Nation & World

‘Ma Ellen,’ African symbol of hope, returns to Harvard

6 min read

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf tells of work as Liberia's president

In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, children stared in amazement. They had never seen such bright lights illuminating the streets, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told an audience of Harvard students and professors on Monday (Sept. 18) at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

During a one-day visit, Kennedy School graduate Johnson-Sirleaf (M.P.A. ’71) offered a progress report about her presidency, which began in January, and her government’s goals to rebuild the country. The first woman to become president of an African nation described what many in the United States would find unimaginable: the restoration of electricity to parts of Monrovia this past July 27 for the first time in 15 years.

“It is a symbol of our journey from darkness to illumination,” said Johnson-Sirleaf.

Confrontations and robberies during the Liberian conflict, which ended in 2003, left in ruins the West African country’s spirit – and its infrastructure. Power cables were destroyed and the few existing water pipes were ripped up for scrap metal by fighters.

Now, just eight months after Johnson-Sirleaf assumed power, there is an emergency electric power supply available to certain parts of Monrovia, including the capital substation, the John F. Kennedy Hospital, New Kru Town, and Paynesville. And 20 kilometers of streetlights in Monrovia have been rehabilitated.

Johnson-Sirleaf – invited by the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program and the Institute of Politics – explained that multiple, grave problems remain. The war left Liberia’s 3 million people not only without an electricity grid, but also with no running water, and no sewage. Most telephone lines have not worked since 2003 when rebels sabotaged the system. Bridges were destroyed. Many hospitals and schools are in ruins. Furthermore, about 85 percent of the Liberian population is unemployed, and 80 percent is illiterate. Only 10 percent of the arable land is currently being utilized. And the country’s debt reaches $3.5 billion.

“We practically have to rebuild our country from scratch, and we are trying to get some debt relief in order to invest in the reconstruction process,” Johnson-Sirleaf commented.

“Education, partnerships, international support from governments and foundations, and private investment are essential for Liberia to have a better future,” she told them with a smile. “But we need you there, too. You can come to help us to solve problems, being interns for some weeks. We need professionals and people with skills coming to help, and we need training programs in Liberia, too.”

Called by some “The Liberian Iron Lady” and by others “Ma Ellen,” Johnson-Sirleaf presents, simultaneously, force and candor. She has a strong personality used to getting things done. At the same time, though, she sees her country as “someone who needs to be taken care of with the dedication and commitment that a mother takes care of a sick child.”

Kennedy School lecturer Marshall Ganz said it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the challenges the Liberian president confronts. “I am left wondering where she gets the moral energy to face it,” he said. “It seems that the biggest challenge she faces is at the grassroots … and she is doing that. She is leading in that direction by example. We can all learn from this amazing leader.”

A list of achievements

Johnson-Sirleaf pointed out to an appreciative audience that her government has launched a compulsory free education program with emphasis on the education of girls. The government also began a program that provides food to half a million children, an incentive to stay in school. She also ordered the production of 6,000 benches and 2,000 chairs to cope with the high enrollment. In addition, about 30 health clinics and hospitals have been reactivated around the country.

What about peace and security? Approximately 1,600 Liberians are being retrained to strengthen the police force and replace deactivated police personnel. Some 300 men and women have been recruited for the new armed forces of Liberia. And 6,000 ex-combatants are receiving training and employment opportunities. The rule of law is being strengthened, Johnson-Sirleaf said, and a new supreme court has been established.

Johnson-Sirleaf estimates that it will take another two years for the army and police to become professional enough for the UN peacekeeping force to pull out. But she also admitted that Liberia remains fragile. “There’s always the chance of a coup attempt,” she said – smiling. “The priority must be to address poverty and make people have dreams.”

Striking the stand with her hand for emphasis, Johnson-Sirleaf insisted that Liberia could become the United States’ foreign policy success in Africa. She pointed out that her country would need only a very small fraction of what the United States is sending to Iraq to become a success story of reconstruction. She thanked the United States for its help in brokering an end to Liberia’s vicious civil war, pointing to the close historical ties between the two countries – her home country was created by liberated slaves traveling from the United States to Africa.

A hard road

From 1948 to 1955, Johnson-Sirleaf studied accountancy and economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She also received an accounting degree at Madison Business College in 1964, an economics diploma from the University of Colorado in 1970, and then a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. She also gained important experience as a World Bank and UN official.

Johnson-Sirleaf also served two terms in prison under the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe, where she narrowly escaped rape and execution.

During one of her presentations, Johnson-Sirleaf commented that when she is going through her country’s precarious roads she asks the security guards that surround her to stop to say hello to the children. They often run to her, saying, “Ma Ellen, Ma Ellen!” Seeing those faces, she said, gives her a sense of excitement and hope for her country.

Mary Jo Bane, the Kennedy School’s academic dean, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia three decades ago, pointed out that Johnson-Sirleaf represents all that the Kennedy School stands for and is a source of pride for the University.

Andrew Woods, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, said after watching her talk that Johnson-Sirleaf is an inspiration. “I got the sense that she is incredibly honest and you rarely get that feeling from politicians,” Woods said. “She also has the background and education, all the credentials she needs to change things, to achieve economic transformations as well as governance in her country. She is just a very complete leader. She has got it all.”

Swanee Hunt, the director of Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, seemed to agree: “She represents all of the ideals that the Kennedy School has for governance all over the world. She is intelligent, solid, honest, and fearless.”

María Cristina Caballero is a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.