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Africa’s first elected female leader is bold and courageous, unfazed by the enormous challenges she faces, and surprisingly optimistic about her chances for success.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who graduated as a Mason Fellow with a Master in Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard Kennedy School in 1971, assumed office as the 23rd president of Liberia in January 2006, launching the nation’s political recovery following years of civil wars and domestic strife during which more than 250,000 people were killed, and thousands of others were displaced.
“We applaud the resilience of our people who, weighed down and dehumanized by poverty and rendered immobile by the shackles of fourteen years of civil war, went courageously to the polls, to vote,” she said during her inauguration address. “We pledge to live up to your expectations of creating a government that is attentive and responsive to your needs, concerns, and the development and progress of our country.”
The so-called “Iron Lady” promised to “build a better nation” by rebuilding the country’s political, economic and social systems, ending public corruption, and engaging with friends and neighbors to achieve peace, security and stability for Liberia.
“We are moving forward. The best days are coming. The future belongs to us because we have taken charge of it. We have the resources, and we have the resourcefulness. We now have the right Government,” she exclaimed.
Johnson Sirleaf traveled a long and rocky road back to the capital building in Monrovia. Between serving as the nation’s finance minister in the late 1970s and being elected president, Sirleaf was forced to flee in exile, was charged with treason, and jailed twice. Yet she never relinquished her pursuit of social and political justice for Liberia.
“My persistence in remaining in the political arena for over 30 years is with a strong desire to serve our people who we know deserve better than that which they have received in our recent history,” she told a Kennedy School Forum audience in September 2006. “We are committed as a people to build a new Liberia from the ashes of an old turbulent and tragic past to a future of hope and promise.”
Johnson Sirleaf has been named Harvard Kennedy School’s 2008 graduation speaker, and will return to the School June 4 to deliver the graduation address.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaking at Harvard Kennedy School Forum September 18, 2006
“My persistence in remaining in the political arena for over 30 years is with a strong desire to serve our people who we know deserve better than that which they have received in our recent history,” Sirleaf told a Kennedy School Forum audience in September 2006.