It is very easy to find people in armchairs who criticize Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Of course. You can point to the debilitating poverty that remains steadfast in her country and blame it all on her. You can point to the institutions that remain comatose, top of the list healthcare, and blame it all on her. There is plenty that can be identified if one is looking for flaws.
Which is why the nuance in the statement by the Salim Ahmed Salim-led committee that this week acknowledged her legend with the rarely-gifted Mo Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance was crucial: “Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings and, today, Liberia continues to face many challenges. Nevertheless, during her twelve years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build.”
To point to the things that remain to be done in any nation is the easy stuff of cynicism. But any clear-eyed assessment of the Sirleaf legacy will point to something more difficult, and enduring: the keen sense of hope that yet remains in and around Liberia because of what she has done for it.
People are poor, but on the streets, they have a clarity as to why they are grateful to her: she helped supervise a decade of uninterrupted peace, she coordinated efforts to ensure that Ebola didn’t wipe away a generation, and she opened up her country to aid, trade and respect – international players and observers impressed by the thoughtfulness, strategy and eye on the future with which she steadily led the small African nation.
“Sirleaf took the helm of Liberia when it was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focussed on building a nation and its democratic institutions,” the prize seldction committee said, correctly, but to that we must add the smooth, elegant hand over of power to new president, George Weah early this year.
As a West African, especially one who has worked extensively in elections across the sub-region, the symbolism of Johnson-Sirleaf winning this important prize after four years without a winner is endless. It speaks to a continent that dislodged two entrenched party establishments in Nigeria and in Ghana 2015 and 2016, and then disgraced a small African dictator, Yahya Jammer from Gambia in 2017 (of which Sirleaf was of course a major player).
West Africa is often seen as the basket case of a troubled continent, it’s 367-million population defined by the shadow of the obstreperous Nigeria, which owns over half of that number, and often leads the way in corruption, bad governance, and tribal politics. At least until 2015, when citizens of some of its nations began to speak up and to speak out, to organise and to strategise, and to begin the tortuous for leaders who can answer the questions its citizens have begun to ask.
Sirleaf is the towering, shining symbol of both this change, and the endless possibilities that it points Africa towards. It is a symbol of democracy, of sound leadership, of growth, and of potential.
It is a change we hear in Sierra Leone, which goes to the polls next month, set to supervise yet another post-war peaceful transfer of power in a democracy that, however slow, remains steady. It is a change we hear in Senegal, where its president leads the way in shutting down calls for an extension in office, and building a society that models a modern African civilisation. It is a change we saw in Benin Republic, where Lionel Zinsou, even as prime minister, fully supported by the president and the apparatus of tower, yet allowed the peaceful transfer of power to a widely liked president who immediately set about limiting his own term in office to one single term of six years.
Sirleaf this week won more than the $5-million that the British-Sudanese telecommunications billionaire Mo Ibrahim will give her over the next years. She has won the well-earned regard of a global community and she has won a place in history that goes beyond just the fact of her gender.
And she has shown the world exactly what we are capable of, even right her in the small corner of the world West Africans call home.
This should make all of us exceedingly proud.
Chude Jideonwo is the founder of Joy, Inc., a benefit corporation teaching resilience and happiness skills with a focus on young Africans. He was a 2017 fellow at Yale University and is author of the new book, How To Win Elections in Africa: Parallels with Donald Trump.