What you need to know:
- When Ms Sirleaf was elected into office in 2005, the country had enjoyed only two years of peace after the end of a 14-year civil war in August 2003. The economy was tattered.
- In her final address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2017, she said Liberia had remained stable, peaceful and secure during her leadership.
“For me there is no catapult into leadership; for men or women, if you want to be effective, you take some steps and those steps prepare you. You fail sometimes, you benefit from failures and expand your perspectives, knowledge and experience.”
These were the words of former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when I asked her about her leadership experience as the first elected woman president not only in the country but across Africa.
“So, how did I manage?” she posed.
“By the time I ran for President I had already challenged my government, whether I was in a junior position in government, or an activist calling for change.
“My record propelled me to a place where I would compete for the highest level position.”
Ms Sirleaf found herself in trouble during Samuel Doe’s military dictatorship (1980–85) for openly criticising his leadership yet she served in his administration as finance minister.
She ended up being arrested twice and handed a 10-year term in prison. Mr Doe later freed her following pressure from the United States.
When Ms Sirleaf was elected into office in 2005, the country had enjoyed only two years of peace after the end of a 14-year civil war in August 2003. The economy was tattered.
In her final address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2017, she said Liberia had remained stable, peaceful and secure during her leadership.
The country recorded an economic upturn of a growth rate of 8.7 per cent in 2013 from a negative growth rate when she took the reins of power.
Ms Sirleaf is, however, widely criticised for doing little to empower Liberian women during her 12-year tenure.
Ms Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who in 2011won a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Ms Sirleaf, is quoted in a January 22, 2018 BBC article saying “In terms of delivering a women's agenda, we really didn't see that.”
Feminist activist Korto Reeves Williams, a founding member of the Liberia Feminist Forum, also told Quartz in 2017 that she believed low levels of women participation in Liberia’s leadership roles showed Ms Sirleaf’s failed to empower women.
Well, the former President is now running a leadership programme for African women through the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Centre for Women and Development called Amujae Initiative.
Amujae is a word from Liberia’s language, Kru, meaning ‘we are going up.’
Launched in 2020, the initiative seeks to prepare African women in cabinet, parliament, judicial system and non-governmental organisations to ascend to the highest levels of leadership.
In a brief interview with Ms Sirleaf at a Nairobi hotel last Friday, she said, she decided to launch the initiative after her 2017 win of Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership.
She hopes to see the alumnae take over the highest offices in their respective countries, including becoming heads of state.
The cohorts selected from the African continent through a rigorous process are mentored by women who hold, or have held, key decision-making positions such former women presidents, World Trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Under Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa Vera Songwe, she said.
“One example [of our cohort who has] excelled in Kenya is Anne Waiguru who was re-elected as governor and the first woman to be elected to chair the Council of Governors,” she noted.
Ms Waiguru was one of the two Kenyans selected in the 2021 cohort of 15 branded Amujae Leaders. The other was Ms Umra Omar, who was a gubernatorial candidate in Lamu County.
In 2023, only Homa Bay Governor Gladys Wanga made it to the list of 12 Amujae Leaders.