elite position in the country’s legislature — life changed dramatically after his death. Raised by a widowed mother, life for Johnson Sirleaf and her three siblings was tough; her mother worked as both a preacher and a teacher to make ends meet.
Immediately after graduating from high school, Johnson Sirleaf wed at 17 and gave birth to four sons in three years. She recalled dedicating the next decade of her life to her marriage and raising a family while she watched her peers advance in their careers. During this time, she survived a turbulent marriage and endured domestic abuse. When the opportunity came for her to pursue an education in the United States, she grabbed it, even though it meant leaving her four sons back in Liberia.
Upon returning to Liberia, she started her career in the treasury department, rising to position of minister of finance. However, the political tide turned to military control: she was jailed and exiled for much of her life due to political activism against military dictatorship. Recalling the old man’s prophecy, she ran for presidency in 1997 however she lost because she had “underestimated the impact of decades of civil war, the effects of lawlessness and corruption and most importantly, the power of the collective dreams of Liberian women…”
In 2005, these same women of Liberia played a pivotal role in her appointment as Africa’s first democratically elected female president. However, this was just the beginning of a long period of transition: The new head of state inherited a country deeply fractured by the effects of civil war. And what was Johnson Sirleaf’s first order of business? She appointed a woman, Beatrice Sieh, as Chief of Police; by 2016, Liberia’s police force was 17% female.
The former President has been recognized globally for her fight for freedom and for her work in rebuilding a nation ravaged by war; the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and France’s highest pubic distinction, the Grand Croix of the Legion d’Honneur in 2012. The most recent recognition is the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which is given to a former African Head of State. Johnson Sirleaf, who served two terms as president of Liberia from 2006 to 2017, is the fifth recipient of the Ibrahim Prize; not a bad feat, considering she is the first woman to receive the award, which celebrates excellence in African leadership. The prize comes with a $5 Million award paid over ten years and U.S. $200,000 annually for life thereafter.
In her closing remarks, she revealed to a resounding applause, “As I look into the future, I am mindful that at my age there are limitations as to what else can be achieved. However age is the latest in a series of limitations I have confronted in my life. I was raised by a single mother. I was a young bride. I endured domestic violence. I survived political persecution. And yet still….I rise.”
When Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College asked her what was next for, Johnson Sirleaf jokingly responded, “I am tempted to say sleep.” She revealed that she was working on a concept for a center that will study successful leadership and governance models that yield the results Africans want and that will enhance the participation and leadership of African women.