How Africa's First Female President Led Her Country Back from the Brink

President Ellen Sirleaf has made huge strides in turning around a war-torn nation.

By + More
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, left, meet with Chief of Police Marc Armblah at the police academy in Monrovia, Liberia Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf has many things going for her. She is thoughtful, committed, intelligent and wants a better life for her people. The exterior of a kind grandmother belies a tough but necessarily pragmatic interior. She has waited in jail, expecting to be executed, as were all but three of her fellow cabinet officers in the 1980s, and she was once in exile, waiting for a chance to return to her country.

That chance came and she made the most of it, being elected President of Liberia for one term, and in 2011, the same year in which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, for a second term. This will be her last term. She will be 79 years old when her it is finished. 

The stress is noticeable on her body, though not in her voice. The passion remains in her speeches and there is still light in her eyes. She knows that there will be great challenges for Liberia that will not be met in the remaining short years of her service. She knows that the best she can do is lay a course that will be difficult to reverse.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

As Africa’s first female president, no one really knew what to expect. She inherited a government laden with corruption, divided by factions and tribal hostilities supplemented with violence and incoherency. Through two wars, Liberia had become one of the poorest countries on earth. The infrastructure was completely destroyed. There was no electrical service, while the port was clogged with sunken ships and had not been maintained for more than a decade. What was once the finest airfield in Africa, Roberts Field, had also deteriorated and still requires upgrading to handle international flights.

The rich agriculture lands had been devastated by neglect and abandonment during the wars. It was not simply a matter of returning to the farms and villages to restart agriculture. There were no good roads left in the country and little fuel to take the crops anywhere. Everything in Liberia had to be started from zero, and almost all had to be started simultaneously.

It would be misleading to say that after five years the problems of Liberia have been resolved. The truth is that it will take generations to rebuild Liberia. There still is no power plant to provide electricity throughout the country. Where there is electricity, it is generator driven, building by building.

But new buildings are rising, and the rubble is clearing. China has helped a great deal with the reconstruction efforts, building transmitters for the Liberia Broadcasting System nationwide, and by constructing a new campus for the University of Liberia. Chinese construction crews can also be seen working on streets and roads. There is far more to be done, and in those challenges there are opportunities as well.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

As noted, the president is pragmatic, knowing that she could not simply sweep out all associated with Liberia’s past, including issues of corruption, if she wanted to hold a coalition capable of bringing back Liberia to the 21st Century. There are still blockages in the Ministries for those wishing to do business. Old traditions do not die so easily anywhere, including in Liberia. The nation is still not the easiest place for international investors and the president herself admits that corruption remains a problem.

Yet there is also opportunity, not simply for business, but the opportunity to make a difference, to help a country rise from the ashes to be an exemplar for the region and perhaps the continent. It is small enough for us to have an impact.

President Sirleaf has reached out for support from the U.S., perhaps more than she has with any other country. While the United States government will certainly say it has been supportive, and this would not be denied by Sirleaf herself, there is still so much more that could be done to develop Liberia as a refuge of stability in a region still highly volatile. The history of Liberia is intertwined with our own history, of course, and because of that Liberia has always been considered as a special ward of America. It is not a ward any longer, but does seek an active relationship with our nation. Most of its college educated citizens were educated in the United States. The ties are deep, deeper at the human level than they are at the economic level, unfortunately.

Liberia offers us an opportunity to bring the private sector together with the public sector and philanthropic sector. Liberia offers us a chance to get our engagement with Africa right on a smaller scale, and to set an example for the rest of the continent. That opportunity is there because President Ellen Sirleaf is there. She will not be there forever. We need to develop a comprehensive plan for engagement with Liberia now that will last beyond the Sirleaf era and legacy.

  • Read Daniel Gallington: There Is No Scandal in Tracking Down Leaks
  • Read Andrew Natsios: The World Bank’s Poverty Fighting Efforts Are at Risk
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad