Sept. 18, 2006
BY beverly clark
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered both a history lesson and a focused vision of how to consolidate peace and promote change in Liberia in a talk at Emory Sept. 12. A key element to progress, she said, will involve strengthening the relationship between her war-ravaged country and the United States and its institutions.
In front of a capacity crowd at the Emory Conference Center’s Silverbell Pavilion, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa drew parallels between Emory’s history, the civil rights movement and the challenges facing Liberia, which was founded by free-born African-Americans and freed slaves from the United States in 1820. In attendance were Emory faculty, staff and students, as well as government and corporate representatives and members of Atlanta’s Liberian community.
Johnson Sirleaf, whose granddaughter is a freshman at Emory, spoke during a dinner in her honor sponsored by the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, the Office of International Affairs, The Carter Center, the Office of University-Community Partnerships and other Emory groups. She also met with Emory President Jim Wagner beforehand.
Known to many as the “Iron Lady,” Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia’s president in January and was recently ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in the world. “For many people she is the light. . . . She represents hope, honor and commitment,” said Holli Semetko, director of the Halle Institute and vice provost for international affairs, in her introduction of Johnson Sirleaf.
A Harvard-educated economist, Johnson Sirleaf’s life story is deeply interwoven with the last 40 years of Liberian political history. The country recently emerged from 14 years of civil war that left 200,000 dead, half the population displaced and the infrastructure decimated. A majority of the country is illiterate and subsists on less than a dollar a day.
The violence and strife that left Johnson Sirleaf herself running for her life and in exile for several years caused “incalculable damage in public and private infrastructure. . . .and a trail of immeasurable social consequences,” she said. “I inherited a devastated country. A country without electricity and running water, with a brain drain that left our hospitals and clinics without doctors, our universities and educational institutions without teachers, our public services without qualified manpower.”
Despite the challenges “we proclaim to all that our people are blessed as we have the opportunity once again to use our vast natural and human resources to renew and restore our nation,” said Johnson Sirleaf.
To do so, the Liberian government has embarked on a multifaceted strategy that involves rebuilding its army and national security; redeveloping all facets of government and eradicating corruption; creating economic revitalization through domestic and foreign investment; and realizing a fundamental commitment to educate all citizens.
“My government is mindful that our task is enormous, but we are convinced it is not insurmountable,” said Johnson Sirleaf, who added that Liberian expatriates are encouraged to come home. “Every Liberian is needed and is called upon to do their part.”
Johnson Sirleaf also called for the “renewal of true friendship between the Liberian people and the American people to construct the processes by which Liberia can be made a shining example of all that is good about America in Africa.”
The Halle Institute worked with President Wagner’s office to extend the invitation to President Johnson Sirleaf. The Institute’s heads of state series hosted Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in 2002 and Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004.