Africa’s ‘Iron Lady’ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Visits GW

GW’s Institute for African Studies inaugurates the Bridges Institute Africa Series in conversation with the Nobel Peace laureate and former president of Liberia.

March 1, 2024

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talked to an audience that filled Jack Morton Auditorium. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was introduced as “an extraordinary leader, the former president of the Republic of Liberia, a Nobel Peace laureate and recipient of the Mo Ibrahim award for achievement in African leadership,” by the Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs Alyssa Ayres.

These honors were bestowed upon Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected woman of an African country, for restoring democratic rule and bringing economic stability and peace to Liberia after a decade of civil war. “She is now known as a tireless activist, an advocate and champion for peace and for women’s inclusion and participation in peace building,” said Ayres.

With this brief introduction, Ayres inaugurated the George Washington University Bridges Institute Africa lecture series in the Jack Morton Auditorium that was filled to capacity Tuesday evening. The lecture series was endowed by the Bridges Institute, which was founded by the Hon. Vivian Lowery Derryck, a member of the Elliott School’s Board of Advisors, to help strengthen African governments and democracy through advocacy and dialogue by building a platform for civil society to engage with senior U.S. and African leadership on the challenges of peace building, democracy and empowerment.

Derryck provided a broad description of Johnson Sirleaf’s worldwide standing as “Africa’s Iron Lady,” praising her as a “defiant” leader who survived abuse and imprisonment and dared challenge the corrupt leadership of previous Liberian presidents before winning an election against a popular soccer star in 2005.

“She invested in agriculture, she emphasized education, she emphasized the importance of democratic institutions and the rule of law,” said Derryck. “She installed competent women in cabinet positions, and she underscored the centrality of market women not only to the economy but to the social fabric of the country.”

Johnson Sirleaf is also noted for stepping down after two terms in office and continuing her activism as a worldwide citizen.

The 85-year-old Johnson Sirleaf stepped gingerly to the podium to speak to the audience before sitting for a conversation with the Director of the GW Institute for African Studies Jennifer G. Cooke. In a measured but spirited voice, she observed that there were many in the audience whom she could name one by one whom she hoped to engage in a dialogue about what they now face.

“The Bridges Lecture takes place at a time of global disarray, a crisis imposed by the crisis of COVID-19 that disrupted the path of sustainable development in the developing world and revealed so starkly the imbalances in our global architecture, politically and economically,” she said. “Today we face the existential threat of climate change, the uncertainties of artificial intelligence and the resurgence of conflicts around the world fueled by the malign actors who see democracy as a threat to their ambitions. These forces are impacting Africa, which has seen a decline in partner support for democracy for the first time in decades.

“The multilateralism that has been the bedrock of global peace and security has been compromised,” Johnson Sirleaf continued. “Social media platforms have fueled shallow understandings of history and the drivers that build society, consensus and cohesion. Our world is crying out for leadership that meets the moment.”

Cooke asked Johnson Sirleaf what she saw as the way forward in this deeply polarized era when people no longer listen to one another, and negotiation and compromise seem almost impossible.

Johnson Sirleaf responded that in the period following World War II leaders addressed conflicts and tensions with dialogue and consultation to achieve global cooperation, processes that current leaders need to go back to.

“It takes a leader who is willing to make sacrifice, compromise…and stand tall for the principles that brought them to leadership,” she said. “We need those old-fashioned methods of assuring peace and security in the world.”

Cooke noted that many regions of the world that were not involved in the creation of those multilateral institutions that set those standards do not feel represented. What could be done, Cooke asked, to restore the legitimacy of multilateral institutions like the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund?

Johnson Sirleaf said there are new, big nations that do not subscribe to the old international standards. She pointed out that issues today are more complex. “We must also accept the fact that the time for change has come,” she said. “Some of those institutions…have to be reinstituted, reunited for more participation for people, more participation for society, the acceptances of differences in policies and vision.”

But dialogue, Johnson Sirleaf noted, will be needed to make those changes and work through a system of global interaction.

“In a world bound together by financial and communications systems, one has to recognize that no matter how powerful, nations cannot stand alone and survive,” she said. “The time has come to accept the fact that nations are more equal.”

Addressing younger women in the audience during a Q & A session, Johnson Sirleaf said, “Obtain as much knowledge as you can so when you speak you speak with the abilities that you have developed. Stay focused on what your goals are. Set those goals with full determination, know that you can achieve them. Even when you face tough obstacles be courageous enough to accept them…and rise above it.

“If you are from Africa, get as much as you can get of experience and knowledge and go home. Go serve your country.”