From Hollywood exports and Grammy artists to award-winning ideas that can save the world, Africa is not only diverse in its people but also in its industries and creativity. For FORBES AFRICA hundredth issue (since the magazine’s inception in 2011), we decided to curate a list celebrating these very ideas, inventions, and influential role models that have spelt Africa’s growth over the last decade.
As a former head of state and Nobel peace prize winner, Sirleaf has achieved more than most in her lifetime. She spoke to FORBES AFRICA on her experiences as president and what she thinks is needed to bridge the gender gap in Africa. In March, she also received the 2021 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Lifetime Achievement Award.
F: What was your experience like in becoming the first female head of state in Africa?
My life was forever transformed when I was given the privilege to serve the people of Liberia. It was an honor to become Africa’s first democratically elected woman president. It was a tough position to hold – not just because my success or failure would impact the prospects of women coming up behind me, but because of the immense challenges my country faced as it emerged from civil war.
When I left my inauguration after taking the oath of office, I got out of the car and walked along the streets. The crowds followed, walking with me – it was such a special moment. I knew I had the Liberian people behind me, and that gave me the strength and courage to take our country forward.
Coming into a position surrounded by men was difficult, of course. There was, and still is, a suspicion that a woman isn’t up to the job, and men often doubt you. I had to overcome this by being steadfast and standing up for the things I believe in.
I had to believe in my own potential and do everything I could to better the lives of other women. I wish I could have appointed an all-women cabinet, but at the time it wasn’t possible. So instead, I identified areas that are normally male-dominated, such as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Commerce, and broke taboos by putting women in places where they were not normally found. We got women into leadership positions at different levels, pointing the way towards equity.
F: What were some of the main challenges you faced during your terms as president?
When I took office, Liberia had just emerged from 14 years of civil war. My priority was to sustain peace and help the country rebuild. The reconciliation process involved building the foundations of our democracy and rebuilding the economy almost from scratch. It was very complex and extremely difficult, but I am proud of the work we did to get Liberia back on the path of development. I am also proud that we restored our country’s reputation and creditworthiness.
We invested heavily in Liberia’s youth – helping them get educated and develop skills to give them access to more opportunities. Helping them see that there was a bright future ahead of them, that they had a common future, also helped to bridge some of the divisions in our society, further sustaining the peace we had worked so hard to attain.
Then the Ebola outbreak engulfed Liberia and West Africa, threatening the economy and hard-earned progress we had made on reducing child and maternal mortality, for example. Just like with COVID-19, schools were shut down and too many lives were lost. Seeing how the Ebola crisis affected my country was devastating, and it really showed me the importance of access to primary health care and importance of community endeavour.
F: What was it like being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and then being announced as the winner?
It was an honor and a truly humbling experience to be nominated and win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. Winning the prize alongside these women showed the universality of our struggle, but the award really belongs to the people whose aspirations we had the privilege to represent, and whose rights we have the obligation to defend.
I would not have been in any position to receive that honor without the women of Liberia, Africa, and the world. I never forget that I owe my success to the women who, during the Liberian civil war, stood in the rain and fetched food for their children despite the bullets flying everywhere.
When I accepted the prize, I told the women of the world: “Find your voice! Raise our voices. Let yours be a voice for freedom!”
F: What has life been like since the end of your presidential term?
I had two grandmothers who were illiterate, who were marketeers and farmers. I saw them represented in too many of the women around me. That led to my own commitment: when I had the authority, I would do something to better the lives of other women that is why I focused on rural women and those in the informal sector.
But knew that my work would have to continue beyond the end of my presidency. I have always been committed to bettering the lives of other women, and that commitment did not end with my second presidential term. But I also knew that I must work for more women leaders who can protect and promote women.
I have thus continued to advocate for women’s political representation, education, and equitable access to healthcare. I am proud to be involved in many great organizations working towards these goals. Additionally, I have continued to work in conflict resolution and have contributed to pandemic response efforts around the world.
F: What does being an African icon mean to you?
I am humbled to be considered an African icon. I hope that it will inspire others to work towards causes they are passionate about. I hope that it will have a motivating effect for other women and young girls, encouraging their confidence to set goals and to stay on the path to achieve them.
F: Tell me about the EJS Center and some of the work it does?
The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center) was established to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by unleashing its most abundant untapped power — its women. Through our programming, advocacy, research, and exhibitions, the EJS Center works to advance women’s public leadership and development. Our goal is to shift the landscape for women, moving from a culture of tokenism to one that truly values women leaders.
The Amujae Initiative is the EJS Center’s flagship program. We launched it on International Women’s Day in March 2020. Derived from a phrase in Kru, a Liberian language, Amujae means ‘we are going up’. We help women who have already proven their dedication to their communities and to their fellow women, and who are aiming for the highest positions in public service. There are now two cohorts of Amujae Leaders with 30 in all, coming from 16 different countries across the continent. Among them are a county governor, current and former ministers, members of parliament, senior advisors, and activists. We are so proud of them all, of their impressive careers and their aspirations.
In addition to our work through the Amujae Initiative, we are also establishing a presidential library, which will house physical and virtual archives and serve as a convening space where African women leaders are able to strategize together and build strong networks of support.
F: Given the current gender disparities prevalent in African society, what do you think is needed for this gap to be closed and for women to be seen as equals to their male counterparts?
This is not just a problem in Africa – it is a global problem. There is a lot of work still to be done. We need more women to dare to contend for the highest positions of public leadership and to bring other women along with them. When I was President of Liberia, I made a point of putting women in positions of power so that young girls can see what is possible.
There is also much to be done in terms of ensuring girls’ access to education, ensuring that there is room for women in business and entrepreneurship, and improving healthcare access. Every step we take is a step towards progress, and I’m encouraged by the number of women stepping into leadership roles today.
F: What is a motto or mantra that you live by?
I always tell people — if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. But you must also have the wherewithal to achieve them, and you must not be afraid to use your voice.