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Delivering the inaugural Oppenheimer Lecture in London, Liberia’s new President argues that Liberia and Africa today need a different kind of leader

If pomp and circumstance is what you have come to associate with Africa’s presidents, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf quickly makes it clear that her style of leadership needs none of the superficial trappings adopted by so many of Africa’s heads of state.

Speaking with clarity and exhibiting the precision of intellect one would expect of the Harvard University graduate, Liberia’s new President delivered the inaugural Oppenheimer Lecture in London in the understated way she intends to conduct her term in office.

Exemplifying a new type of leader sorely needed in Africa today, President Johnson-Sirleaf used the occasion to set out the challenges for Africa’s leaders and to explain why the old style of governing is no longer acceptable to the people of Africa.

The Oppenheimer Lecture was established by Nicky Oppenheimer, Chairman of De Beers, as an opportunity for Africans to speak for themselves, for a change, on issues of importance to Africa.

Addressing the theme “African Leadership in Post-Conflict Situations: A case study of Liberia”, the President began the lecture by thanking the IISS for their invitation to dialogue and paid tribute to the BBC for bringing the plight of Liberia to the attention of a global audience.

In a life that has spanned almost seven decades of struggle and determination, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has paid her political dues.  A Finance Minster in the 1970’s, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison and exiled from Liberia after a short period of incarceration.  She worked as an Economist for Citibank and then the World Bank.  With the arrival of peace in 2003, she returned to her native country and started the political process that led to her election in 2005 as Africa’s first woman president.

Announcing that her country was on a “journey towards achieving national renewal after decades of conflict”, she spoke of the “nationalistic, selfless and visionary” nature of African leaders in the post-colonial period.  Less concerned with material accumulation, leaders such as Nkrumah, Lumumba and Nasser inspired their people to the cause of nationalism.  Citing Nelson Mandela as the “moral conscience” of the continent today, she spoke of the decline of African leaders that followed this period.
The next generation of leaders, she said, invested not in their people but in military adventures, grandiose projects and pandered to religious and ethnic divisions, minimising the significance of education while looting scarce financial resources.  Only recently has Africa ushered in a new generation of leaders concerned with democracy and peace and development. 

Competence, Integrity and Courage

So what kind of leader does the continent need today?  The President outlined the elements that make for good leadership, particularly in post-conflict situations: competence, integrity, responsibility for action, courage and clarity to focus on the principles expected of one who leads by inspiration and motivation.  The challenge for leadership in Liberia, she said, must be set against the context of the country’s history.

The post colonial leaders ruled in a different environment.  Leadership for those times when nations were focused on liberation and only slowly coming to terms with post-colonial realities, required an element of authoritarianism.  Today’s technological revolution has created an informed population which makes it very unwise to repeat the practices of the past.

“You have to bring a certain degree of competence and inspiration or you won’t last, she said.  “Today’s environment calls for a different kind of leadership”.

What she intends to usher in is “a new Liberia, based on the principles of good governance”.  Her election, she said, was the signal ‘of a growing need for an alternative leadership style in Africa; visionary, courageous and strong enough to address the challenges.”

Recurring throughout the President’s lecture was the need for today’s leaders to maintain respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the people.  Today’s Africa needs a new approach and, as she said, “a new dispensation calls for a new set of values and morals”.

Taking personal responsibility for the challenge that lies ahead for Liberia, she affirmed that “our leadership must take the lead in destroying the imperial presidency and dismantling the trappings” of the “semi god-like institution” of presidency that has been created in Africa.  What that needed, she said, was “a heavy dose of modesty and quiet self-assurance”.

The need to demystify the presidency is critical to enable all citizens to become stakeholders in the development of the country and for Liberia to realise that what she called “the dark years of conflict and dictatorship” have come to an end.

The President stated that her key imperative for the country was the consolidation of national peace and to inspire a new sense of hope for a new kind of leadership.  Recognising that such a transformation would not be an easy one, she acknowledged that “our success will determine our place in the leadership history of this country.”

The focus of that inspiration has, in her estimation, to be the youth of the country.  “Our policy is to offer hope to young people who have been both perpetrators and victims in the general mayhem that has engulfed our recent history”, she said.  The need now is to refocus the mindset and energies of young people to want a better life.  “Unless we invest adequately and qualitatively, peace and stability – the sine quo non for development – will never take place.” 

The Role of the Diaspora

President Johnson-Sirleaf spoke of the need for schooling and employment opportunities to occupy young people and the role that Liberia’s Diaspora could play.  Younger generation today are less well equipped than their parents due to a lack of education and the disruption engendered by conflict.  While there are no quick fix solutions, she said, “we hope to start the process and hope that many of our people in the Diaspora will come back to be part of the mix to help develop the country.”

Leadership for Reconstruction

“15 years of conflict have left Liberians a divided people with ethnic and religious differences”, she said.  Describing her country as “war weary, traumatised, impoverished and cynical”, the President highlighted the need for a leader that will inspire hope.  Leaders with less emphasis on grandstanding, she said, who are “short on rhetoric and long on implementation”. 

“What is needed….is a leadership that inspires hope and optimism; one that is short on rhetoric and grandstanding and long on positive actions and implementable policies.”

She spoke of the collapsed infrastructure and the need for physical reconstruction of the country as “one of the most daunting challenges”.  Private capital and investment are critical to Liberia’s longer term solutions with the need for assistance from development partners in the immediate short-term.

With a population of 3 million people, Liberia is well endowed – mineral, forestry, agriculture, fisheries and there is no reason for Liberia to be poor.  Yet the reality today, she said, is that “infrastructure has been destroyed, skills have left the country and so the capacity needed to exploit these resources has been greatly reduced.  The Liberian economy has the potential to be strong and in a decade or so, Liberia should become a major economic player in the region.”

On Leadership and Governance

A key element of the new Liberian government’s reform agenda is stamping out corruption.  Speaking of the “corrosive effect” that corruption has on the national fabric, she stated her government’s determination to combat the social vice that corruption represents in the public and private sector as well as in civil society.  This included plans for a new code of conduct and clearly defined fines and penalties for public sector as well as incentives such as enhanced compensation. 

Since coming to power, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has already proved her intention to take the lead against corruption, with the recent announcement that three senior government officials and five other mid-level employees have been dismissed for acts of impropriety. She has since ordered government prosecutors to begin legal proceedings against those involved.  The President has also thrown her support behind an anti-graft plan known as the Governance Economic Management Assistance Programme (GEMAP),  under which international supervisors will monitor key ministries and lucrative concerns such as the port, airport, customs office and forestry commission, as well all state expenditure, for the next three years.

‘One of the Boys’

In the inaugural lecture, the President acknowledged that, as a woman, she is seen both as a leader for the country and a leader for Africa’s women and intends to show to the world that an African female president will make a difference.  Cautious about overstating the gender issue, she pointed out that “I’m a professional, a technocrat who happens to be a woman.”  However, the President acknowledged that her gender does bring with it added advantages - “I hope I bring the extra sensitivity and dimension to the role.  I have been accepted by my colleagues in Africa as one of the boys…I have the commitment, capacity and courage to be equal to them in carrying out the task of governing.”

A Whole Lot of Priorities

Asked about her priorities for Liberia, President Johnson-Sirleaf spoke of her first priority as ensuring ‘sustainable peace and security’, highlighting her government’s moves to dismantle army and security services, retraining defence personnel,  and the challenges of educating young people, many of whom, teenagers today, have never been into schools.  With poor educational infrastructure and a lack of teachers, the country is already facing 80% unemployment.

“I know it sounds like a lot of priorities,” she admitted, “but there are a whole lot of problems.”

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf faces a formidable set of challenges by anyone’s standards.  Her style of leadership is to face challenges head-on and to keep focused on the priorities.  Ultimately, as she concluded, “my government hopes to make a difference to the lives of the Liberian people.”

Further information about the IISS can be found on: www.iiss.org

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