Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Less of the ‘Iron Lady’

Akwe Amosu – The Guardian

Copyright The Guardian
Liberians have elected their first female president. But, says Akwe Amosu, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s gender may well be the least important thing about her as a politician
Monday November 14, 2005
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty
“She finally made it,” says a beaming Nana Tanko, a long-standing west African women’s campaigner and civil society activist. “I’m absolutely delighted.”
Stella Tamale, dean of law at Makerere University in Uganda, is equally pleased: “No one can tell us any more that Africa is not ready for a woman president,” she says.
“But Ellen’s not a woman,” another colleague objects. “She’s … Well, she is a woman, but …”
The gender of someone already in their late 60s is not usually in doubt – except, apparently, in the case of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the newly elected president of Liberia.
Even Ghana’s president, John Kufuor, recently told Johnson-Sirleaf he didn’t see her as a woman. But we’re not talking biology here: it’s just that Johnson-Sirleaf has reached the top in some distinctly male preserves.
She can variously be described as: Harvard-trained economist, ex-finance minister, former vice-president of Citicorp, past assistant secretary general at the UN, senior World Bank official, one-time president of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment and twice-over political detainee – and Liberian prison is not for the faint hearted.
Several reporters nevertheless choose to describe her as a “diminutive grandmother”. (Perhaps they would also describe Tony Blair as a “father of four”.)
The frequently deployed epithet “Iron Lady” may be an attempt to have it both ways. But the fact is, she is more than qualified for this job without reference to gender.
Top-level politics in Africa remains largely a male club, but Johnson-Sirleaf is only one of many women demanding to be let in – and she is in no doubt about the potential impact of her victory.
She says it will make “a big difference for African women. I might even say for women all over the world. I think African women today are sitting on the edge of their chairs waiting for this to happen because it is going to open the doors,” she told journalists during her campaign.
In fact, they already have their foot in the door: Zimbabwe has a female vice-president, as does South Africa, and Uganda had one until two years ago when she left office revealing that she had been the victim of domestic violence.
Mozambique also has a woman prime minister, in Luisa Diogo, while Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is probably more powerful than many of Africa’s male heads of state; she certainly commands more money than the vast majority of them.
Besides these there are many more women ministers, and several women candidates are currently campaigning in presidential elections. And we are not just talking about figureheads: Rwanda’s parliament boasts the highest number of women members in the world, at 48.8%, and the parliaments in South Africa, Mozambique and Burundi are each over 30% female.
Nor have such developments necessarily come in the teeth of resistance: the architects of the African Union, overwhelmingly male, insisted that 50% of its commissioners should be women, and every delegation to the new pan-African parliament will have a minimum quota of women.
“Mama Ellen’s” appeal to Liberian women voters was evident during the campaign. International banker she may be, but she looked fully at home at village level, cracking jokes in Liberian English and singing and dancing with her supporters.
Johnson-Sirleaf is quoted as saying she wants “to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” and heal the wounds of war.
In similar vein, she told a journalist recently: “Women are the ones who truly have the heart to care and serve, perhaps because of the role that nature has bestowed on us. A woman is naturally crafted to take care of the children and keep the home together, and our constitution is patterned towards selfless service.”
In truth, such comments belong to the campaign trail: she is not famous in international financial circles for her mothering skills. Her supporters have good reason for calling this hard-headed, business-minded manager, who is tough on herself and others, “our man”.
Women may gain under her leadership, but it will be because she believes their market stalls are vital to the country’s economic stability; she will work for peace not because she is a woman but because that is the only route to growth and a new deal for Liberians.
“Ellen doesn’t rely on her gender,” says Nana Tanko, who leads the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. “She’s not a sentimental person. The ordinary woman on the street is delighted, and they hope she will have more open ears, but I don’t think she will give women special treatment.”
And she warns that Johnson-Sirleaf still has some listening to do. “I’m glad she had to earn her victory in the second round by hearing what Liberians are saying. Meaningful engagement with people at grassroots level has been lacking until now.
“Ellen can be confident because of her international experience and professional standing – but now she has to get down to the ground and listen.”
That view is echoed by some in Liberia who complain that as a politician and businesswoman during the many years of corrupt government and conflict, Johnson-Sirleaf is part of the country’s problem and has not always advanced the cause of peace.
Whether such comments are sour grapes or fair comment, there is little doubt that she will have to mend some fences. In the end, though, Liberia is a challenge that could defeat anyone. If things go wrong for Johnson-Sirleaf, it won’t be because she is a woman.
∑ Akwe Amosu is a writer and broadcaster on African affairs


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