MONROVIA: UPDATE – Not too many elders are lucky to spend their latter days in pomp and pageantry underpinned by ingrained energy and popular acclamation. For the unlucky ones, age is a curse and a barrier, particularly once they enter their 80s. That is nearly a reverse for former Liberian President, Africa’s first democratically elected leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The “Iron Lady of Africa” who celebrated her 85th Birth Anniversary yesterday, October 29, 2023 is truly an iron elder in health and in legacy; in fact, she is still unleashing and leveraging her full potential on mankind and remains a sensation on the world stage even at an octogenarian phase. She’s loved by her country and the world for her development deeds, and feared by her opponents for her unmatched political pedigree. As she celebrated yesterday, the nation and her fans stood in ovation, pouring out moving tributes that reflect on her impactful legacy and her current national and global outreaches. The Analyst’s Managing Editor, Stanley Seakor reports.
One of Liberia’s eminent statespersons of all time, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, celebrated her 85th birthday yesterday, Sunday, October 29, 2023. Protocol officials to the former President announced she has been copious compliments from within and without the country.
With previous celebrations of her natal day are anything to go by, it is expected that the pattern of glamor will continue today: bundles of flowers expressed in words and flowery, from admirers, diplomats and colleagues who are by now trooping to her Fish Market residence.
During most part of her 12-year presidency, Madam Sirleaf usually kept her birthday celebrations 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.
Following the expiry of her presidency, even at the age of 85, she is still receiving adorations from world leaders and Liberian citizens. She’s capable of 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.
Many believe today’s celebration of her birthday is, and should be, more than acknowledging Providence’s wonders that got her to be 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 critical roles that many will be using to underpin their tributes to her as she celebrates today.
For those who will be asking, “What’s the big deed about Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her birthday that worth celebrations,” the answers will be clearly and copiously available to them in many moving tributes and salutations that will be poured out from VIPs nationally and internationally.
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 85th 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 was 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.
Ellen — Tracing 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.
She paved Redlight to Ganta Highway, her government built Jackson F Doe Hospital. Her government took UL from a semester per year to 3 semesters per year. She 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.
Ellen – Whence She Comes
At 85, certainly, Ex-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.
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 84 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 “I80ron Lady” at 85 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.
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.