Unfortunately, it is very rare that the news or other sources highlight African leaders and countries in a positive manner. The headlines mostly read about rampant corruption, massive human rights abuses, child soldiers, and dictatorships. While all of this is invariably a big part of Africa, there is another side that is often forgotten. It is the side of progression and growth, and of the leaders who work hard to produce these overshadowed outcomes. This week, Africare, a non-profit organization dedicated to African aid, reminded the world that these people and places do exist. Its annual benefit fundraiser, the John T. Walker Memorial Dinner that was held on October 18th, is meant to “pay tribute to leaders in fields pertaining to Africa”. It not only raises funds to support Africare’s work, but also presents the “Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award” to its recipient of the year, past winners most famously including Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Colin Powel, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jimmy Carter, and Desmond Tutu.
This year, a very special honoree was presented with this most revered reward, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, pictured in the graphic on the right. Fondly nicknamed the “Iron Lady” due to her “iron will and determination”, Johnson-Sirleaf has resurrected Liberia out of the ashes of civil war during her term as president. She is an example for all African leaders to follow, and proof that African countries are not doomed to become failed states, but that the most vital key to overcoming this prophecy is strong, accountable governance.
Liberia has had a rough history. It has endured 2 civil wars, one from 1989 to 1996, and then again in 1997 and lasting until 2003. Notoriously corrupt leaders have plagued its past, such as Samuel Doe, who overtook the country in a bloody coup in 1980, and Charles Taylor, the blood diamond/ child soldier enthusiast who is now facing 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Liberia’s resources and people have been abused and mistreated for so long, and had nowhere to turn for help, with those representing them being tainted and corrupt.
Considering the leadership she was succeeding and the state of the country she inherited, one cannot question the fact that Johnson-Sirleaf had her work cut out for her when she won the democratic election in 2005. The country’s international debt was incredibly high (4.5 billion currently, due mostly to interest accumulated by money lent to previous corrupt regimes), relations with other countries and monetary support organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in shambles, and the people’s trust in the government virtually non-existent. The wounds of years of civil war were still fresh, and peace elusive.
How has Johnson-Sirleaf overcome the stereotype of the typical power-hungry kelptocratic African president who siphons off aid money into her own pocket? To begin with, she is the first women president to be elected anywhere in Africa. This automatically sets her aside in a different category, because of the drive and strong character an achievement such as that requires. She has been quoted as saying that she hopes to bring a “’motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency’ as a way of healing the wounds of war”, and her supporters agree, saying “we need[ed] a woman to put things right”. But, as her nickname suggests, she is not all about emotions and sensitivity. Johnson-Sirleaf has held many financial positions in the past, including Minister of Finance of Liberia in the 1970’s, and African Director of the UN Development Program. Her political career has spanned over 30 years of involvement.
Within this time, she has also been jailed and exiled twice due to speaking out against the corrupt governments that preceded her. Her passion for the country of Liberia is indisputable, and her commitment to transparency one of her most admirable qualities. She has aggressively rooted out much of the misconduct that was so engrained in Liberia’s daily political workings. Her action has been taken to the extent of bringing government officials who violated public trust before the high court and firing many inefficient and useless officers who had previously been part of the administration. Other paramount achievements during her time in office include, but are not limited to, reforming the police and army forces, jumpstarting the economy from its previous stagnation by such actions as getting sanctions lifted off of timber and diamonds, qualifying for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), completing a 1 year staff monitoring program with the IMF, revitalizing the education system and emphasizing its extreme importance with the creation of organizations like Liberia Education Trust Program (and an increase in numbers of female students such as the ones seen in the graphic on the left), and the list continues. Her results have been astounding, her work and effort ceaseless.
Johnson-Sirleaf has been described as a “tough negotiator” and a “strong defender of her culture” by Africare’s president, Julian Coles. First Lady Laura Bush admires her “immense courage and determination”, naming her “one of the world’s most distinguished leaders who has always been devoted to her nation”. No matter from whom the commentary originates, the world appears to be embracing this so called “Iron Lady”. She is a respectable, incredible, tenacious role model that not only African leaders can learn from but that all world leaders should aspire to emulate. Her hard-nosed policy of anti-corruption and unwillingness to see anything but success in the nation of Liberia are promising for Africa enthusiasts and scholars who are often bogged down by the depression of the current state of affairs in the continent. She offers a beacon of hope that good governance and well-functioning nations are possible in Africa with the right person leading the way, one who has proclaimed her goal in life to be “bring good governance to Liberia before I die”.