Political Minutes: Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This past Thursday, Her Excellency Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke under Low Rotunda, in an event titled “Challenges of Transformation in a Fragile State; The Case of Liberia.”

Sirleaf is the 24th (and current) President of the Republic of Liberia and the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she has served in various positions for the Finance Ministries under Liberia’s Tolbert and Doe administrations, before fleeing to the United States, where she worked for the World Bank, Citibank, and HSBC. Sirleaf has previously been placed in the ranks of most powerful women in the world.

In his introduction, President Lee Bollinger noted the daunting struggles faced by the Liberia - a nation wracked by protracted civil wars and exploitation of natural resources - before praising Sirleaf and her government for their many reforms. He pointed to the administration’s 2010 passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the dramatic increase of female government officials, and creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as markers of an excellent presidency.

Following this laudatory introduction, Sirleaf took the stage. A major focus of her U.S. tour has been on her newly minted position as co-chair (alongside UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang) of the high-level UN post-Millenium Developmental Goals panel. As such, she spoke primarily about the challenges of global development and nation building – calling the Liberia she inherited a “poster child for failed statehood.”

With her sights set on competitive statehood, the President called 2012 the start of Liberia’s “transformation period,” with the advent of “Vision 2030” – a development initiative aimed at making Liberia a mid-income nation by 2030, and halting foreign aid by 2022. Expanding infrastructure, investing in creative power solutions, mandating primary and middle school education, and slimming down government bureaucracy while heavily encouraging private sector growth are all fundamental goals in this process. She noted Liberia’s “resource curse,” shared by many West African and sub-Saharan nations, and the importance of securing a stable, non-petroleum source of revenue for future generations.

Perhaps the most challenging obstacle in Liberia’s development, says Sirleaf, is the need for a “value system reordering,” a so-called “moral rearmament.” The Liberian people were forced by deprivation, she says, to resort to extreme measures such as extortion and violence. With growth comes the need for a total overhaul in the national mindset, for members of the younger generations to feel like the “owner of their own society, protector of their own destiny.”

The Interim Dean of the African Studies Department, Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne,  took over as moderator of an audience Q&A. The most probing audience question of the afternoon pertained to support of journalists and human rights activists who uncovered government shortcomings. The question pointedly referred to Mae Azango - a Liberian journalist who wrote a controversial expose on female genital circumcision in certain Liberian tribes, suffered multiple death threats as a result, and was not offered government support. President Sirleaf countered that Liberia has a record of protection of free speech and media, but does not condone defamation and false accusations, especially when external motives are involved.