MONROVIA – The occasion was supposed to have been a quiet time with close friends and family members to commemorate her 5th post-Liberian presidency anniversary and to share some thoughts on contemporary issues dwelling on the need for women participation in leadership. But any occasion that involves Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female president of Liberia and Africa, no matter how informal, must attract a bigger audience. And so it was on yesterday, Monday, January 16, 2023, when a good number of guests including the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the first lady of Sierra Leone, Madam Fatima Maada Bio, Swedish Ambassador to Liberia Urban Sjorstrom and Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, among others graced the all-important event where distinguished personalities lavishly showered praises on former President Sirleaf for championing democratic governance during her administration, and for her continuous advocacy for the promotion of women rights in participatory democracy and ended with a parting consensus, “History will remember you”.
Organized by the EJS Presidential Center for Women Development, the institution founded by the former President to address key gender related issues, such as the promotion and advocacy for women in leadership and empowerment. The event was in commemoration of the 6th anniversary of the ECOWAS Human Rights Day, which was proclaimed in December 2016 during the 50th Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government, setting aside January 16 each year as ECOWAS Human Rights Day to honor former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as “symbolic in the region as it marks the ascension to power of Her Excellency Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President of the Republic of Liberia and the first African Woman Head of State”
In her brief introduction of the EJS Center and welcome statement, the Executive Director, Honorable Oley Dibba-Wadda said the institution was exceedingly happy to organize the program which was not only meant to honor the former President Sirleaf for her extraordinary leadership qualities exhibited in office, but as well for her post presidential works done in the area of promoting women participation in leadership and placing the issue of gender equality and women empowerment on the table of major international discussions.
She spoke of the Amujae Initiative which is the Center’s flagship program, founded on March 8, 2020, to shift the landscape for women in public leadership in Africa, moving from a culture of tokenism to one that truly values women leaders.
Madam Dibba-Wadda said over the years, a good number of women from across Africa have benefited immensely from the Center’s mentorship program and have since gone ahead to promote the work of the Center and also impact on women development in their respective countries. Madam Dibba-Wadda said the Center will launch another round of programs this year to offer training and mentorship to young women with eyes on playing a more robust leadership role in the country.
Several speakers who took to the podium showered praises on the unparalleled legacy in public service Madam Sirleaf left behind after successfully serving her two constitutionally required term limits ,as well as still being actively engaged on governance and development issues globally, especially the fight for women emancipation, empowerment and gender equality.
An august guest at the occasion, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, said he was excited to be at the occasion which was meant to honor and celebrate the Amazon of true leadership whom according to him has been a source of inspiration to African leaders especially her persistent advocacy for women participation in leadership position.
He said though he was a guest of VP Howard-Taylor to commiserate with her on her 60th birth anniversary, he found it worthy to be at Madam Sirleaf’s program “not only to honor her for what she did while serving as President of Liberia, but what she has been doing, still much around engaging in meaningful activities that concern governance, rule of law and indeed gender related issues”. He asserted that these “are very thoughtful undertakings that serve as inspiration to some of us still in leadership, and in no small way have helped our work”.
He wished her a long life and encouraged her to continue being the light of exemplary leadership and forerunner of rule of law and the champion of human rights.
In her own brief remarks, the first lady of Sierra Leone, Madam Fatima Maada Bio, who was also in the country to identify with VP Taylor on her natal day, said it has always been a pleasure to hear about the legacy of Madam Sirleaf, whom she described as “my mother”, stressing that the former President occupies a very important place in the history of the African continent, having broken the barrier and climbed above the ceiling of leadership, the presidency, that has for a very long time eluded women in Africa.
Madam Maada Bio said because of the resolve and undying spirit to fight for the rights of women, a strong spirit of advocacy has been going around in Africa about women having the competitive edge just like the men in terms of leadership position in Africa.
“We honor you Madam for what you have been doing after leaving office with respect to women participation in politics and leadership on the continent. Continue to talk to the African leaders, and that also includes your son (President Maada Bio) for women to have the rights to participate in politics and leadership as well as being empowered to express themselves”, she said.
VP Taylor who has been in her celebratory mood attending activities marking her 60th anniversary and who had ushered in her guests at the program said there is a lot to learn and benefit from Madam Sirleaf, considering what she represents in Africa as well as on the global stage. She said a lot of women in Liberia and around the continent who are in leadership and those who aspire to be. owe their success stories to the former President, and that her place in history will not be forgotten.
The humanitarian side of the first female elected Vice President of Liberia came to the fore when she said she will offer a befitting house for culture icon and singer, Madam Yatta Zoe, who came in with her singing group, accompanied by dancers, to spice up the program. It was reported that Madam Zoe who had earlier sung a song in the Gola vernacular to commend the achievements of Madam Sirleaf and another famous song, “Send them to Bella Yella”, has been living in an abode not befitting her status and what she has contributed to the entertainment industry in the country.
When it was time for the celebrant to give her brief remarks, Madam Sirleaf, dressed in a blue and white stripy flowing African gown, looked radiant in her outlook and became the cynosure of all to behold. Obviously overwhelmed by the attendance and the words of admiration that were poured on her, the outstanding international figure was out of words and spoke briefly, thanking those who turned out at the program which was earlier modestly planned for just a few to attend.
“When it was planned, it was meant for a small event to commemorate the 5th anniversary of my post presidency which also coincides with the declaration of ECOWAS of January 16, each year as ECOWAS Human Rights Day to honor me as the first democratically elected female president in Africa. And interestingly we will be celebrating our Vice President’s 60th birthday. And so, it is just strange to me that there are three events somewhere in the corner that brought together all of us”, she said, amid cheers from the audience.
Madam Sirleaf also told the audience that in addition to what the program was meant for, it was also organized to introduce to the larger Liberian public and indeed the outside world, “an outstanding singer whose songs go back as far as the days of Tubman, and someone who is much older than us, and a star of Liberia those days”.
“So, this event is to introduce her and to honor her for her contribution to the country. She came and performed two of her songs, “Young girl stop drinking Lysol” and another one, “Send them to Bella Yella”. Those were great songs those days.
“And let me tell you that one of the most important things I did under my leadership was to formally and officially close down Bella Yella; that notorious prison in Gbarpolu County. That desolate place is now a place of youth transformation”, she said.
In passing, Madam Sirleaf threw a little light on her initiative as promoting the idea of having “more women in leadership possible, be it elected or appointed. “We have seen our women doing well out there and they, in the international community, are showing their worth and we are proud of them.
“We want to ensure that young girls are protected and given the chance to advance beyond the traditional limits. We want to see them grow up and take up leadership roles in every field. That is our aim”, she said.
Earlier on during the program, Ambassador Tunde Ajisomo, former Special Representative of the President of ECOWAS Commission to Liberia , delivered a powerful and inspiring virtual presentation on ECOWAS Human Rights Day, where he did not only speak of the essence of the declaration made by the leaders of the regional body, but the importance the day attaches to the contribution of Madam Sirleaf to the advocacy, promotion and protection of human rights during her political career both in opposition and in leadership.
“On this important day, may I congratulate you Madam President for your contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights in your illustrious career, especially in leadership where you provided exemplary leadership to the people of Liberia and the continent. These virtues are dear to us and we honor you on this day,” he said.
He said the collective efforts of all those who stood for the defense of human rights which Madam Sirleaf inspired and promoted should be celebrated, naming a lot of Liberian women both dead and living who fought for the rights of the people, especially the rights of women, including Angie Brooks-Randolph, Madam Suakoko, Mary Brownell, Emma Waiser, Ruth Perry, D. Musuline Cooper, among others. He noted that the upsurge of serious advocacy for women participation in politics and leadership can be attributed to these women and as such, efforts should be made to keep their legacies alive.
He praised Madam Sirleaf for being a strong believer in what he called “Principle of leaving no woman behind”, which encompasses promoting the voting rights of women, empowering them, pushing for gender equality and encouraging women to play key roles in politics and leadership.
The renowned Nigerian diplomat, while touching on reconciliation and ensuring justice from the scars of the 14-year civil war, said “the legacy of war crime and human rights violations should be addressed through national consensus,” while lamenting the difficulties women were subjected to during the carnage due to their gender. He wished Madam Sirleaf well in her continuous stand for the rights of women and her desire to see them playing front roles in leadership and politics.
Also speaking at the occasion, Senator Conmany Wesseh of River Gee County, a long-standing ally of Madam Sirleaf, went down memory lane to praise her for being unbending during those difficult days of the struggle for democracy under the leadership of both former Presidents Samuel Kanyon Doe and Charles Ghankay Taylor.
He spoke of her extensive international contacts which were explored to the advantage of her persuasion and the few of those who were in the vanguard to enthrone multiparty democracy in Liberia. He recalled a particular situation where when they were confronted with finance issues to attend a conference in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Madam Sirleaf was swift to contact her friend George Soros who was generous enough to donate USD100k towards the project.
“For some of us that have worked with her for a long time, she does not beg. She has a circle of friends with means but she will not beg them and that is what she has made people who are around her to do. She wants you to work for it yourself so that you can appreciate it’, he said, among many other attributes of Madam Sirleaf.
One of the main highlights of the program was the reading of unpublished poems of a young lady, Miss Beulah Nimene, who had the audience spellbound with two of her poems, “Friend of a Billionaire”, and “I am Independently Independent”.
The important event which was later followed by a befitting refreshment, also had in attendance, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Varney Sirleaf; Former Foreign Minister Gbehzongar Findley; Professor Togba Nah Tippoteh; Mrs. Comfort Sawyer; Associate Justice Jamesetta Wolokollie; Mrs. Medina Wesseh, former Executive Secretary of the Mano River Union; Charlyn Brumskine, Representative Candidate for District # 3, Grand Bassa County, among others.