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Supriya Vani in Conversation with Africa’s first woman President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and winner of Nobel Peace Prize.

"To girls and women everywhere, I issue a simple invitation. My sisters, my daughters, my friends; find your voice" Ellen Johnson Sirleaf- Africa's first woman President.

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Africa's first woman President- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo: Ken Opprann / © The Nobel Foundation

Scene I: A girl is born in Monrovia, Liberia on 29 October 1938. When she is a few days old, an elderly man visits her parents to bestow his blessings on her. Her mother leads the old man into the room, where on the bed, the infant is cheerfully cycling her legs and cooing. The old man looks at the mother in utter astonishment and predicts spontaneously that her child will one day be a great woman, that she is destined to lead others.
Scene II: A young woman is married even before crossing her teens, and burdened with the responsibility of rearing her sons. She toils in lowly jobs to feed her family and has to contend with an abusive and drunken husband.
Can these two scenes be reconciled? A woman in her early twenties with four sons and an abusive husband seems hopelessly mired by her circumstances, and is most unlikely to ever distinguish herself in public life. Thus, the old man’s prophecy could barely be about the girl mentioned in Scene II. Nonetheless, these two contrasting scenes do converge in one life, giving the world the wonder known as Ellen Eugenia Johnson Sirleaf, the current President of Liberia and one of three proud recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2011.
Whether she was fated to become a great leader of the masses as the old man prophesied or whether she achieved greatness by sheer dint of her own determined efforts is something even Ellen admits that she still ponders.
The year 2011 marked a watershed in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize because in that year, three women were chosen for this prize. Besides Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the other two recipients were Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, which raised the number of women winners of this prize from twelve to fifteen.

Ellen was characteristically forthcoming in her interview with me, and her responses to my questions show her to be a self-aware, thoughtful woman, whose humility and firm but considered approach to her duties can but serve as an inspiration for women of the world:

Supriya Vani :Your parents had humble beginnings. They had borne the brunt of poverty at a very young age. But your father rose to a position of eminence when he became the first Liberian from his indigenous ethnic group to be in the country’s Legislature. Clearly, this must have provided you with a quantum leap in the social and political reckoning and must have gone a long way in shaping and moulding your life’s ambitions. Is it so, Madam? Or did you achieve success by your sheer grit and determination?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, we come from a very humble background. My father became a member of the Legislature (parliament), and we obtained some social standing, but it didn’t last long. My father suffered a severe stroke and became totally dependent on us for everything; from a young age, we had to cater to his every need. So, what we got from our parents was not really a cakewalk into life. From them we gained a firm understanding of hard work, integrity, a deep sense of family, and strong religious belief. And that guided me and my three siblings throughout our lives.

In my particular case, by the time I was twenty-two, I was stranded in an abusive marriage, with four sons. I only had a high school diploma and was working in a car parts store. However, that bad marriage took me to America, gave me an opportunity to go to school and earn a degree, and become more assertive and independent. When I returned home and started to work, things moved quickly, maybe too quickly at times. Did I achieve things by my sheer grit and determination? I strongly believe in the core values my parents embedded in me, but I also met many good people who believed in the same things I believed in, and they helped me achieve my goals

SV : A peep into your early life reveals that you fit well into the phrase ‘Every genius is a born rebel.’ The rebel in you first got noticed publicly when you, as an Assistant Minister of Finance under the William R. Tolbert government, delivered a bombshell speech to the Liberian Chamber of Commerce, where you said that the country’s corporations were harming the economy of the nation by hoarding or sending their profits overseas. How do you reflect today on that incident, and the reaction of the corporates at that time?

EJS: Looking back, I believe that was a turning point in my political awakening. As a Liberian official, I thought I was saying the right thing, defending our national interest and questioning the bad practices at the time. It was not something that our people in government were used to hearing. One had to simply accept a job, climb the social and economic ladder and enjoy life. But I couldn’t do that, and it didn’t sit well with many of my colleagues.

SV : How do you reflect today on your having accepted the Presidency of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) under the military regime of Samuel K. Doe, and then having shunned him and fled the country? Do you regret having joined the dispensation of a military dictator?

EJS: I don’t regret having taken the presidency of the LBDI. I didn’t see it as working for Samuel Doe, but rather working to help the people of my country who needed access to loans and other services. I believed that no matter the violent nature of the change, it had happened, but we couldn’t abandon our country. You also have to consider the historical context: This was Africa in the 1980s, when there was a military coup every day somewhere. One could choose to run away, or stay home and work for change. Many of us gave Samuel Doe the benefit of the doubt; we thought that he would take advantage of that goodwill and put the country on a new path. But that did not happen, and I ended up in exile, like most of the growing Liberian middle class.

SV: As a proud recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and so many other coveted peace prizes, don’t you think, madam, as an international peace activist and also as a head of a nation’s government, that no military dictator should ever be recognized by the people of the world and also the governments of the world? Will not such non-cooperation by the people and the nations discourage men in uniform from indulging in military coups?

EJS: I agree with you, Supriya and I think Africa is also moving in that direction. Now, people who take up arms and overthrow governments are the exceptions on the continent and they are not welcomed in the African Union. The military coups very negatively affected Africa’s growth and undermined its stability. Many of the difficulties that our countries face today happened as the result of bad governance under military dictators, especially during the Cold War.

SV: It is clear from your life’s graph that you never hesitated to resign from eminent positions with a view to acquiring political space. You resigned from Citibank in 1985, in order to participate in the 1985 elections in Liberia. Later, you resigned your position in UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa to run for the Liberian presidency; and today you are happily saddled on the president’s chair. Are you really settled now, or do you have yet to go miles and miles before the ultimate full stop? To put it precisely, what are your further ambitions as an individual?

EJS: As long as I can live at home, do what I want to do, be with my family and my friends, I am settled. I always came back, leaving high-paying jobs, because I have never wanted to leave home and go anywhere else. Circumstances pushed me into exile, and I always longed to return home. So, every time there was talk about elections, I thought we were emerging from the tunnel. Finally, in 2003, the conditions for peace were present, and I moved back and worked on the Good Governance Commission until I was elected president. My ambition for the future? Upon leaving the presidency, I plan to spend lots of time with my grandchildren, and see Liberia grow and prosper.

 SV: I find that you had occasions to study the effect of wars and conflicts on women, and must have formulated a vision of what should be the role of women in peace-building. Kindly elaborate, Madam President, how women can be helpful in building world peace?

EJS: I have seen the effects of war on women and I also witnessed their tenacity, their drive, and their dedication when they started to fight for peace, both in Liberia and elsewhere in the world. I think  women have a special approach to life in general – maybe it comes from motherhood, or because women spend so much time caring for children – so they see life differently and their preoccupations are different.

I believe that women are helping to build world peace. There are many women today who are involved in peace building and peacemaking; they are in leadership positions and they take actions and say words that have an impact on world peace. They are finding their own voices, working together, and ensuring that the gains we made are not rolled back.

SV: I would like to share with you, Madam President, my perception of a woman’s role in peace building. I believe that the primary onus on building world peace is on a woman. If a woman does not fail as a mother, if she feeds well her child with the milk of human kindness and succeeds in inculcating love and empathy for fellow human beings, and also instils moral and ethical values in her child in the very early years of a child’s life, especially the male child, no child would go astray in life and disturb the tranquillity and serenity of this peaceful world created by God. Am I right, Madam?

EJS: Yes, you are absolutely correct.

SV: You and Leymah Gbowee led forceful campaigns against Charles Taylor and succeeded in banishing the tyrant. Both of you concertedly have scripted a saga of valour in Liberia. Both of you are shining examples of how women alone can beat a tyrant or how women alone can lead a nation. I believe the trio of you, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman – the joint recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize – can fire the imaginations of women the world over by joint travels worldwide. All living Nobel Peace laureates have an obligation to work for world peace, to fight against all kinds of injustice jointly and severally, and make world peace a palpable reality. Am I right, Madam?

We are already doing that. We are still engaged in the advocacy work we started long ago and that brought us the Nobel Peace Prize. We didn’t start our struggles because we were aiming at the Nobel Peace Prize or to gain any recognition. We believed in what we did, and we continue to do that work, speaking for things we believe in, and standing against injustices, violence, and bad governance. For example,  Tawakkol Karman and I were members of the High-Level Panel set by the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to prepare a global approach post-2015, when the Millennium Development Goals expire. Leymah Gbowee has an NGO in Liberia, where she does work with the young people, especially girls, and she travels around the world. So, we are all engaged in the struggle.

SV: Now when the controversy regarding the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was resolved by the Supreme Court in January 2011, in the famous case of Williams vs. Tah, do you regret having supported Charles Taylor initially? Do you now hold that no military dictator should be lent any support by people and governments?

EJS: I’ve said many times that I regret the harms caused by the war, and I regret my name being associated with that of Taylor, as if there were a collaboration between us. I was a member of a pressure group that was trying to put pressure on Samuel Doe to make him turn to democracy, and we were getting nowhere. Then, the war started and our group, the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL), raised $10,000 that I delivered to Taylor for the victims of the war. I am against any form of dictatorship, be it military or civilian. This is why I spent so much time fighting.

SV: What is your vision of world peace? How do you think we can attain it?

EJS: I believe that we can attain world peace. To do so, we must ensure that freedom and dignity for every human being is respected everywhere. We must fight to end violence between countries and against women and children. We must end inequalities by eradicating poverty in all its forms, and we must ensure that every child grows up healthy, has access to quality education, and is prepared for a productive future.

SV :What is your message for the youth of the world?

EJS: Go to school, learn and prepare yourself for the future. Do not sit and expect others to do things for you. Don’t be afraid to dream big, have ambitions, and work with honesty, integrity and respect for others.

SV: Last, but not the least, will you tell who are the people who have exercised influence on your personality?

EJS: First, I will say my parents and my family. Then, a whole lot of people that I met, in school, at work and around the world. I think it’s always hard to say this person or that person had the greatest influence on one’s life. It all depends on circumstances. There are a great many people that I admire; I read their work and get inspired by their thoughts.

 Ellen has elevated womanhood on the African continent to its true place of honour and dignity. When asked whether she would have achieved the same success if she were a man, she emphatically replies,

I would have accomplished far, far less. I would have been, really, just another man. I think as a woman I was an exception and being an exception gave me both the visibility and the drive to succeed. I was ahead of my time, but I am no longer alone. We are breaking barriers daily; in another decade there will be hundreds of women in real positions of leadership all over Africa and all over the world.

Now it is my turn and your turn to be one of those hundreds and raise this number by a million more. If humanity is to survive, women have to be at centre stage of all human activity: to save and nourish humanity; to knit humanity into one family transcending all man-made barriers of national boundaries – of color, of caste, of high and low and of ethnicity – and to prove the following Sanskrit aphorism true:

                                    (Vasudev Katumbkum )

                                The world is one family

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