Just weeks removed from a 12-year stint in office, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf didn’t seem keen to talk about specific transitions of power during a World Affairs Council of Atlanta breakfast Thursday.
She was curt on the performance so far of her successor, former soccer star George Weah, and she only had a brief comment about biggest news emanating out of the continent today: President Jacob Zuma of South Africa resigning over corruption allegations.
“President Zuma did the right thing to right the wrong,” she said, declining to elaborate much even after prodding by the moderator, council president Ambassador Charles Shapiro. “South Africa will be OK.”
But ask her about the general practice of African leaders overstaying their democratic welcome, like one audience member, and she will wax eloquent.
Strongmen (or women) who stay in power past their constitutional mandates — a persistent problem in Africa — rob their countries of the potential that transitions bring.
“No matter how successful a country is through one leader, there’s always the potential for change, for doing things differently, for improving upon that which has been done, and also to reemphasize the importance of choice — that people should have choice in their leadership at all levels in all organizations.”
Stepping down provides a counterpoint to the message that legitimate ambition is not rewarded, she said.
“That also breeds confidence. That also enables people to aspire to leadership, knowing that that opportunity may be there for them,” she aid.
The comments were made more poignant by the fact that she, as Africa’s first elected female head of state, recently presided over the first peaceful transition of power in Liberia in seven decades.
And just days ago, she was awarded the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize, which honors good governance and leadership. Only presidents that serve their mandated term are eligible for the prize, which is only given when a suitable candidate is found.
She said Africa is changing and that the era of strongmen coming to an end, echoing comments made by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
“There may be pockets here and there where you’re not getting that change, but if you look across the whole continent, you’ll see that transition is taken place regularly, peacefully. Democracy has taken hold,” she said.
Every instance adds to the ripple of inevitability sweeping a diverse continent where some of the 54 nations still face hurdles to democratic governance, she said.
“In my view it’s irreversible. Every example of transition becomes a demand, a rallying cry to every other one that needs to face transition,” she said.
Asked about advice for her own successor, whom her Union Party opposed, she deadpanned: “I don’t give advice,” later adding that she might have a few “suggestions.” The key thing, she said, is that many staffers from her administration have stuck around to provide a “bridge” to the new term.
Though it wasn’t noted at the event, Ms. Sirleaf was ousted from the Union Party after her term ended for failing to campaign on behalf of former Vice President Joseph Boakai, who lost handily in last year’s elections.
While proud of presiding over 12 years of peace, she wasn’t always popular in the country, and critics have alleged she resorted to nepotism and presided over a corrupt government.
She acknowledged that no country is immune from the scourge of corruption, not least one that is not even two decades removed from a devastating civil war that depleted institutions and damaged the economy.
“When you’re dealing with two decades of deprivation and people surviving by their wits, any way they can, it’s a problem, and it’s not a problem that can be solved overnight.”
In her second term, Ms. Sirleaf faced down the “terrifying disease” of Ebola, but not before it killed 4,000 people. She said she will be remembered for working to beat back the outbreak with the help of global partners to overcome a poorly equipped health care system.
Fighting for Gender Equality
The Nobel laureate had a lot to say about gender issues — particularly how women should combat inequality and seize leadership roles.
While she hinted at the universality of the struggle for women’s rights, she also said Liberia “beats” the U.S. in the severity of its challenges, as many women working on farms or as small-scale rural entrepreneurs are locked out of the educational system — and thus, opportunity — due to outmoded views on what they can achieve.
But women, she said, have to be their own best advocates. Changing laws is not enough. Women have to be empowered to demand their rightful place in society, partly at the ballot box.
“I think one has to build a certain consciousness for compliance with the law. Education is the key factor in that respect,” she said.
While the Harvard-educated Ms. Sirleaf’s early career included stints major institutions like the World Bank and companies like Citibank, her later political career marked with periodic imprisonment and exile. Asked how she persevered, she cited determination born of the “inner soul” and inherited from her mother.
“That grit was conveyed from her bringing up four children on her own,” she said.
In response to a Clark Atlanta University student’s question on how young American women should address the challenges to women in leadership, Ms. Sirleaf urged them to take a stance on issues and fight for their principles.
“The challenge is yours,” she said. “We all are struggling against time-bound, cultural, traditional constraints to women, and while every now and then we break a glass ceiling, for every glass ceiling we break a thousand others are facing ceilings of their own. It’s a continuous process of working at it.”
Local Liberian Connections
Many others in the packed audience at the Commerce Club voiced tributes to Ms. Sirleaf and spoke of chance encounters with the former president in years past.
Edwin S. Mathies, a Liberian master’s student at Georgia State University, said he was inspired after meeting with Ms. Sirleaf while working on the “Put Ma Ellen There!” committee, which lobbied successfully to get a bust of her featured in the U.N.-backed University of Peace’s Garden of Nations in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Mr. Mathies is a former Liberian central bank analyst who was offered a scholarship to Georgia State University after spending time there as a Mandela Washington Fellow a few years ago. He credited Ms. Sirleaf for his personal growth.
“Today I have the confidence to stand in this room. I owe that to her,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Japanese Consul General Takashi Shinozuka also stood up to share a moment of reminiscence. As vice grand master of ceremonies in the Imperial Household Agency, the office that coordinates the various duties of the Japanese emperor, Mr. Shinozuka spent 40 minutes in a car with Ms. Sirleaf after picking her up at the airport in Tokyo.
“My country is proud to be with Liberia on its path to peace and development,” Mr. Shinozuka said. He also gave a plug for Liberia’s honorary consul general in Georgia, Cynthia Blandford, calling her a “well-respected” member of the Atlanta Consular Corps.
Ms. Blandford closed out the event, recounting achievements in the Georgia-Liberia relationship since Ms. Sirleaf appointed her to represent the country in 2009.
In addition to exchanges in health, education, trade and tourism, she cited agreements to share best practices between ports and airports. She added that the consulate has brokered a deal with Brussels Airlines to offer reduce-priced air tickets to Liberia for Georgians. Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines no longer offers service to Monrovia, the capital.
The event was punctuated by a gift presentation from Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority founded at Howard University that opened its first overseas chapter in Liberia in 1957. Ms. Sirleaf is a sister of the group, which has 15 chapters in Atlanta and is known for its bright pink and green colors.