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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ’s address was full of democratic values, concrete talking points and vision for women Leadership in Africa

MS. LISE GRANDE: Good afternoon. My name is Lise Grande, and I’m the head of the United States Institute of Peace, which was established by the U.S. Congress in 1984 as a national public nonpartisan institution dedicated to helping prevent, mitigate, and resolve violent conflict abroad. It is an honor for the United States Institute of Peace to welcome two exceptional women leaders, Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, for a very special discussion on women’s leadership in Africa.

Next week Washington will host the U.S.-Africa Summit. Today’s conversation, which comes ahead of the summit, allows us to reflect on and talk about the next generation of women leaders and their role in politics, public service, and the private sector across Africa. It also gives us a chance to reflect on the U.S.’s commitment to the global women, peace, and security agenda set out in Resolution 1325, adopted by the UN Security Council and enshrined into U.S. law five years ago.

It is a distinct honor for the institute to welcome President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first democratically elected woman head of state in Africa. President Johnson Sirleaf is one of the most revered women leaders of our generation, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor, and the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership.

Breaking the Barriers of Entry for Women Leaders in Africa (A Discussion with Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield)

In 2018, President Johnson Sirleaf founded the Presidential Center for Women and Development with the aim of championing women’s ascension to the highest levels of leadership, and challenging systematic barriers to girls’ and women’s advancement. In 2020, President Johnson Sirleaf launched Amujae, a wonderful program that inspires and prepares women to take up roles and excel at the highest levels of public leadership. We are delighted to have with us today several Amujae leaders, who will be taking the floor very shortly.

It is a privilege to welcome back to the institute Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a Cabinet secretary in the Biden Administration. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has a distinguished 35-year record of public service in foreign affairs, having been appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, and with postings in Switzerland, Pakistan, Kenya, The Gambia, Nigeria, and Jamaica. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has served as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The Ambassador is the recipient of the University of Minnesota Herbert Humphrey Public Leadership Award, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, and the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs.

Please allow us also to extend our warmest welcome to Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex, who is a global champion for the women, peace, and security agenda and the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence initiative, and who yesterday received the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Exceptional Leadership in advancing women’s rights and creating a more peaceful and secure world for all.

We’re very pleased to introduce Aluel Atem and Angela Chin, who will be moderating this very special inter-generational conversation. Aluel is a program officer with USIP’s curriculum and training team, where she manages the institute’s flagship training program with the Kenya Border Police. Aluel is an African feminist activist who has co-founded two women’s rights initiatives, Crown the Women and Ma’Mara Sakit Village in South Sudan.

Angela is the senior program assistant for USIP’s Sudan and South Sudan programs. As a Charles B. Rangel Fellow, Angela has interned at the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and will join the U.S. Foreign Service in 2023. Angela is a black American feminist activist, a graduate of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

I am delighted to hand over to Aluel and to Angela. (Applause.)

MS. ALUEL ATEM: Thank you, Madam President, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. You’ve both had such notable careers in your leadership positions, and for many, especially black young women, that itself is history and lessons. Can you both share with our audience today just a bit about your personal leadership journey to these incredible positions of power and leadership?

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let me start off by first saying a big thank you to Lise Grande and to (inaudible) for this event. Thanks to all of them. It’s coming at the right time, before the Biden summit takes place and all of our African leaders will be here to participate in discussions regarding global issues.

In Africa today, we have two women presidents, four former presidents, and two women presidents not democratically elected yet. So, our numbers are small, and I’m glad that I was favored by the Liberian people to contest the presidency and to serve two terms, and to respect the constitution by giving up at the end of my second term and turning it over. But it was no easy walk. I mean, it took many years of work, many years of activism, of working on those issues that promote good governance, taking positions, standing out. And I think in a way that comes from my own beginnings, my beginnings of the family and a strong mother that enabled me to have the courage to take on what was required to run for high political office.

And I failed a couple of times. I ran more than once. But failing, to me, was the upside of success. And I used the experience of failure to rebuild, to start again, and had the opportunity to lead our country those 12 years and to face what was really formidable because our country had had two decades of civil war, with a lot of death and destruction, dysfunctional institutions, destroyed infrastructure, to try to bring back the creditworthiness of our country and reputation of our country that was lost during those many years of civil war and military rule.

And I was just glad that we happened to have somebody like Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield who was on the scene as ambassador, was there to provide the kind of guidance, support, and to point out those places where I think we could have done better. And she did. (Laughter.) But I’m thankful that with the advice and all that happened and the many issues, we were able to work in partnership for Liberia and that she – that we maintained that friendship and that collaboration.

I established the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Center for Women and Development, committed to try and see more African women become presidents. I formed the Amujae initiative, which have two cohorts of some 30 dynamic African women who have committed themselves to the leadership journey and are really working and just need the kind of support, the kind of profiling, the kind of encouragement, true mentorship, that they get from other women like former presidents or high-level African executives like those who hold global institutions, who provide them the kind of advice and support that they need, and encouragement to enable them to forge ahead.

And we’re always thankful that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield served with the foundation of the center for some time, until she moved on. (Laughter.) She moved on to the stage where we all respect you, Linda. Thank you for all the positions you take.

So that’s my story. (Applause.)

MS. ATEM: Ambassador?

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I listen to someone read my resume, I never, ever stop being amazed at myself. (Laughter.) And I am a very, very humble person. But when I think about where I started and see where I’ve come, I have to occasionally say, wow. Is this – (applause) – is this the little girl who was running around, bare feet, in a rural area, loving life, not knowing that I was poor – because a lot of kids don’t know they’re poor, even though they are, because they had a happy family.

And I described recently to someone that I didn’t even have ambition because I didn’t have the role models to look up to. And as I got older, they were our teachers; one lawyer, who is the husband of one of my teachers. So, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer because that’s all I knew. I didn’t know about diplomats. I didn’t know about presidents. (Laughter.) I didn’t know about people who work in NGOs. I didn’t know any of that. I knew teachers and I knew one lawyer, so I was going to be a lawyer.

And I failed at that. I never went to law school. So, at some point I did decide I wanted to be an academic, and I played at that for a few years. And in the process of playing at that, I went to Liberia in 1978. And that’s the first time – you didn’t know me, Madam President. I was a nobody.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Sure.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But you were somebody.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Oh, come on. Come on. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You were somebody even then, in 1978. And I looked up to her. I was amazed by her, watching her from afar as I did research in Liberia. I would then go on and teach for a couple of years, then into the Foreign Service, and my concept of what my goals were, it was just to work hard. Do a good job at whatever job you were given. And I did that without ambition. Again, my ambition was not to be a deputy assistant secretary or an ambassador or assistant secretary or member of President Biden’s Cabinet. Those were not my ambitions. My ambition every single day was to do a good job at whatever job I was given and make a difference in people’s lives. And in the process of doing that for 20, 30, 35, now 40 years, people began to pay attention to you. And that’s how I ended up where I am today.

The highlight of my career was serving in Liberia as the ambassador when the president was there, and she really was an iron lady. And I loved being there next to the iron lady and occasionally, Madam Ambassador – Madam President – (laughter) – and she’d – Madam Ambassador? (Laughter.) And none of my staff ever thought I delivered a tough message to her. (Laughter.) They never. I’d go back and they’re like, “She’s so friendly with her, so nice to her.”

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: They didn’t know what happened in the back rooms. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And that is what diplomacy is all about. It is not about hijacking people in public. It is not about bringing them down. Sometimes they do deserve to be brought down in public, actually, but not this lady. (Laughter.) And – but it was about developing a relationship of trust, a relationship of confidence, and a common goal. And both President Sirleaf and I had the same goal, and that was to help Liberia to succeed.

And sometimes we had different ways of doing that, but I always knew when I was dealing with her that her main goal was my main goal, and that was to help Liberia come out of war and to succeed. And when you have the opportunity to work with a partner and have the same goal and work toward that goal, it is an extraordinary experience.

So, as I look back on this now-40-year career – I’ve got to change my bio – (laughter) – the four years that I was in Liberia as ambassador really was the highlight of that career. And it was a full circle for me, having started there in 1978 and going back there in 2008, 30 years later.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: I must say – and Linda will say even more about that – there are certain women that gave us strength, gave me strength. Linda is one of them. But I look back and I look at Angela Merkel, and I look how she managed on the global stage, how she was able to keep global cooperation, to keep multilateralism moving – and today we can see it slipping away because we don’t have that strong leadership to keep that going.

Let me say in this country, one of my few right now, aside from you, Linda, is Nancy Pelosi, and how she so well managed your Congress, and made those hard decisions and made it look easy. We can always take lessons from these strong women. We have strong African women, strong women in Latin America, in Asia, and everywhere. And I always try to take counsel from them to see how they handle very difficult issues, how they respond to global issues. And we need that now more than ever as we go into a situation where there’s no global consensus on the international standards and the democracies to which we have all committed our countries to ensure that there will be global goods and we’ll be able to respond to the needs of the people.

So as a challenge to all of us as leaders to recalibrate and to reassess ourselves and see what we can do, I hope we at the center can provide some support and some real activism in trying to respond to this global contextual stage that we face. But that’s your stage, Linda. That’s your area. The global stage is yours.

MS. ATEM: And it’s so beautiful to see this friendship and connection in real life because I was reading some of the comments – you made a post about this event online – and Liberians seem to have such profound memories of the two of you together in Liberia. And I’m wondering how did your friendship grow? How did you form this friendship, and how did it grow? And also, what influence did it have in the many collaborations you’ve done together that has also influenced your work on advancing women, peace, and security?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Well, I’ll just be brief, and I’ll let Linda say it. When she first went to Liberia to do research, I did not know her. She did not – I’m not sure she and I met during that period. I was in public service at ministerial levels; she was doing research, and she left. And it wasn’t until later years, when she was appointed, that we were able to meet and just discover that we had certain shared values, and her commitment to Liberia because, in a way, she came to love the country, the time she spent there, and the country so loved her, that we kept hoping that we’ll fix the country in such a way that she would feel endeared enough to do the journey of coming to live in Liberia. But that hasn’t happened. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I haven’t given up on the idea.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: So, you see, we have a place waiting for her. But we saw – but what we have enjoyed is the positions she’s taken, not only as ambassador, but not only the support she’s given to the center we established and the advice that she provides, but also, we’re so proud of the work she does on the global stage. Because when she takes a position, when she talks there, it’s a reflection of what we feel, what we know should be done. And we feel that this is – in a way, it leaves us with an endearment that someone is saying what we’d like to hear said and may be missing from so many others.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So, I was watching her from afar as a young kid, not – we’re the same age. I don’t know how that happens. (Laughter.) And she was really a role model and a mentor for me. I knew I wasn’t going to become a great leader in Africa, but I knew I could succeed as a woman because I was watching what she was doing. You came to Geneva in – I believe it was maybe 2000 – for some kind of meeting; I don’t remember what it was. And I sat in the audience as you were speaking. And you were talking about what was happening in Liberia, and I was so enamored with you.

At that point I never – I didn’t know I was going to become an ambassador. I didn’t even know that I was going to go back to the Africa Bureau; I was doing humanitarian work. I didn’t know I was ever going to meet you directly, in person. But I was so impressed with what you were trying to do to bring Liberia forward. And you weren’t even in a political job; you were kind of in exile then. I’m trying to think, it may have been like 2000 or something like that. You’d run for a senate seat and won and turned it down. And I’m like, who does that? (Laughter.) And so, it was just really, for me, impressive.

And I will tell you this story. So, I was – I eventually became the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Africa Bureau, and the bureau started looking at ambassadorships. And I was asked, “Linda, where would you like to go?” And I said The Gambia. Little country. I’m like, it’s a tiny, little country – I can handle The Gambia. (Laughter.) And the then-assistant secretary said, “You’re the PDAS in the Africa Bureau. I can’t send you to Gambia. I’m going to send you to Kenya.” And I thought, wow, she – they think I’m good enough for Kenya, then I’m good enough for Liberia too.

And so, I said I wanted – nobody was trying to go to Liberia, to be honest. (Laughter.) There wasn’t a long line of people waiting to go to Liberia. Our people were shocked that I said I wanted Liberia and not Kenya. And no one knew my history with Liberia because I hadn’t talked about the fact that I’d lived and worked in Liberia when I was in my 20s. But once I said I wanted to go to Liberia, suddenly Liberia was the place that everybody wanted to go to. (Laughter.) It was like, the PDAS wants to go to Liberia, then it must be pretty good.

So, I really feel if I accomplish anything, I put Liberia on the map for people who were really interested in doing real work. I mean, people were wanting to avoid Liberia because of what we were seeing on CNN every single day that the news reports were horrific. People were being killed every single day. It was a country at war. Nobody wanted to go there, but Linda wanted to go there, and I did and that’s when our friendship really did bud and develop, and I have a friend for life who I have tremendous respect for and it’s something I will always cherish. (Applause.)

MS. ANGELA CHIN: You are two exemplary leaders, and many women and men look up to you. Madam President, you mentioned that we’re living in a time where consensus on the world order is no longer there. On top of that there’s a climate crisis and there’s emerging global health challenges. What kind of leadership do you think the world needs right now?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: It needs those that are willing to stand by principles and the standards that they represent, and that they have endorsed over the years. We need leaders who have the courage to take positions that may not lead them to any popularity, positions that are the right thing to do in the interests of peace, in the interests of the promotion of women and the development in countries. And we don’t see enough of that today. As we look on the global scene, we see too much of individualism, national interest, that prefer those that have leadership talent but do not feel committed to there because of, if you may, selfish national interest. And I think the world needs today strong leaders who are – some of them are wrong, yes. We must also recognize that.

Those who are making a great effort to bring us back to those standards that we all knew in the days of global cooperation that seem to be now threatened, to see if we can encourage them to continue to provide the global leadership that’s needed. Because it’s having an effect in Africa. We thought we had more than 30 democracies 10 years ago. In the last four years we’ve had four coup d’états, returning us to those terrible old days when coup d’états led to military leadership and led to great disaffection of the people and not being able to move the country forward. So now we have to go back as African leaders and find the means to address what has happened, and much of it comes from the global scene that’s a bit confusing, it’s a bit concerning for all of us because we’ve slipped in standing by the international standards we all have known so well.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I couldn’t agree more with the president, and I would just add having looked – having observed her leadership that we do need leaders who care about their people. We need leaders who have compassion, who have strong values when they come into office, who are committed to the world order, committed to, as she said, standards. Leaders who believe in the UN Charter and who are willing to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women and to ensure that their commitments remain as strong as they were when they ran for office.

So, everybody says the right thing when they’re running, and then when they’re suddenly in the chair they do exactly what they want to do, and countries – people don’t feel the ability to hold them accountable. So, we need leaders who are accountable as well. And there are very few of them as we look around at not just Africa but the world.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: I’m laughing, Linda, because I want to say you need leaders who can get on the global platform and say to a major world leader, “You are wrong, Mr. President.” (Laughter.)

MS. CHIN: And on that topic of leadership, next week we’re heading into the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and there are very high expectations from some, but from others there’s a degree of skepticism. What tangible outcomes do you hope to see from the summit next week?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: I hope that President Biden – I want to thank him, too, for this. President Obama had a summit several years ago. That’s when the Ebola broke in our country, Liberia, and I could not come because I had to be at home to be able to fight this disease. And I’m so glad that President Biden and Vice President Harris, Kamala Harris, have now made that decision to have another summit and to bring our African leaders together. I hope that it will be very straightforward in telling our leaders what is expected of them, recognizing where so many have indeed moved their countries forward, have achieved a lot of their development goals. But for many who are determined that they will hold on to office and thereby sabotage the future of our young citizens, that they need to be told that we must all have our chance to be on the scene, to what we can do, and then pass it on, have somebody else do it.

I know there is disappointments too. I faced a disappointment when I passed – I’ve got to tell you that. (Laughter.) And sometimes I have to stop and say, did I do the right thing? But it was the right thing to do. And what has happened cannot be an excuse not to follow the rules and the regulations. What we must do is better planned successions so that we can make sure that there’s continuity in effort and continuity in progress, and that I think all of our leaders should be encouraged to think in that way – that there’s always a good succession, there’s always continuity if we explain properly and if it’s exercised rightly so. I think that’s where we stand.

MS. CHIN: Thank you. Madam Ambassador?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Just to follow up on what the President was saying, and I think it’s not – in terms of transitions, it’s also about ensuring that the population is educated, and that’s in any country and our country as well, that they understand what they need in a leader, and they understand what their vote means. It’s the most powerful tool that we have, is our vote. And sometimes populations, particularly in Africa, don’t realize the power of their vote, and they sell their votes; they don’t realize how valuable their votes are. They vote for someone who is popular for any number of reasons other than being a good leader on the political stage.

And so, we, I think all of us, have a responsibility to start to educate populations about how important their vote is. And again, I put the United States in that category as well, and how valuable their vote is for the future.

In terms of the leaders summit, I think having participated very actively in the first leaders summit, I think this leaders summit will be a reaffirmation of our partnership with the continent of Africa. I think that the various leaders on the continent have wanted this, and I think even though expectations may be different, I think just the fact of the United States inviting them to the U.S. to have these open discussions on any number of issues is a positive thing. And some of the discussions will be tough discussions. There will be discussions about the fact that we’re seeing democracy diminish on the continent. It will be about the coup d’états. It will be about corruption. And we hear a lot, “We don’t want to – we don’t want finger-pointing from you.” And this is not about finger-pointing; it’s about having a candid discussion about what is happening.

I was on the continent and said there’s no reason African countries ought to be suffering from food insecurity because of Russia. Africa can grow enough wheat to feed itself. Any single country on the continent. Liberia could grow enough rice to feed itself. So, Africa – countries have to kind of step up to the challenges that they face and take ownership – take ownership of addressing the challenges. It’s a rich continent. It’s a continent that can take care of its own needs. But the issue again is how leaders manage the resources, including the most valuable resource, and that’s their people.

So, we’re going to have those discussions, and I think it’ll – I think people’s expectations will be met as we talk about those various things. I’m doing an event on the diaspora which I’m really excited about. Because one of the things that I say is people tell us we’re always competing with the Chinese. The Chinese are overrunning you in Africa, they’re eating your lunch in Africa. And I say, well, we have something that the Chinese don’t have. We have an African diaspora. Every single country on the continent, people who know their countries – their countries of origin – and are committed to those countries and can speak out in the United States about our policies and influence our policies. And I think that’s a power that we sometimes forget that we have. So, I’m excited to have that discussion with the diaspora.

MS. CHIN: Thank you.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: I think the message of taking charge of your destiny, that’s resonated well in Africa. And I think Africa too, African leadership, feel that it’s time that we do more for our people, for our continent, that we have common positions that we can take to the global stage and ensure that our national interests are protected, that our shortcomings – and I – that are recognized both domestically and internationally – and there are certain places where we, too, feel serious concern about failures to address things that need to be done.

But we also feel that the international architecture also needs to be addressed, that institutions that were formed way back after World War II have not been able to be reorganized, have not given proper representation to those from other countries that today may measure up in terms of capabilities and integrity and whatnot. So, I’d like to see the international architecture changed and have much more representation. I don’t want to call the names of institutions. I’m working in so many ways on that. (Laughter.) But I think for many in the audience, they know exactly what I’m talking about. (Laughter.)

MS. GRANDE: I hope everyone joins me in expressing our deep gratitude and appreciation and celebrate four exceptional, remarkable women. Madam President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Aluel Atem, and Angela Chin, thank you. (Applause.)

Source: United States Mission to the United Nations