Opinion: On Liberia’s Independence Day, celebrating a human leader

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia. Photo by: © European Union 2013 - European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

Liberia celebrated its 170th Independence Day on July 26, marking 14 years of peace after the same of war. This celebration is also the last one that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will preside over. As Liberians and those who have invested in the country's future take time to reflect on the progress the country has made over recent years, it is also a good moment to reflect on Madam President Sirleaf herself. Through her lifetime and now as Africa’s first female president and Liberia’s first democratically elected executive following decades of war, President Sirleaf has always demonstrated an unyielding commitment to all Liberians — and a visible disappointment when she’s felt the work was not yet done. Criticized for not being perfect, it's this latter aspect of President Sirleaf’s character that I’ve found to be most inspiring and, refreshingly, most human.

I remember particularly noticing this disappointment one moment in March 2017, when Liberia held the International Women’s Colloquium to honor President Sirleaf and her historic 12-year term. On the first morning of the conference, I joined President Sirleaf under the Palava hut on her personal compound for breakfast. I was there to honor her achievements, having worked with her both in and for Liberia for over 10 years, originally managing an international fellows program and assisting the Liberian Ministry of Health, and now through the President’s Young Professionals Program, which we founded together.

It was a day of celebration, but President Sirleaf was quiet and somber. Outside we heard, saw and felt the deluge of water. Rain came down as if it were the height of the rainy season, but this was the time of year when it was supposed to be dry. From her presence and her words I could tell she was worried. She was worried about the farmers, who had planted their seeds and risked losing crops to the unexpected rains. She was worried about the women — thousands of them — who were traveling to Paynesville for the conference, many on foot or uncovered motorbikes. She was worried about the roads — oh, those roads — which serve as critical links among markets, hospitals, health centers and families. The dry season is an important window for road building but this one had been too short, and the rains were destroying what progress had begun.

As those concerns of the day built on each other, I saw the weight of what it feels like when the work is not done. It’s a weight I know President Sirleaf has carried every day throughout her 12-year term. Rebuilding strong systems for finance, health, education and a civil service to support them doesn’t happen overnight or without obstacles, especially after decades of conflict, devastating economic collapse, and an unprecedented health crisis.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current and first democratically elected president of Liberia, and one of the five Power with Purpose honorees Devex and McKinsey & Company are commending this year.

And yes, just like most leaders trudging along the muddy walk to progress, she has made some mistakes along the way. Every critic has their own assessment, but to those who suggest President Sirleaf has not made progress during her term, I say that huge gains have been made, even if slower than expected. To name a few — $4.6 billion debt relief, miles of roads linking markets and health centers, and significant progress on maternal and child health, at least until Ebola. The U.N. mission in Liberia has even declared it will withdraw from the country this coming year, as the nation’s security institutions and stability have sufficiently improved, with President Sirleaf at the helm for 12 consecutive years of peace.

Throughout her tenure, President Sirleaf has also been willing to push the envelope and champion public sector social innovations, including the program we founded together to recruit top-performing young Liberians onto a meritocratic pathway in government — a big deal for a country in desperate need of a strong civil service but rising from a legacy of government mistrust.

Still, with all this to celebrate, I know President Sirleaf may feel on this 170th Independence Day of Liberia that same feeling I saw her express under the Palava hut: heavy concern borne of a strong commitment to her people. As Liberia celebrates its independence, I celebrate the country’s devoted — and human — leader, and thank her for the progress she has made and the legacy she will leave behind.

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About the author

  • Betsy%2520williams

    Betsy Williams

    Betsy Williams is the founder and executive director of Emerging Public Leaders. She is also the founder of the President's Young Professionals Program of Liberia, and currently serves as international advisory board chair and on the Liberia Board of Directors. Ms. Williams launched PYPP with Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf upon seeing the country's urgent need for a stronger civil service following two civil wars, and recognizing the potential of youth to drive that progress.