“Today we find ourselves in the electoral period. Liberia has yet to decide who its next leader will be. But as we all know, this decision belongs to the people, and to the people alone.”
—President Johnson Sirleaf
On the 6th of December, Georgetown University hosted Liberian Head of State President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, where she spoke about Liberia’s current democratic transition and women’s political participation across Africa, and engaged with students during a Q&A session. Over 200 students, faculty, and visitors greeted the President as she took the podium after an inspiring introduction by Dean Joel Hellman of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Following her speech was an interactive discussion session moderated by Dr. Steven Radelet, Director of the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown School of Foreign Service. President Sirleaf touched on numerous topics during her 20-minute speech, including the current uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Liberian elections. The Liberian elections have faced some challenges – the first round election results were inconclusive and though a run-off election has been approved by the National Elections Commission, appeals against it from three political parties are being considered by the Supreme Court. However, President Sirleaf reminded listeners that this would be Liberia’s first civilian to civilian transition in 78 years, and that, so far, not a single incidence of violence has been reported. She credits this to the strength of the institutions working to ensure the integrity of the election process and also pointed out that a technical team from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is also present to support the NEC and strengthen their capacity. “It was really encouraging to see how committed she was to the development of lasting institutions, and how she really prioritized that,” enthused an SFS student (who chose to remain anonymous).
When asked about the participation of former warlords in the elections, President Sirleaf noted that while some candidates that she personally objected to had gained power, they were elected by the Liberian people to those positions. “Democracy is messy,” she explained. “It has twists and turns that we may find objectionable.” Nonetheless, she noted that the participation, ownership, and contribution of the people to the democratic process is what encourages stability. While reflecting on the decision not to ban warlords from participating in elections, President Sirleaf observed that from 2006, warlords were present in the transition government and that prosecuting them at that time would likely have led to a resurgence of the violence that countries coming out of conflict are so vulnerable to. In addition, she recalled those that had been involved in the war but had since undergone a transformative process. She concluded with a reminder that balance is necessary, and that pursuing justice at the expense of stability would not be prudent.
On the topic of the participation of women in politics in Africa, President Sirleaf noted that while much progress has been made – indeed the percentage of female legislators on the continent at 23.2% is comparable with Europe (excluding the Nordic nations) at 24.3% and the Americas as 27.7% – there is still work to be done. She emphasized the need for a bottom up and top down approach that incorporated policies and legislation supported by grassroots work to change mindsets and norms. She emphasized the need for a horizontal bench structure for women in politics that provided them with the skills and networks to advance beyond social welfare portfolios, which have limited political influence and no direct path towards top leadership roles. “This horizontal bench should exist across a wider cross-section of society and address the multifaceted challenges and social norms which marginalize women, stifling both their voices and their potential. This should start at the grassroots level with reinforced regulations and institutions, which codify and uphold the rights of women and girls.”
President Sirleaf also spoke a little on her personal journey as a woman in politics, and reported that “I am glad that in the remotest village, a little girl can challenge her marginalization, pointing out that a woman is President.” Students appreciated her honesty, with a graduate student reporting that “It was a great experience listening to one of the most respected heads of state, especially a woman. I was inspired by her personal journey from being married at 17 to becoming the first female president in Africa.”
The role of the international community also came up during the discussion, and President Sirleaf expressed her gratitude for the support provided by international partners (both African and otherwise) during the Ebola crisis. She also noted that “the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of NGOs,” decrying trends of support provision that reduced the capacity of government institutions and calling for collaboration and harmonization around international aid.
The general atmosphere of the event was one of optimism and hope. President Sirleaf mentioned that the real change would come from the children who are currently in school right now, “those who have never seen a gun, who have never had to run.” Those who are growing up in a different Liberia than their parents, and have as their only frame of reference a country in which fundamental freedoms are protected and an open society is encouraged. “That is where the change is coming from,” the President declared.