While it is true that ripe age, which is a blessing might be a barrier for others in unleashing their full potential on mankind and that ex-leaders of many countries often find themselves in the dungeon of social relegation at latter moment on Planet Earth, Liberia’s 23rd president remains a sensation on the world stage even at an octogenarian phase. The world clambers for her wisdom in resolving complicated social, economic and political challenges, and on the home front continues to inspire citizens and affect their lives positively. Today, the “Iron Lady of Africa” is in festive mode, though quietly, and tributes continue flow in reflection of her impactful legacy and current outreach to the needy. The Analyst reports.
Liberia’s former president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is today celebrating her 82nd Birth Anniversary. She’s interestingly receiving compliments of the day abroad. She is currently not in the country. Even at the age, she is still flying thousands of miles from country to country, from organization to organization and from people to people—sharing her wisdom in statecraft, conflict resolution, and finding remedies to other intractable world affairs.
During the last four anniversaries celebrated, shortly before the expiry of her presidential tenures and after, she received avalanche of flowers from admirers, diplomats and colleagues at her Fish Town residence, and she had the moment to visit less fortunate citizens to share the smiles and goodies of this wonderful day.
Particularly during most part of her 12-year presidency, Madam Sirleaf usually kept the celebration of her birthday deliberately low-keyed, perhaps as a demonstration of empathy for a population largely recovering from the stings of war and to see how her people would respond to the doses of remedies her administration was providing.
Out of the Executive Mansion, today’s celebration is, and should be, more than acknowledging providence’s wonders that got her a blessing of the world; it is also about celebrating momentous breakthroughs in national and international affairs, inspiring a once uninspired people, and rescuing a once ruined and estranged nation into an oasis of hope for a better future.
There are a number of key legacy roles that many will be using to underpin their tributes to her as she celebrates today.
Ellen – The Goodwill Ambassador
In May 2019, the former Liberian President was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organization (WHO) for her sterling leadership qualities and victory for the deadly Ebola Virus Disease.
During the 72nd World Health Assembly, WHO’s Director General, Dr Tedros, announced the appointment of Her Excellency (H.E.) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Goodwill Ambassador for the health workforce.
The WHO chief recalled that Madam Johnson Sirleaf is a Nobel Peace Laureate; a health workforce champion, a voice for freedom and an advocate for health for all.
Following the Ebola epidemic in Liberia in 2015, she oversaw the expansion of Primary Health Care and the creation of more than 4,000 new health worker jobs as part of the post-Ebola response.
As Africa’s first elected female Head of State, H.E. Johnson Sirleaf has become a popular symbol of democracy, leadership and gender equity, not only in her own country but throughout Africa and the developing world. She continues to champion women and economic empowerment, particularly women in leadership and politics.
Dr Tedros noted that the health workforce agenda is central to progress towards SDG 3,4,5,8,10, and that engaging Johnson Sirleaf as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Health Workforce, will position new momentum on investing in the education and employment of health workers, particularly women, to achieve universal health coverage and the SDGs.
Still in Advocacy and Development
In her post-presidential life, she is not pursuing party politics—at least overtly and intensely—but engaged with finding solutions to the world’s intractable problems of health emergencies, poverty and illiteracy.
She has to her credit as the one of few ex-presidents on the Continent and the first ex-Liberian president running a foundation geared towards caring and advocating for the cause of unfortunate citizens, particularly women and girls, who are marginalized and exploited in this patriarchal society.
The runs the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Center for Women and Development committed to a plethora of programs that create opportunities for women in leadership and public service to further their ambitions and careers.
The Foundation seeks to increase the number of women in public life and leadership, the Center will amplify the voices of all women and girls across Africa.
Embedded into the Center is the Amujae Initiative as its flagship program. Amujae, pronounced ӓ mōō jāēē, means ‘we are going up’ in Kru, a Liberian language, was launched on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020.
Accordingly, the vision for the Amujae Initiative is to shift the landscape for women in public leadership in Africa, moving from a culture of tokenism to one that truly values women leaders.
Its mission is to inspire and prepare women to unapologetically take up roles and excel in the highest echelons of public leadership, and to bring other women along.
In a sense, Madam Sirleafa, who is the first democratically elected woman president in Africa, and who led Liberia from 2006-2018, continues to assign herself as a fiery promoter of freedom, peace, justice, women’s empowerment and democratic rule, she led Liberia through reconciliation and recovery following the nation’s decade-long civil war, as well as the Ebola Crisis.
In 2011, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in bringing women into the peacekeeping process and has garnered further acclaim for her achievements fostering economic, social, and political change. Recognized as a global leader for women’s empowerment, President Sirleaf has an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of Africans.
Tolerance in Political Transition
Both the critics and supporters of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will agree on one thing: that she’s the first democratically elected president to oversee peaceful transition in over seven decades.
This is also totally rare in Africa where intolerance to peaceful transition either produced political dinosaurs or bloody civil conflicts.
This achievement cannot be summarily dismissed, as some opponents may content that, in fact, the Liberian Constitution, prevents a third term presidency.
But to understand fully and appreciate Ellen’s voluntary relinquishment of the Liberian presidency, one has to look at, and hear, the echoes coming out of many other African countries, primarily within the West African sub-region. Echoes of electoral disorder and the prospect of full scale civil conflict in Guinea and Ivory Coast currently are emerging over constitutions that once provided for two-term presidency.
It is clear that two-term presidential constitutions are not an end in themselves; they are not outright guarantee for peaceful political transitions; they can be ignored or simply eroded by means of kangaroo referendums.
Certainly, there were temptations and somewhat shrewd reasons to the former president to put herself forward for a third term, which some supporters say would have been the actual second constitutional terms. Indeed, there are urgings from here and there that the former president should stay on to guard the stability, peace and prosperity fought for and obtained.
It would be disastrous for the President to leave the recovering nation with untested politicians, some supporters of hers said then. And they said one more term would have done the trick to keep the nation stable and prosperous.
She ignored the temptation of the trappings of power, not only by remaining nonpartisan even against the wishes of her own former ruling Unity Party but also by insisting that no one exploited incumbency powers to stall the transition.
Ellen – The Postwar Redeemer of a Pariah State
At the elections of 2005, she was hailed and regarded the solution to the country’s long problems of political failure, economic deprivation and underdevelopment. As she celebrates her 82nd birth anniversary and after the double terms as President, Madam Sirleaf has proven critics wrong and supporters right when she made Liberia an unprecedented attraction of international relations.
The former failed Liberian state is now an honorable member of the comity of nations. She is also highly credited for re-enlivening national hope having restored Liberia’s international reputation and credibility.
Throughout her leadership, the government identified four pillars in support of its development agenda: Peace and Security, Economic Revitalization, Governance and the Rule of Law, and Basic Infrastructure and Services.
National peace has been consolidated by the strengthening of key institutions of national security and completing the process of demilitarization, demobilization, training and reintegration of ex-combatants. As a result of 12 years of transformative security sector reform, all defense security units now enjoy enhanced compensation, and proper pensions for retired Armed Forces of Liberia personnel have been instituted.
In addition to leading the national effort for achieving development goals, she used her diplomatic and negotiating skills to reactivate bilateral relations with several countries including France, Germany, Canada, Israel and Italy. Nearly 30 years before her leadership, Liberia was isolated from the global community, and 14 years before her presidency, the country was facing serious economic and political sanctions from world powers and even neighbors.
As a result of her leadership, the UN lifted sanctions on the country’s diamond and forestry sectors and the successful renegotiation of a $1 billion concession agreement with Arcelor Mittal and many other concessionaries was put in place.
Her international approval and lobby prowess led to Liberia’s relief from a $3.7 billion external debt. Several other investment proposals for the reopening of traditional economic activities in the mining and agriculture sector were instituted.
As a superb international player, she and her government were successful in attracting resources from private foundations and individuals in Europe, Canada and the United States thus supplementing Government’s resources in support of activities in infrastructure, education, and health.
After she delivered speeches, several universities provided scholarships for the training of Liberians. Her strong support for private sector endeavor resulted in a pledge and delivery into the Liberian economy of a $31 million facility by Robert L. Johnson at the Clinton Global Initiative in which she participated.
The former Liberian President and her government enjoyed a strong bipartisan support from the U.S. resulting into Liberia’s inclusion in two supplemental budgets and to her well recognized speech at a Joint Meeting of Congress.
In recognition for her tireless efforts to make Liberia a post-conflict success story, Sirleaf was awarded in 2007 the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by an American president. She also won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
The credibility she brought to national leadership in Liberia made her to serve on many advisory boards and committees. Notably among these are: International Crisis Group (USA); Songhai Financial Holdings Ltd. (Ghana); Center for Africa’s International Relations, University of Witwatersrand (South Africa); Women’s World Banking (USA); Synergos (USA) and Women Waging Peace (USA). She was a founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership and has written widely on financial issues, development and human rights.
Several other awards she received from international organizations included the Civil Rights Museum Award (2007); the Africa Prize for the Sustainable End of Hunger (2006); the IRI Freedom Award (2006); the David Rockefeller Leadership Bridging Award (2006) and the Common Ground Award (2006). Special honors received include Commander de l’Ordre du Mono of Togo (1996); Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award (1995); Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom of Speech Award (1988) and the Grand Commander of the Star of Africa Redemption (1980). All these were crowned by the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.
She was one of the seven internationally eminent persons designated in 1999 by the OAU to investigate the Rwanda genocide, one of the five Commission Chairs for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and one of two international experts selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peace building. She was the initial Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).
In 2003 when Charles Taylor was exiled to Nigeria and the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) was formed, Sirleaf was selected to serve as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission where she led the country’s anti-corruption reform by changing the reporting mechanism of the General Auditing Commission from the Executive to the Legislature thereby strengthening and reinforcing its independence. She left this position to successfully contest the 2005 Presidential elections resulting in her historical inauguration on January 16, 2006, as President of Liberia.
Little Dip Into Ellen’s Early Life
Even in her tender age, Ellen was always a subject of discussion from early childhood through secondary and advance studies. She credited this view to what she called an inborn trait and/or to deliberate adventures which she said Mrs. Sirleaf consistently undertook from her adolescent years.
From the College of West Africa in Central Monrovia, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and to other prestigious schools and job experiences she navigated, the anonymous interviewee told Analyst, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s strong desire to excel and be in the first rank of every vocation has made her a source of delight and envy to many, defining while controversy has been an integral part of her life.
Even as she celebrates her 83rd birthday, members of the public are divided in their reactions and rating.
Many persons who are fond of the celebrant, like 81 other birth anniversaries before, the current celebration is expected to draw considerable eulogies by countless persons communicating their sentiments and pouring upon sincere blessings.
Political pundits who followed the former President’s political struggle that culminated into her ascendency to the Liberian leadership in 2006 and later in 2012, the demonstrated support and delight amongst Sinoeans and other well-wishers for the “Iron Lady” at 80 is due to outstanding achievements made during the 12 years of her leadership and general kindness to ordinary people.
From the days of the True Whig Party, when she began public life as a banker and economic and financial management expert, supporters say they have since admired Madam Sirleaf because she was not consumed by the elitist fervor blowing in those days, but worked as a freedom fighter and a voice of the downtrodden.
Her passion for the weak and dispossessed majority won her acclamation amongst ordinary people, giving her the extraordinary courage to persistently companion the cause of the people. The struggle however left her severally bruised, spending time in jail and forcing her into exile.
Even while in exile, the “Iron Lady” as she came to be known, did not abandon her pro-people advocacy; she partnered with national and international counterparts to confront despotism at home.
She was detested by the ruling elites for her struggle to liberate the impoverished majority of Liberians from the claws of corrupt and totalitarian regimes.
The former Liberian President though mistaken for an Americo-Liberian is actually a progeny of Gola descent. Those older in the family of the President say her father was a Gola tribesman who married Ellen’s mother that had a German father and Kru mother.
According to elders, Ellen’s father was Jahmale Carney Johnson, a son of a low-level Gola chief called Jahmale who as was sent to Monrovia where his last name was changed to Johnson because of his father’s loyalty to President Hilary R. W. Johnson.
Providence found Madam Sirleaf’s mother hailing 180 degree away from Sinoe County. Her grandmother, Juah Sarwee, according to elders sent Sirleaf’s mother to Monrovia when Madam Sirleaf’s German grandfather had to flee the country after Liberia declared war on Germany during World War I.
Some people think the former Liberian President is of the Americo-Liberian stock because her mother was adopted by a prominent Americo-Liberian family member, Cecilia Dunbar. Ellen became a center attention of friends and family member as they watched her excelled academically and professionally with the pace of lightning.
Thought she married James Sirleaf at the tender age of 17, the entrapping temptation of romance and family life, which clawed many youth away, failed to impact Ellen who left the country to the United States in 1961 to continue her studies and earned an accounting degree at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin. That was after her studies of at the College of West Africa in Monrovia.
Senior family members recall that Madam Sirleaf returned to Liberia to work in the administration of slain President William Tolbert. She was Assistant Minister of Finance. But her innate nature of activism and pro-people advocacy kept her on edge with the Tolbert administration.
She, in 1973, resigned over government spending disagreement with the administration and left the country. Six years later, she was encouraged to take another job in the administration, this time Minister of Finance in 1979 until the bloody coup that toppled the True Whig Party regime in 1980.
Ellen was the only Liberian women that remained persistently engaged with the struggle both at home and abroad, earning her “The Iron Lady” appellation.
It is even said amongst “progressives” that while serving in the True Whig Party Government, she was not oblivious of the excesses of the oligarchy; she maintained comradely relations the progressive forces of the 1970s.
When the Towel of Babel fell and progressives and militarists who assumed power following the overthrow of the oligarchy, Madam Sirleaf joined forces and the nation will recall the robust role she played during that period.
She abandoned her prestigious position at Citibank, USA, and returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the 1985 elections but was placed under house arrest in August of that year and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition as a consequence of a speech in which she insulted the members of the Doe regime.
International condemnation of the action and pressure from world leaders forced President Doe to release the “Iron Lady”. As a result of government manipulation and pressure on opposition elements, Ellen settled on foregoing the vice-presidential ticket and instead ran for a Senate seat in Montserrado County.
The 1985 elections were reported widely rigged by the National Democratic Party and the resultant tensions forced many politicians, include Madam Sirleaf to flee Liberia.
Like other activists and politicians, former President Sirleaf’s exit from Liberia did not disengage her from the struggle. As despotism reigned ferociously in Liberia, Ellen made the Liberian case for the attention of international actors who tightened screws on the Doe regime as a result.
Even while the war raged at home, she remained a key contact of international stakeholders on issues relative to the country and the peace process. Along with other prominent Liberians, Ellen shuttled between and among nations drumming up support for the peace process.
Pulling Liberia out of its Dark Past
The record-making character of Madam Sirleaf bore remarkable fruit in 2005 when she was elected Liberia’s and Africa’s first female President. But the history-making element has not proven to be an end in itself; the former Liberian head of state continued to turn the long debased governance system around in the number of reform and transformation strides made in the last seven years of her incumbency.
There are certain credits of her administration which die-hard critics would find difficulty refuting, one of which is the level of media freedom and speech that prevailed. She left behind an amiable free speech legacy that would be suicidal for any regime after her to reverse.
Elected leaders in the past had proved highly intolerant and commonly left on the record huge number of prisoners of conscience and blood of innocent people. That situation became something of the past, many pundits contend, because the proliferation of media organs and the unrestrained exchange of hot views even against the former president produced no victim in her 12-year tenure.
During the first term of President Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia became the first country in West Africa to pass a Freedom of Information Act. This instrument is an essential aspect of the fight against corruption.
Under the regime of the former President, Liberia boasted of the establishment of over thirty newspapers on the news stand and about forty-five mainstream and community radio stations across the country.
Macroeconomic magic wand
Following 16 years of destruction, Liberia’s national wealth as reflected by government budget stood at $80m when Ellen took over, thus giving her and supporters the reason to boast that that figure quadrupled, hit some US$600m.
That momentous achievement did not, and could not come, as a sheer luck, but a result of discipline, hardship and ingenuity.
Identifying a country’s revenue streams and letting all them enter in the national treasury without incident is a rare deportment in Liberia’s economic history.
While there were some challenges here and there, government workers who were used to taking pay every four months began checking their accounts at most seven days before each month ended. Economic experts also contend that Liberia’s GDP grew by 6.9% in 2011, up from 5.6% in 2010 and 4.6% in 2009 respectively under the Sirleaf regime.
According to the experts, in 2008, annual rate of inflation averaged 17.5%, in 2009 it dropped to 7.4%, in 2010 and 2011 inflation averaged 7.3% and 7.5% respectively.
In 2006, income per capita rose by approximately one third. The Johnson Sirleaf administration is anticipating a double-digit growth over the next five years, due to its sound fiscal policy.
The underpinnings of such economic magic wand owed largely to Madam Sirleaf capacity to woo major investment agreements totaling over US$16 billion in foreign investment and the successful completion of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.
The Legacy of Maintaining Peace and Security
For 12 years straight years, Liberians sighed great relief from imbroglios and feuds that for 25 years before Madam Sirleaf’s incumbency kept them on their heels and shortened the lives of family members and countrymen.
As far as history is concerned, the late 1970s kept both political leaders and the population on edge and in 1980s armed insurrectionists rocked national peace and stability sent hundreds and thousands of citizens away and affected the economy.
For the 1990s and early parts of the 2000s, blood and tears swept across the nation as Liberia became a furnace to life if one were not already dead.
With the help of the international stabilization force, and denying insurrectionists any pretexts for conflict, former President Sirleaf kept the nation safe and secure.
Fighting fiscal pirates
As a pundit put it the other day, one major step taken by the Sirleaf administration to fight corruption in government was the increment in salaries of civil servants and public officials across the board to reduce the vulnerability of civil servants engaging in bribery & corruption.
“The government put in place procurement processes and financial management laws that promoted transparency and accountability thereby discouraging corruption,” the pundit noted, adding, “The Public Procurement and Concessions Commission Act which was enacted into law intended to control government’s procurement and awarding of concessions.”
Liberia, under Sirleaf, also beat many developing countries to become fully compliant with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), which ensures that every payment made by natural resource firms to the Government gets published publicly.
One source said: “This fight also led to the established of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which investigated several cases while complicated cases forwarded to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution. In its bid to genuinely reward productive labor and clean up the civil service payment system, government quickly dropped 17,000 ghost workers from the payroll, and is in the process of rebuilding a smaller, more professional, and better compensated civil service.”
Some of her catchy deliverables
She paved Caldwell road, Nezoe to Parker paint road, AB Tolbert to Duport Road to Parker Paint junction. She paved GSA and Rehab roads, Vai town and Caldwell Bridges, Fuel unloading facility at Freeport. She reconnected the people of Vahun who were cut off from the rest of Liberia due to bad road. For 10 years, the People of Vahun traded everything in Sierra Leone and Guinea currencies like Marylanders that did in Ivory Coast because they too were cut for a decade and half until her government rehabilitated the road.
Paving Maryland road, Ganta to Yekepa and Ganta to Tapata roads, she paved Redlight to Ganta Highway, her government-built Jackson F Doe Hospital. I hate her, but her government took UL from a semester per year to 3 semesters per year. I hate her, but her government built Community colleges in almost the counties.
She empowered more women in Liberia. She reconditioned Airfield to Matadi road and Monrovia city streets. She introduced one-way traffic on Broad Street. She connected the people of Bella Yella with car road for the first time even though the town hosted Liberia’s most infamous prison.
She decentralized the government by establishing county service centers in almost all the 15 counties. She completed the construction of the new center Bank Headquarters.
When Ellen looks back
At 82, certainly, President Sirleaf is also looking back to see whence she comes—the rocky road to success and to prominence. Like anybody, she must have envisaged from youth what she wanted to be and where reach in life. But there are “unexpectables” and those might be the events that President must be contemplating today.
Like any progressive young person then, her pro-people advocacy got her in jail, submitting her into cruelty, but she rose from the cells of Belle Yella to become the first elected female African president, and an attraction of an avalanche of national and international admiration.
For nearly twenty years, Liberia was kept estranged from the community of nations but in months of her administration, kings and queens of the world began to touch the soil of the country.
The eyes of suspicion and scorn which had greeted Liberians travelling and staying abroad also gain some sobriety, as perceptions that Liberians were brutes and blood-thirsty people faded away upon the rise of Madam Sirleaf on the Liberian leadership stage.
On the birthday wine table today, the accolades will be too many for the President to unload. The eulogies will be deafening and the guests will be jostling and colorful.