Africa’s unstoppable march towards participatory democracy

Africa’s unstoppable march towards participatory democracy
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as the 24th president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. EPA-EFE/AHMED JALLANZO

God has bequeathed upon me a restless spirit. One that is never fully satisfied, always believing things can be better – for Liberians, for Africa, for people in poverty, for women and girls around the world.

This is an edited version of the speech that Sirleaf delivered upon acceptance of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership in Kigali, Rwanda, on 27 April 2018.

President Paul Kagame, thank you for your generous support for this weekend’s programme. As I look at Rwanda’s development today, it is light years away from the conditions that existed when we led the UNDP Round Table on the country in 1994.

I took to heart your words from earlier this month when you said, “What we are doing here in Rwanda is not a miracle, nor is it impossible elsewhere, it is simply the commitment of an entire nation, especially Rwandan youth and women.”

I applaud your steadfast vision and its implementation. I commend you and your colleagues in the government and the private sector for the many innovations introduced to Rwanda. Africans have a lot to learn from one another; many of the solution providers are here with us today.

To my dear friend Mo Ibrahim: I believe that when historians reflect upon Africa’s transformation, they will note that the 2006 establishment of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and its governance index – measuring leadership based upon its impact on the well-being of a population – was a vital inflection point for the continent.

Many of our countries are driving for the ideals defined in the charter of the Foundation. Progress is uneven, but undisputedly evident. And many leaders, myself included, have benefited from your direct approach and straight-talk.

I am honoured to be this year’s recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. I receive this distinction on behalf of the many women and men who helped to navigate the profound complexities of the post-conflict country that is Liberia.

As the first woman to receive this award, it is my hope that women and girls across Africa will be inspired to break through barriers, and push back on the frontiers of life’s possibilities. Where there is a first, there will be a second, and a third, and a fourth.

I am grateful that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation sought to emphasise the post-conflict consolidation of Liberia’s democracy under my two terms in office. Indeed, my most proud accomplishment is that after decades of violent conflict, the power in Liberia now rests where it should – with the people, grounded in the rule-of-law and upheld by institutions.

We take great pride that Liberia was the only country to improve in every category and sub-category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance – a testament to all those who served in my government.

We must remember that it is not that long ago that Liberia was considered a pariah state. Decades of ruinous civil and regional war upended our democratic institutions, decimated our infrastructure, deprived a generation of educational and economic opportunity, and undermined the moral fabric of our society.

But from the ashes of war, we rebuilt.

We transformed the economy from growth rate of less than zero, to more than 8.67% in 2013, before the country was devastated by Ebola. We survived that shock and returned to a trajectory of progress. Today, Liberia’s public institutions have the capacity to respond to the needs of its citizens through decentralised county service centres. Infrastructure has been repaired and restored, and roads now connect urban centres and farmers to market. With the increasing provision of electricity, potable water and new technologies, cities and towns are bustling with life and creativity powered by the country’s youth.

More importantly, friends, with your support, this August the resilient people of Liberia will celebrate 15 years of uninterrupted peace.

Yet Liberia remains a fragile state. Institutions are still young and being tested, and resources remain scarce. Nations in a state of fragility, particularly post-conflict nations, need special attention and support. We ask that supporters and partners remain focused on Liberia, so the country can continue its emergence as a post-conflict success story.

Dear Friends, I am six months shy of my 80th birthday. God has granted me many blessings, among them a long and healthy life, and a cadre of family and friends which have carried me through life’s trials and tribulations.

God has also bequeathed upon me a restless spirit. One that is never fully satisfied, always believing things can be better – for Liberians, for Africa, for people in poverty, for women and girls around the world.

And now, after eight decades, I have come to realise that this impatience, which at certain times in my life felt to be an unrelenting burden, is actually a gift—a great treasure.

I am convinced it is this restless spirit, in part, which drove me to public service and, like a wind against my back, propelled me forward towards dreams I had yet to even visualise.

I submit that it is this same sense of disquiet and impatience that I share with Mo, with President Kagame, with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and most of you in this audience.

I submit that it is a restlessness that took hold of our fallen sister, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, giving her the fiercest of courage to stand up against the Apartheid State despite the imprisonment of her husband, and in the face of physical and psychological abuse. Her indomitable spirit will continue to drive me through my remaining years.

Speaking of women of unyielding strength, among those in the audience today is Lucia Massalee Yallah. She was my cellmate during several months of confinement in a military prison in 1985. Her body was brutalised by soldiers, but her soul remained unscathed. From that shared trauma we formed a friendship which has endured for over 30 years. Please, Lucia, stand up and be recognised, my young sister.

Looking back, it seems like every day I was fighting for something or someone: the right to be heard, and to be taken seriously; the right for a society to have free speech and enjoy fundamental human rights; to end the deprivation of the Liberian people; to establish peace and build democratic institutions; to create jobs, expand livelihoods and offer basic social services; to educate the girlchild; to stop the deadly Ebola virus disease; and to oversee the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Liberia in 75 years.

And so, I stand before you today an imperfect leader, from a complex, post-conflict society, on a continent of uneven progress, during a time of global uncertainty.

As I look toward my twilight years, and my “closing chapter of restlessness,” I would like to leave you with some of the lessons that the Liberian people have taught me, as well as their implications for the consolidation of democracy on the continent.

Liberia’s progression toward democratic values, as exemplified by the successful 2018 transition, is reflective of Africa’s quest for democracy. It is a continuum of the continent’s struggle for liberation and freedom.

As Nelson Mandela said in March of 1991, “I belong to the generation of leaders for whom the achievement of democracy was the defining challenge.”

Trends remain encouraging as young people, empowered by education and technology, demand their right to be heard, and, to be listened to. Africa’s evolution illustrates the strong causal effects between democracy and development.

Afrobarometer finds that seven out of 10 Africans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government. A number of countries, including The Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire have conducted free and fair elections, leading to peaceful transitions of power. And within democracies, political parties are self-correcting, as recently witnessed in South Africa.

We also celebrate Sierra Leone, Liberia’s neighbour, who this month completed a hotly contested presidential election. Like Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, the incumbent political party ceded power peacefully to the opposition.

Still Africa’s progress is filled with imperfections, and too many nations lag behind. Several continue to practice “managed democracy”, void of real competition. Others cling to power for decades, deaf to the cries of their populations for change, and too often, there is a violent rejection of election results.

Political parties are organised by patronage and patriarchy. For most of them, democracy is practiced during the campaign cycle, but not necessarily within the party itself.

This historical inequity is reinforced by a lack of campaign finance laws, which disproportionately prevent women and youth – two already disadvantaged groups – from taking on leadership roles in political discourse, leaving the party apparatus to well-established economic and political cartels.

In Africa, we tend to focus on elections, celebrate them as “the milestone”. But as it is often said, “elections do not a democracy make”. We must look behind the process, and examine the barriers that shut down competition before the campaigns ever start.

But notwithstanding, I am convinced that these tendencies will land in the dustbin of history, as the continent continues its unstoppable march toward participatory democracy.

We must identify the barriers-to-entry into political society and break them down, one-by-one. Democracy must devolve from a single event, into the institutionalization of a process that provides access to all of its participants.

We must look anew, not just at respecting constitutional term limits, but at adjusting constitutions to address campaign finance, to encourage the participation of women and the engagement of youth, and to strengthen the civil service.

One cannot talk about democracy in Africa without noting the challenge of institutional and systemic corruption, an ill that fights back, often with an overpowering resistance of strength.

In Liberia, after decades of conflict, corruption was woven into the fabric of daily life. Rent-seeking behaviour became both a survival skill and a corridor for greed. In response, we invested in integrity institutions and sought to hold officials accountable for the misuse of public funds. But sustainable change requires shifting the mentality of society and demands the ongoing collective efforts of all branches of government – across successive administrations. This is a challenge that the administration of President George Weah has committed to address.

The good news is that corruption struggles to remain hidden in a world where technology and information systems increasingly showcase what passes from hand-to-hand. And social media has empowered everyday citizens to become watch dogs.

Corruption, however, is also a double-edge sword, and can be used against the innocent, to discredit and disempower them.

I am delighted that after four years, the former president of Malawi, my dear friend Joyce Banda, is returning home tomorrow. And I am convinced that the rule of law will prevail, and grant her justice.

We must tackle the historical disadvantages which have made women political outsiders.

I made history as the first woman democratically elected to lead an African nation. But 13 years later, there is not a single woman president on the continent. This is not okay.

We must dig deep to address the societal, educational and institutional barriers which disadvantage women. Again, we can learn from each other, looking at examples such as Rwanda, where quotas were constitutionally imposed to address historical inequities.

We must capture the political energy of the youth. We must open up the political system and lower the age of political participation. I am sure many of you have watched the sit-ins in Nigeria, as the population mobilises to reduce the age to participate in the House of Representative, the Senate, and even the presidency in the aptly titled ‘Not Too Young to Run’ campaign.

And finally, toward the focal point of this conference: strengthening civil society.

What can we do to inculcate a mentality of service with our young people; to create institutions that attract the best and the brightest, and reward those who enter? Which innovative programs can be established to build capacity and instil values given severe limitations in resources?

When I assumed the presidency, we knew Liberia needed a professionalised civil service in order to thrive, but traditional mistrust in government, and a legacy of corruption, meant that few talented candidates wanted to work in the public sector.

A bloated and largely unqualified public service, distrustful of change, posed a threat to the fragile peace, so we immediately recruited a small but talented cohort of Liberians responsible for three important objectives: (1) creating programs to attract talented civil service candidates from other sectors; (2) developing training programs to build the skills of existing civil servants; and (3) strengthening Liberia’s financial backbone by investing in the Ministry of Finance’s human capacity.

With support from international partners, we introduced a repatriation initiative that brought talented Liberians home from the diaspora. We launched an innovative mentoring program to recruit and train young leaders through the President’s Young Professional Program (PYPP). We created a merit-based, competitive path to government. Today, over 140 young leaders could be the bulwark of a modern civil service.

While we live in an uncertain world, I, for one, remain optimistic because from Africa to America, the future is in the hands of the young people. They are taking charge and demanding that their voices be heard. They too are restless and impatient. They too are determined.

Recently while in the United States, a young student at Georgetown shared with me a twist on the famous Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He said, “Madam President, our generation is different. We are no longer asking God for the serenity to accept the things that we cannot change. We are asking the All Mighty to give us the courage to change the things we cannot accept.” As always, leave it to a young person to say it best!

In closing, I can tell you that this restless soul cannot rest as there is still more work to do.

I will be working with a small team to establish the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. The Center’s programs will be designed to support women as agents of change, makers of peace, and drivers of progress.

In addition, I will remain committed to supporting goals set forth by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and to its mission to promote governance and leadership across the continent.

God bless all those gathered here today in support of the remarkable endeavour that is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. God bless the people who choose a life in service to others. The future remains in your hands!

I would like to thank all of those in this room, and those beyond, who have been with me on this long journey, with particular thanks to President Alassane Ouattara for being here, and for having given me support and encouragement years before I become president. DM

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Former President of the Republic of Liberia


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.