Africa’s unstoppable march towards participatory democracy – ellen johnson sirleaf – v gashi 2013


I applaud your steadfast vision and its implementation. I commend you and your colleagues in the government and the private sector for the many innovations introduced to Rwanda. Africans have a lot to learn from one another; many of the solution providers are here with us today.

To my dear friend Mo Ibrahim. I believe that when historians reflect upon Africa’s transformation, they will note that the 2006 establishment of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and its governance index – measuring leadership based upon its impact on the well-being of a population – was a vital inflection point for the continent.

I am honoured to be this year’s recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. I receive this distinction on behalf of the many women and men who helped to navigate the profound complexities of the post-conflict country that is Liberia.

As the first woman to receive this award, it is my hope that women and girls across Africa will be inspired to break through barriers, and push back on the frontiers of life’s possibilities. Where there is a first, there will be a second, and a third, and a fourth.

I am grateful that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation sought to emphasize the post-conflict consolidation of Liberia’s democracy under my two terms in office. Indeed, my most proud accomplishment, is that after decades of violent conflict, the power in Liberia now rests where it should – with the people, grounded in the rule-of-law and upheld by institutions.

We must remember, that it is not that long ago when Liberia was considered a pariah state. Decades of ruinous civil and regional war upended our democratic institutions, decimated our infrastructure, deprived a generation of educational and economic opportunity, and undermined the moral fabric of our society.

I submit that it is a restlessness that took hold of our fallen sister, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, giving her the fiercest of courage to stand up against the Apartheid State despite the imprisonment of her husband, and in the face of physical and psychological abuse. Her indomitable spirit will continue to drive me through my remaining years.

Speaking of women of unyielding strength, among those in the audience today is Lucia Massalee Yallah. She was my cellmate during several months of confinement in a military prison in 1985. Her body was brutalized by soldiers, but her soul remained unscathed. From that shared trauma we formed a friendship which has endured for over 30 years. Please Lucia, stand up and be recognized, my young sister.

Looking back, it seems like every day I was fighting for something or someone: the right to be heard, and to be taken seriously; the right for a society to have free speech and enjoy fundamental human rights; to end the deprivation of the Liberian people; to establish peace and build democratic institutions; to create jobs, expand livelihoods and offer basic social services; to educate the girlchild; to stop the deadly Ebola virus disease; and to oversee the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Liberia in 75 years.

As I look toward my twilight years, and my "closing chapter of restlessness," I would like to leave you with some of the lessons that the Liberian people have taught me, as well as their implications for the consolidation of democracy on the continent.

Still Africa’s progress is filled with imperfections, and too many nations lag behind. Several continue to practice "managed democracy", void of real competition. Others cling to power for decades, deaf to the cries of their populations for change, and too often, there is a violent rejection of election results.

This historical inequity is reinforced by a lack of campaign finance laws, which disproportionately prevent women and youth – two already disadvantaged groups – from taking on leadership roles in political discourse, leaving the party apparatus to well-established economic and political cartels.

In Africa, we tend to focus on elections, celebrate them as "the milestone." But as it is often said, "elections do not a democracy make." We must look behind the process, and examine the barriers that shut down competition before the campaigns ever start.

In Liberia, after decades of conflict, corruption was woven into the fabric of daily life. Rent-seeking behaviour became both a survival skill and a corridor for greed. In response, we invested in integrity institutions and sought to hold officials accountable for the misuse of public funds. But sustainable change requires shifting the mentality of society and demands the ongoing collective efforts of all branches of government – across successive administrations. This is a challenge that the administration of President George Weah has committed to address.

We must dig deep to address the societal, educational and institutional barriers which disadvantage women. Again, we can learn from each other, looking at examples such as Rwanda, where quotas were constitutionally imposed to address historical inequities.

We must capture the political energy of the youth. We must open up the political system and lower the age of political participation. I am sure many of you have watched the sit-ins in Nigeria, as the population mobilizes to reduce the age to participate in the House of Representative, the Senate, and even the presidency in the aptly titled "Not Too Young to Run" campaign.

What can we do to inculcate a mentality of service with our young people; to create institutions that attract the best and the brightest, and reward those who enter? Which innovative programs can be established to build capacity and instil values given severe limitations in resources?

When I assumed the presidency, we knew Liberia needed a professionalized civil service in order to thrive, but traditional mistrust in government, and a legacy of corruption, meant that few talented candidates wanted to work in the public sector.

A bloated and largely unqualified public service, distrustful of change, posed a threat to the fragile peace, so we immediately recruited a small but talented cohort of Liberians responsible for three important objectives: (1) creating programs to attract talented civil service candidates from other sectors; (2) developing training programs to build the skills of existing civil servants; and (3) strengthening Liberia’s financial backbone by investing in the Ministry of Finance’s human capacity.

With support from international partners, we introduced a repatriation initiative that brought talented Liberians home from the diaspora. We launched an innovative mentoring program to recruit and train young leaders through the President’s Young Professional Program (PYPP). We created a merit-based, competitive path to government. Today, over 140 young leaders could be the bulwark of a modern civil service.

While we live in an uncertain world, I, for one, remain optimistic because from Africa to America, the future is in the hands of the young people. They are taking charge and demanding that their voices be heard. They too are restless and impatient. They too are determined.

Recently while in the United States, a young student at Georgetown shared with me a twist on the famous Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He said, "Madam President, our generation is different. We are no longer asking God for the serenity to accept the things that we cannot change. We are asking the All Mighty to give us the courage to change the things we cannot accept."

I would like to thank all of those in this room, and those beyond, who have been with me on this long journey, with particular thanks to President Alassane Ouattara for being here, and for having given me support encouragement years before I become president.