Africa’s first lady: The continent’s only woman head of state will have an impact well beyond her own country

Cameron Duodu – The Guardian

Friday January 6, 2006
Copyright The Guardian
Today, 159 years after the first modern nation in Africa was established by freed American slaves, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will be inaugurated as its first woman president. She will also be the continent’s first female elected head of state. The challenges she will face are immense. Liberia has just emerged from 15 years of civil war, in which its people have been butchered and demoralised; there is no electricity in parts of the capital, Monrovia; water-supply systems have been almost universally destroyed, and schools looted or burned down; and hospitals and clinics exist in name only.
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Johnson-Sirleaf has spent most of her working life with international organisations, such as the World Bank and UN development programme, and private financial institutions, including Citibank in New York. She intends to use her experience to negotiate finance deals that can put the Liberian economy back on its feet. She will also encourage the million Liberian refugees dispersed across west Africa to return home and help create an efficient government.
Johnson-Sirleaf was imprisoned in the 1980s by one of Africa’s most brutal dictators, Samuel Doe. Doe’s successor, Charles Taylor, charged her with treason and jailed her. After her election victory last November, she told me: “I have been kept going all these years by my irreversible commitment to democracy and the social and economic development of Liberia.”
One of her tasks is to bring on board George Weah, the football superstar she beat in the presidential run-off. He had attracted the support of many of the young and jobless who, in the civil war, acted as hired guns. They have now been disarmed by the UN, and some look to Weah to fill their pockets with his football dollars. Johnson-Sirleaf recognises the danger they could pose to the nation’s rebuilding. “My priority will be to educate our young people and provide them with opportunities for reintegrating,” she explains.
She has calmed the disappointed Weah, whose election petition against Johnson-Sirleaf – claiming fraud in some areas – nearly rekindled violence in the country. It is expected that Weah will have a seat in her new cabinet.
Johnson-Sirleaf is aware that her performance will be used as a marker that will either push or halt the progress of women throughout Africa. A Unicef report a month ago estimated the number of young women who undergo genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East at about 3 million a year. Worse still, their traditional child-rearing role often prevents African women from entering politics in large enough numbers to change such odious practices.
Only Uganda and Mozambique have set aside seats for women in parliament, but even there men try to manipulate the process so that they can keep out “strong” women. And because it is men who control the budgets, health services throughout Africa are still inadequate – even in Nigeria, an oil-rich country, one in every 18 women is likely to die from pregnancy-related causes.
Johnson-Sirleaf could be forgiven if she concentrated solely on Liberia’s problems. But her style is to confront problems wherever she sees them. Many Liberians believe she was spared, when ministers of the William Tolbert government were executed in the coup of April 1980 that brought Doe to power, because she had begun to fight corruption from within the finance ministry.
She will need firm principles to withstand the international carpetbaggers who will flock to Liberia, ostensibly to help resuscitate the economy but in reality to pocket huge profits. She will also have to use her financial expertise to balance Liberia’s need for massive overseas investment against the tendency of donor organisations to dictate the national interests of recipient countries.
And there is serious concern in Liberia that, with her background, Johnson-Sirleaf’s economic policies will be wedded to free-market principles. Charging school fees, demanding an “economic” price for water, electricity and phones, as well as neglecting the poor, would be disastrous. She must not devote herself to the interests of the few in the vain hope that the benefits of their wealth will trickle down to the huge numbers who wallow in poverty.
Can she do it? I believe so. She is 67 and has six grandchildren whom she adores and whose presence will always be a reminder that her country can’t be plunged into another political debacle that could threaten their young lives.
∑ Cameron Duodu is a Ghanaian novelist and journalist,3604,1680396,00.html

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