KSG Graduate Elected First Female African Head of State

August 3, 2005
Doug Gavel

A Kennedy School graduate is poised to become the first female head of state in Africa. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Mason Fellow, MPA '71), a longtime political activist and government leader, won a Nov. 8 run-off election to become the next president of Liberia. She will take office on Nov. 22.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six, will face the daunting challenge of reuniting her country following 14 years of civil war. The war caused widespread damage to the nation's infrastructure and all but destroyed its economy. Yet the president-elect remains optimistic about her chances for success, telling the Reuters news agency that "we know expectations are going to be high. The Liberian people have voted for their confidence in my ability to deliver...very quickly."

The change in leadership will be a great opportunity for Liberia, according to Robert Rotberg, adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution.

In order to move Liberia forward, Sirleaf talked about the measures and political reforms needed, such as building a tradition of peaceful transfers of power, well-performing government institutions, and responsible leadership. "We've had rulers rather than leaders," she said.

Sirleaf also discussed the importance of economic development to Liberia's future, including fighting corruption, attracting foreign investment, and improving the entrepreneurial climate. "There is no reason for our country to be poor as it is," said Sirleaf, saying that Liberia is "well-endowed" with natural resources.

Improving the economic status of women in Liberia, Sirleaf said, could be helped by making education compulsory for children. "It frees the mothers to pursue marketing opportunities."

The event was cosponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPP), the Mason Program, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Sirleaf was introduced by Swanee Hunt, WAPP's director, who looked forward to the possible election of Sirleaf, which would make her the first woman to lead a democratic African country.

"It would be the beginning of lasting change for the entire continent," Hunt said.



"This is a triumph not only for women, but for all of Africa," Rotberg said. "It's very important that the majority of Africans that suffer from conflict and bad governance have a chance to govern themselves."

Rotberg worked closely with Johnson-Sirleaf during the 1990s when she served as administrator for Africa for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). "She has always been a woman of great fortitude and intelligence and also strength. She's always been a strong leader and this is borne out by the trust the voters of Liberia have given to her," he said.

The training Johnson-Sirleaf received during her time at the Kennedy School will most certainly be called upon as she embarks upon her greatest challenge.

"My Kennedy School experience has enabled me to be more research-oriented and analytical in my approach to decision-making," she said. During her time in office, Johnson-Sirleaf expects "to draw heavily on the Kennedy School family...(and upon) information on best practices in the areas of governance and land reform."

Improving the lot of Liberia and its people will test Johnson-Sirleaf's great political and diplomatic skills, according to Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at the Kennedy School.

"The president-elect needs to reach out to every one and build consensus around economic recovery," he said. "She needs to seek out Liberians wherever they are and give them an opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction of the country. She needs to focus attention on building technical institutions of higher learning as vehicles of community development."

Rotberg is convinced the time is right for Johnson-Sirleaf to assume power in Liberia. "Women really are the backbone of Africa and have not had the chance to rule themselves. I have long said that Africans suffer under the rule of greedy men and this is the chance for a Kennedy School-educated woman of integrity to help women in Africa make change," he said.

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