Liberia: From Crisis to Opportunity

August 3, 2005
Rob Meyer

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf brought a message of hope and optimism for the future of her home country of Liberia during a speech at the Kennedy School of Government Wednesday afternoon.

A longtime leading promoter of peace and democratic rule in Africa, Sirleaf is running for president in Liberia’s October elections as head of the Unity Party.

“If you were in Liberia today you would say we have election fever,” said Sirleaf, a 1971 Kennedy School MPA graduate and Mason Fellow. “Finally, people feel that they can without fear take part in the process. They can be a candidate. They can speak to the evils and to the potential of the country.”

Sirleaf, former minister of finance for Liberia, recounted the horrors her people have endured during 14 years of civil war, and the exile of former President Charles Taylor two years ago which has led to the current power-sharing arrangement.

“We still have a situation of a fragile peace,” said Sirleaf, who spent a year in jail at the hands of the late President Samuel Doe and worked for the ouster of Taylor from office. “We are about to enter a period of transition. We hope we can put the past behind us and our country can become once again a good performer among the countries of Africa and the world.”

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.

Photos: Martha Stewart

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf image

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf