Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Discusses the Future of Democracy in Africa

March 27, 2018

“Democracy is never given on a silver platter. It has to be earned, defended, and nurtured every day, every way, every time, everywhere…There is no alternative to having the freedom we want unless we prepare to work and sacrifice for it.”

-President Johnson Sirleaf

On the 20th and 22nd of March, Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shared her insights and experiences of democracy in Africa in a series of events held at Georgetown University. Her first appearance was at a lecture where she addressed the audience of Georgetown students, staff, and faculty, and then engaged in a question and answer session moderated by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served as United States Ambassador to Liberia from 2008-2012.

Sirleaf speaking at podium President Johnson Sirleaf’s optimism about the continued growth of democracy in Africa formed the major theme of her lecture, and she noted that, “Africa has travelled a long road in its democratic evolution. And the move towards a deepening of democracy is in recognition of the strong causal effect between democracy and development,” President Johnson Sirleaf’s deep belief in the power of democracy to bring change comes as no surprise as she spent her tenure as president consolidating democracy and strengthening institutions in Liberia. She emphasized that despite the numerous challenges Liberia faced in the last decade, including the 2011 Ebola crisis, the country remained stable and did not fall back into the conflict that plagued it previously.

The first female recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership, President Johnson Sirleaf was given the award in recognition of her exceptional leadership and of the pivotal role she played in the recovery of Liberia after many years of civil war. When asked about what she envisioned would come next for Liberia during the Q&A session, she noted “We hope that the progress we have made will now be built upon by the new administration…that we will be able to see this unfinished business reach another victory.”

Students in line asking questions President Johnson Sirleaf is also intensely aware of the effect of her position and work on the aspirations of young African women and girls, and acknowledged that “Today, little girls in Liberia can say that they want to be President, because they have seen that a woman can be President.” She aims to continue to inspire women leaders across the continent and discussed her desire that the future be one of “competition between men and women, where the better one will win, with no consideration of gender.” Noting that she was not the only woman who was breaking down boundaries in leadership, the President also recognized and appreciated the inspiring work that had been done by many of the women present at the event – including Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright – and others across the continent stating that, “Women are at the forefront of change in Africa. You will continue to see the women make their mark.”

Sirleaf and ambassador standing As the conversation shifted to the role of institutions in maintaining democracy, the President emphasized that “institutions that are the watchdog of society must continue to function.” She mentioned that the media plays a key role and must exercise “the responsibility that goes with the freedom it enjoys” in order to make a positive impact on national development. The role of education in developing institutions did not go unmentioned, as she also noted that “in any country, in any place, education builds the institutions. You need capable people to manage institutions, and only education can do that.”

Following the lecture in Fisher Colloquium, President Johnson-Sirleaf also participated in smaller meetings with Georgetown students, including a conversation with students of the Global Human Development Masters of Science in Foreign Studies Programs who had West African experience. During this conversation, she answered questions from students and shared her concern that the current push for measurable results in development projects was discouraging the establishment of crucial interventions in less populated areas and resulting in more attention being placed on initiating projects in urban, more populated areas.

Panel of WomenWhen asked about the role that academic institutions play in supporting policymaking, President Johnson Sirleaf emphasized the importance of the work of institutions like Georgetown University, and the need for research to “ask the right questions” and ensure that findings were communicated to relevant policymakers in a timely manner. “Hearing her talk about how research can be useful for state leaders was really inspiring,” said GHD first-year Araba Sapara-Grant, “it made me realize that the work and research we do here at Georgetown can be useful at the highest levels of state building.”

Subsequently, President Johnson Sirleaf joined President of the Middle East Institute Wendy Chamberlin, former U.S. Ambassadors Sally Shelton-Colby and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and GHD Professor Holly Wise for an informal Fireside Chat on Women in Development, which was attended by students from the larger Georgetown University community. The chat focused on the experiences of the leaders as women, and the speakers highlighted some of challenges they faced as a result of their gender and how they overcame them. “It was inspiring to hear about how these women grew into their voices and influenced national and international policies,” said GHD student Lainey Heyl, who helped organize the Fireside Chat, “I came away with a better understanding of how to strategically position myself in my future career to ensure my voice is heard and respected.”