Liberian President Sirleaf Discusses Her Country's Transformation at World Leaders Forum

October 05, 2012

Ten years after the end of a brutal civil war a more hopeful nation has emerged from the ashes, Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told a packed crowd of Columbia University faculty, administrators and students at a World Leaders Forum on Sept. 27.

“Less than a decade ago, our discussion would have centered on what’s today described as a failed state,” said Sirleaf, the first female head of state in modern African history, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with another Liberian for their work on women’s rights and peace building. “As recently as 2003, our country was the poster child of failed statehood. Today, thanks to the resilience of our people and their hard work, Liberia has turned the corner.”

Sirleaf’s address was not just a look at Liberia today but an overview of how countries in crisis can work to remake themselves. “How do you move from a failed state to a fragile state—and from a fragile state to a competitive state?” asked Sirleaf. Liberia was in tatters when she came to power in 2005. Her top priorities, she said, were maintaining the fragile peace and rebooting key governing institutions. Her country is now on the path to becoming a middle-income country by 2030, said Sirleaf. “We are determined that in 10 years, Liberia will not have to take foreign aid,” she added. “We can do it on the basis of our resources.”

Since the 2003 Accra Peace Accord, which ended 14 years of civil strife, Liberia has transformed itself. It has a robust free press, Sirleaf said, and many of its shattered institutions, including the military, have been reassembled. Infrastructure, among the West African nation’s major constraints, is being rebuilt. After the World Bank and the IMF cancelled Liberia’s $4.6 billion external debts in 2010, Liberia’s fiscal regime now has a cash-based balanced budget, Sirleaf told the Columbia audience, and the country has undergone a series of legal and judicial reforms. Much of its economy has been privatized and now attracts foreign direct investment, Sirleaf said. By the end of 2012, Liberia’s GDP is expected to grow by about 9 percent, according to the IMF.

Critics question Sirleaf's broad-based transformation plan given Liberia’s political history. Her administration faces growing charges of corruption, uncontrolled logging practices, land grabs by foreign investors, criminalization of homosexuality, and a failure to protect human rights defenders and journalists. Sirleaf acknowledged some of those criticisms in her talk.

When asked how her government could enhance protection for civil society and journalists who are often threatened for reporting on sensitive issues like shortfalls of government, Sirleaf disputed the question, which came from Mohamed Keita, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Our media is as free as they come,” replied Sirleaf, who suggested that journalist Mae Azango has published unsubstantiated stories in order to move to the U.S. Azango, an influential and well-known reporter in Liberia, was forced into hiding earlier this year after publishing a story on female genital mutilation. “Tell me how we can have a group to protect people from irresponsible media reporting…then we can be fair in protecting them,” Sirleaf told Keita.

Keita agreed with Sirleaf that Liberia has one of the freest presses in Africa, but said the country still faces challenges in enforcing the rule of law. He also defended Azango’s journalistic track record.

At the end of her 30-minute address, Sirleaf received a standing ovation from those assembled in Low Library’s rotunda. “Thank you for representing Africa as a continent of hope, and not anymore as a basket case,” said Columbia Professor of French Souleymane Bachir Diagne, whose comment drew huge applause from the audience.

—by Mohammed Ademo

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Columbia University. You can find him on Twitter at @OPride.