Former Liberian President Sirleaf Offers Optimistic Vision of Democracy, Africa, and America
Last March I had the pleasure of attending a speech by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at Georgetown University. In 2006, Sirleaf became the first democratically elected president of Liberia in 75 years, also becoming Africa’s first elected female president. The Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke on the state of African democracy, and this address was on the heels of her official concession to her elected successor, George Weah.
Sirleaf has weathered a great deal. The Harvard alumna was imprisoned twice for protesting human rights abuses under the dictatorship of Samuel Doe. Her presidency began shortly after the Second Liberian Civil War ended, and this conflict left the West African nation almost decimated—one-twelfth of its population died. Liberia also weathered its devastating Ebola outbreak while she held office. Despite this, Sirleaf has had notable success in improving the country.
Much of the speech saw Sirleaf elaborating on her legacy as a head of state, as one should expect from such a talk. Her evaluation of democracy in Africa was very broad, not in-depth. Surely, however, we can cut a Mo Ibrahim Prize winner some slack. Besides, Sirleaf did make a number of notable pronouncements.
She began by touting her renewal of links between Liberia and the International Development Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Sirleaf’s administration ultimately managed to get 97 percent of the country’s $5 billion debt forgiven. This is remarkable because history’s esteemed African leaders typically have disparaged Western funding—as have many of their admirers. In most African circles, the IMF and World Bank are considered at best unsavory, a necessary evil. Most leaders would avoid mentioning them publicly. Sirleaf, by contrast, took pride in her successful engagement with these gatekeepers of development finance.
National stability could not be guaranteed, but she professed faith in the youth. This faith stemmed from the proliferation of technology—and the youth’s proficiency with it—which she saw as a leveler against corruption. Sirleaf argued education was the most important part of future nation-building. Broadly, she encouraged a meritocratic mindset.
Sirleaf avoided promulgating the glass plateau by portraying women as some kind of socio-political silver bullet. A stable democracy was impossible without them, she argued. However, she repeated, meritocracy must define their participation. When talking about women in politics, she said that “it is inevitable that there will be competition between men and women… the better one should be chosen, regardless of gender.” For her part, she said she coped with sexism from other African heads of state by “speaking so powerfully that they shut up.”
The African march to democracy, Sirleaf noted sardonically, comes amidst civil listlessness in the rest of the world. She criticized the United States and Europe for their withdrawal from the international scene and harbored no delusions whether President Donald Trump cared about Africa: “Africa is not even on the radar.” Sirleaf added that it was even less likely that Liberia specifically caught his attention. Ironically, Liberia is one of four countries whose impression of the US improved by more than 10 percentage points from 2016–17.
Sirleaf bucked the contemporary trend of hysterical philosophizing about the end of democracy. Someone in the audience asked about people who don’t believe in democracy. “I believe that train has left the station,” she answered. Even in Russia, according to her, desire for democracy was persistent. Only in the case of China was she hesitant to say the same.
Most notable and important was Sirleaf’s focus on institutions. She expressed gratitude that Malawi’s (ongoing) financial probe had at that time found no evidence that former President Joyce Banda was culpable, and touted the process’ transparency. More broadly, she expressed confidence in the laws of the African Union, saying that they merely lacked strong implementation.
Sirleaf’s faith in institutions appears to inform her faith in the United States. She chided the US for its current foreign policy, but her overall assessment was favorable: “You have strong institutions here in the US, they just need to be what they’re used to.” America’s strong institutions, she said, precluded any need for guidance from elder statesmen. For her part, she seemed not to be attracted to being an elder stateswoman. Instead, she aimed to start a small leadership and academic forum for women.
The phrase “Afro-optimism” usually refers to a view of Africa taken by Western academics. It aims to dispel the public impression of uninterrupted African misery. Afro-optimists acknowledge the grim realities of African politics, but they also aim to illuminate and encourage positive developments. This attitude is common at Georgetown’s Department of African Studies.
In this talk, Sirleaf evidenced a different kind of “Afro-optimism,” the admiration that Africans have for the United States. As far back as the Bush administration, our nation has been consistently blessed with an overwhelmingly positive image in Sub-Saharan Africa. Under the Trump administration, global faith in US leadership has crashed. Only Africans have on average a positive assessment of American leadership, according to Pew.
It is refreshing to witness this perspective. From time to time, we forget that we are among the world’s most dizzyingly fortunate. We complain about our maggoty manna. Given Sirleaf’s experience in rebuilding a broken nation, her hopeful viewpoint is a tonic to our Western cynicism.
Harry Green is an intern for Providence. He holds a B.S. in International Politics (with an African Studies certificate) from Georgetown University. In the fall, he will be pursuing his M.A in African Studies at Yale University.
Photo Credit: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, takes the floor during the summit. Copyright European Union 2013 – European Parliament. November 27, 2013. Source: Flickr Creative Commons