On Thursday, students crowded the steps of Low Library in order to grab a seat to listen to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President of Liberia, talk about “Challenges of Transformation in a Fragile State” as part of the 2012 World Leaders Forum. Madam Sirleaf has served in the Liberian government since 1979. Her election to the presidency in 2005 made her the first democratically elected female president in Africa, and she has since worked for development and democracy in Liberia and West Africa. In 2011, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Peace-building peddler Roberta Barnett sat in on Sirleaf’s lecture.
“Your activism at these meetings, I am very aware of,” Sirleaf began, anticipating the countless questions she eagerly answered at the end of the talk. From her placid demeanor, it was almost unbelievable that Sirleaf leads what, only ten years ago, was considered a failed state. After decades of civil war, the leader claims that “Liberia has turned the corner,” having received much-needed support from the international community to get to where it is today. Just last year, Liberia held a second round of national elections, which were widely deemed free and fair by organizations around the world. For a nation that until 2003 was in civil war, Liberia is something of a success story.
When Sirleaf came to power in 2006, she stated that she put her focus on stabilization, peace, economic reconstruction, forming a new government, and increasing transparency within Liberia. As President Bollinger ticked off a short list of her accomplishments, it became clear that she’s made huge strides in achieving what she set out to do. From ensuring female participation in national politics, to passing Africa’s first freedom of information act, to creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations that occurred during Liberia’s wars, Sirleaf’s vision of a stable republic is becoming more real every day.
Part of her motivation moving forward is the long-term perspective she has developed for Liberia. Sirleaf’s vision for 2030 is for Liberia to join the ranks of middle-income countries. Speaking in terms of the nearer future, she hopes that “in ten years, Liberia [will not] have to take foreign aid.” With a growing economy that has “mobilized $16 million in foreign direct investment,” it seems like the Sirleaf administration is making strides toward economic success as well.
In the next few years, Madam Sirleaf is set, along with leaders of the United Kingdom and Indonesia, to set post-2015 development goals. Nations are “not going to meet all goals [of the Millenium Development Goals, set to expire in 2015]. They will achieve as many as possible.” These “new MDG’s,” she said, will involve much more collaboration. Sirleaf plans to involve civil society and youth and consult groups around the globe.
Perhaps the highlight of the lecture was the question and answer session, which Sirleaf attended to with great enthusiasm, at one point asking interim director for the Institute of African Studies, Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, if she could forgo her closing words to take further queries. Questions came from individuals with an assortment of schools and majors, including a graduate team of researchers that had studied in Liberia this past year. She stressed the need for promoting industry while benefitting local communities simultaneously, for greater education of women, and for internal economic growth within Liberia.
If anything was clear from this lecture, it was Sirleaf’s strong capabilities as a leader and reformer. She reminded the audience of her defined goals, defended the progress made in her country, and evoked a strong national pride that will surely put Liberia on the radar of those who were lucky enough to find seats in Low on Thursday afternoon.