Challenges Ahead for Africa’s First Elected Woman President By DONAL BROWN Pacific News Service

Tuesday December 20, 2005

A continent known for its subjugation of women welcomed its first elected female head of state when Liberians voted in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in a Nov. 8 runoff. She will take office on Jan. 16. But despite her hard-won victory, African analysts say, the new president’s greatest challenges may lie ahead. 

Johnson-Sirleaf was in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on issues of security and development, and how to undo the country’s legacy of corruption, foreign exploitation and civil war. Johnson-Sirleaf has already met with officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in New York.  

Johnson-Sirleaf’s opponent, 39-year-old retired world-class soccer player George Weah, has refused to accept the election results and has declared himself the winner of the runoff. A coup attempt has already been put down. And while Johnson-Sirleaf is in Washington, she must rely heavily on the 15,000 troops of a multinational peacekeeping force still in Monrovia, the capital, to uphold her victory. 

Johnson-Sirleaf was born in Monrovia to descendants of ex-African slaves from the United States, who had returned to Africa. She earned the nickname “Iron Lady” for her courage in running against the vicious warlord and now-exiled former president Charles Taylor in 1997. Taylor won in an election considered tainted. 

Echoing the Liberians’ acceptance of Johnson-Sirleaf, African media reported widespread support for the new president. 

Notwithstanding her campaign button, “Ellen—She’s Our Man,” the 67-year-old Sirleaf made her female identity an issue in the campaign.  

As reported by Bolade Omonijo of OnlineNigeria.com, Johnson-Sirleaf was quoted as saying during her campaign, “Women are the ones who truly have heart to care and to serve, perhaps because of the role that nature has bestowed on us. A woman is naturally crafted to take care of the children and keep the home together, and our constitution is patterned toward selfless service.” 

Writing in Kenya’s East African, Charles Onyango-Obbo argues that nations plagued by war have turned to women who have distinguished themselves in national liberation struggles and taken over families in the absence of men. 

Onyango-Obbo pointed out that when men become targets in war, they hide out in the bush or go to refugee camps, where they line up with the rest for handouts. 

Women, on the other hand, maintain their ground and protect their children, scrounging for food. They take over at the expense of men. 

Onyango-Obbo cited Rwanda, where genocide killed nearly 1 million people in 1994. There is now 49 percent representation for women in Rwanda’s government, compared to a world average of 15.1 percent. In South Africa and Mozambique, women command 30 percent of the seats in parliament. In Uganda, women hold just over 28 percent of seats. 

Johnson-Sirleaf is frequently hailed as Africa’s first female ruler. Though not elected, Ethiopia’s Empress Zauditu ruled from 1917 to 1930. On the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, Maria do Carmo Silveira was appointed prime minister in June and Luisa Diogo was appointed prime minister of Mozambique last year. Including the three African countries, there are now only 10 countries with women heads of state worldwide. The others are New Zealand, Bangladesh, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Latvia and the Philippines. 

The Mail and Guardian reported that Pan African Parliament president Gertrude Mongella claimed that “gender equality is taking root in African leadership.” 

Mongella said that Johnson-Sirleaf’s election “demonstrates that Africa is on the way to realizing that women are as capable to lead as men are.” 

Indeed, Harvard-trained Johnson-Sirleaf made an issue of her education and government experience during the campaign, according to Omonijo from OnlineNigeria.com, arguing that now was not the time to turn the government over to her poorly educated opponent Weah. The country’s problems needed immediate attention by someone experienced rather than by someone learning on the job. 

Despite winning with 59.4 percent of the vote and offering to include her opposition in governance, an editorial from Liberia’s Front Page Africa says that Johnnson-Sirleaf faces fierce challenges from Weah and his supporters; from ex-combatants; and from a former anti-terrorist unit that is demanding to join her administration’s armed forces demobilization program that provides support to ex-soldiers to settle into civilian life.  

The infrastructure of the country was destroyed during the 14 years of civil war. Monrovia is still without water service. 

In the months ahead, Johnson-Sirleaf will need the support of her country, all of Africa and the world to face the formidable obstacles of rebuilding Liberia.  


Donal Brown monitors African media for New America Media.