Download PDF

Oppenheimer Lecture
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia
Arundel House, London
Wednesday 31 May 2006

Speech as prepared, check against delivery

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen: Let me begin by thanking the distinguished Governing Board, the membership and the staff of your Institute for this invitation to dialogue with you and, by so doing, join the array of other world leaders who have addressed this body. I will also use this opportunity to express thanks and appreciation to the British public for keeping faith with us as a people by way of the immutable public broadcasting body, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which over the past several years played no small role in bringing the plight of our people and country to the attention of a global audience.

Today, I invite you and the rest of the good people of this great country to join us in savoring the dawn of a new dispensation in my country – one that embodies the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Liberians. I am confident that my Government can also count on the support of the Government and people of this country to see us through our journey toward achieving national renewal after decades of conflict.

Academic studies on the evolution of leadership in Africa take note of the fact that the liberation leaders of the continent were nationalistic, selfless and visionary—leaders who put the interest of the state over and above parochial considerations. The immediate post-colonial ,and indeed post-apartheid, period bear testimony to this.

Notwithstanding capacity limitations, several of these leaders, notably Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba and Gamal Abdul Nasser, inspired their people and exuded a high sense of nationalism and patriotism in most of their activities. They were less concerned, for example, about material accumulation unlike the succeeding generation of continental leadership. To the list can be added Nelson Mandela who fortunately is still with us and represents the moral conscience of the continent.

The exit from the political stage of the post-colonial leaders ushered in a decline in the quality of African leadership and start of a generation of military rulers with little or no vision. A good many of these rulers dehumanized, terrorized and impoverished their population by looting their treasury.

To assure their unassailable grip on power, they invested not in human capacity or food production, or shelter for the teeming millions of homeless, but instead in military hardware and adventurism, lavish lifestyles, and grandiose projects of little relevance to economic performance.

These so-called new generation leaders spared no effort in keeping the people disunited by pandering to ethnic and religious sentiments among the largely illiterate population. They indulged in systematic plunder of the people’s resources, and deliberately worked toward minimizing the significance of qualitative education—an element so indispensable to the growth and development of Africa. Ultimately, in perpetuating themselves in power, they ushered in a cycle of military overthrow and violence. Only recently has Africa ushered in a new path of governance, a new leadership committed to peace, democracy and development.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen: Over the last two and half decades, Liberia has been at the epicenter of war. In the recent past, our capital has been used as the theatre to export war to our neighbors. These conflicts which were inflicted on our neighbors led to the collapse of state structures in Sierra Leone. People in both Liberia and Sierra Leone witnessed what can be described as one of the most brutal civil wars involving heinous crimes against humanity.

In the subsequent search for peace and in the model extant in the international community and used in Liberia, the quality of leadership did not feature significantly in the formation of post-conflict interim governance arrangements.

Rather, power- sharing post-conflict arrangements required a vesting of powers in those who carried the big guns as a tradeoff for peace. These arrangements frequently ignore the views and the well-being of ordinary people. They were based on the hope that once vested with power, warlords were likely to transform themselves into humanists and democrats. The reality in the Mano River Basin and elsewhere on the continent has shown conclusively that warlord leadership does not contain the strength of character, the capacity for empathy and the vision of nation-building, to direct post-conflict peace building and to usher in a new democratic order.

Distinguished Participants, if I were to set the parameters of my understanding and appreciation of those elements that make for good leadership, especially in post-conflict situations, I will submit that the characteristics for leadership in many situations call for competence in a body of knowledge or discipline, integrity and responsibility of action for guidance, and courage and clarity to focus on the core values and principles that is expected of the one who leads by inspiration and motivation.

Today in Liberia, as we strive to usher in a new era of democratic governance in our post-conflict dispensation, the challenges of leadership must be assessed against the backdrop of years of a system of centralized and dictatorial rule that subordinated the state to the whims of an imperial Presidency with enormous power.

I believe that our recent post-conflict elections have settled a long-running political leadership struggle, and opened up a vista of opportunity for a new Liberia based on the tenets of good governance. I believe also that the election of the first female President in Africa has not only broken the glass ceiling in this hitherto area of male preserve, but has certainly sent an unmistakable message of a growing need for an alternative leadership style on our continent.

I am equally convinced that the outcome of our election and our development agenda offers a ray of hope to a population in search of a new type of leadership; a leadership that is visionary, courageous and strong enough to address the numerous challenges facing our nation and our continent.

For me this is not a mere wish or a day dream. Our government is determined to bring to the leadership of our people, a high sense of respect for the rule of law, for protection of human rights and the dignity of all of our people ever mindful of their hopes and aspirations to achieve their potential in a secured environment of competitive productive endeavor.

Indeed, the new dispensation calls for a new set of values and morals if we are going to be up to the leadership challenges that confront us as we emerge out of the debris of near self-annihilation and state collapses.

Although we have reformed this system incrementally over the years, our reform measures have not kept pace with the internal demands for inclusive democratic participation or with the external demands of ever changing regional and international orders.

That is why our leadership must take the lead in dismantling the imperial Presidency. This involves the task of presiding over the liquidation of some of the prerogatives and trappings which have made the Liberian Presidency a demi-god-like institution. This requires not only a passionate commitment to democratic governance but a healthy dose of personal modesty, quiet self-assuredness and a vision of ones own place in history—not as a demi-god, but as a worthy citizen.

In this context, I wish to recall that in my Inaugural speech in January this year, I pledged to demystify the Presidency, and decentralize the governance system in a spirit of participatory democracy, which will ensure that every segment of our society will become an effective stakeholder, rather than a disinterested bystander, in the running of the country.

The need for substantial governance reform was highlighted in the Accra peace talks of 2003. The establishment of the Governance Reform Commission by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement underscored the general view among Liberians and friends of Liberia that the formulation and implementation of a reform agenda was as important to sustaining people in Liberia as many of the other peace building measures prescribed.

We have thus repositioned the Governance Reform Commission, working closely with our Civil Service Agency, and have set it to work out a comprehensive reform package for public service governance and for other important governance challenges such as those associated with the governance of land and land resources; security sector and some of the really deep historical challenges that have divided us and detracted from our efforts to build a Liberian nation.

We are hopeful that with the political will now evident, we can use the widow of opportunity provided by our post conflict circumstance to design and implement the appropriate reforms that will make Liberia a truly democratic, participatory and just political order.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen: The dark years of conflict and dictatorship in Liberia have come to an end for good. Like a Phoenix, a new Liberia is being born out of the ashes of destruction and despair—one that will henceforth illuminate the path of peace, stability and good governance not only in our country, but in the rest of the West African sub -region.

As we embark on this journey — the key first order imperative is the consolidation of national peace; a peace that will forever extinguish the forces of war not only in Liberia but in the sub region as a whole. Through our exit strategy from war to peace, we hope to inspire a new sense of hope and belief in alternative leadership thinking throughout our sub region. In this regard, our main focus will be on the need to reconcile our people who have been polarized over the years by the anti-people policies pursued by regimes rooted in parochial considerations. We strongly believe that genuine national healing must remain the fulcrum of our domestic engagement; for without it, we will not be able to foster a peaceful and prosperous society. This is a challenge that requires every ounce of our energy and every bit of our time.

As I speak to you, a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission is up and running. The Commission is expected to provide the much needed forum for the ventilation of grievances and disclosures relative to acts of omissions and commissions before, during and after the crisis that left over 250, 000 of our people dead.

Indeed, there is no question that unless we get our people to put the past behind them and learn to live with one another in peace, a future based on unity and stability will remain elusive. Our success in this endeavor will to some extent serve as a defining factor in determining our place in the leadership history of our country.

Let me point out that a key element of this process of national consolidation of peace and social cohesiveness and stability lies within the youth of our population. My Government policy in this regard is to offer hope in the present and the future to a generation of young people who have had the unfortunate distinction of being both perpetrator and victim in the generalized mayhem that engulfed our society for so long.

It is a fact of life of our conflict years that since 1980 we have had a generation of young people grown up on a diet of violence and an nihilism. We now face the moral and political imperative to reverse this situation by refocusing the mindset and energies of this highly susceptible segment of our population toward a better life. This is both a national moral and security imperative.

There is no doubt that unless we invest adequately and qualitatively in our young people, peace and stability, the sine qua non for sustainable development, will elude us. That is why we are putting in place a comprehensive mechanism that would enhance the rehabilitation and reintegration of this segment of our population. Our policy in this regard is to have the young people productively occupied, through schooling or job placement.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Yet another daunting challenge which our leadership faces in the post- conflict period is getting our war-weary populace to renew their faith and confidence in themselves as a people capable of forging a much better future. This may sound simple, but it is not. In the context of post-conflict leadership, it devolves on us to provide the proper environment that will enable our people to regain their self-confidence. In this regard, we have the responsibility to put in place a governance system based on transparency, accountability, rule of law, and respect for the fundamental human rights of our people, as well as create opportunities for the re-emergence and rekindling of their abundant entrepreneurial skills and aptitudes.

Another key element of our Governance reform agenda is to confront and stamp out corruption by making it costly for those who will indulge in it. It is clear that the perception and reality of corruption has a corrosive effect on all aspects of society—including the moral standing of any government. Indeed, if there is one single factor that is capable of inducing popular confidence in any administration, it is the overt demonstration of the will and determination of the governance system to systematically and deliberately combat the social vice that corruption represents in the public sector, the private sector and civil society.

In the public sector, a comprehensive approach will be required involving a Code of Conduct to guide the expected behavior of civil servants; improve compensation levels to reduce vulnerabilities and clearly defined legal penalties and sanctions to serve as a deterrent. In the short term, under the Governance and Economic Management Program (GEMAP), a resource management mechanism agreed with our development partners, foreign advisors will be placed in key revenue-earning public institutions. An integral part of this scheme is the development of indigenous capacity to assume the responsibilities to run these institutions in the shortest period of time.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen: Let me now turn to the leadership challenge imbedded in physical realities of post-conflict life in Liberia. Over a decade of brutal violence has left our country’s infrastructure in ruins. Already in a modest state of disrepair even at the best of times, our roads, electricity grid, water and sewer system, school and health facilities were severely affected during our prolonged crisis. Thus, the physical reconstruction of a thoroughly destroyed infrastructure is one of the daunting challenges we face in our post conflict period.

Our hope and expectations are that we will receive the support of our development partners in tackling this problem thus promoting a more conducive environment for a longer term solution through private capital and investment.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen: As I try to carry out my leadership responsibilities in the new dispensation, I am keenly aware of the very high expectations that our democratic exercise have generated among our people.

The challenge of our leadership in this regard is to bring these expectations into line with the realities of the possible. It is a balancing act that may hold very little potential for a long honeymoon. It is a balancing act that must also keep alive and alert my representation, as the first African female President, of the expectations and aspirations of Liberian and African women. It is a balancing act to respond and demonstrate to the world’s women that an African female President can make a difference in polity and quality of life of the African people.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentleman: In concluding , let me state that the peoples of Liberia and the Mano River Union Basin area have suffered an enormous decline in values and morals that have made the leadership challenge facing us in the post-conflict situation quite Herculean.

What we are up against as the new generation of leaders are populations that are war-battered, traumatized, impoverished and largely cynical. What is needed in the circumstances is a leadership that inspires hope and optimism; one that is short on rhetoric and grandstanding and long on positive actions and implementable policies aimed at demonstrating to our disenchanted people that indeed a new and progressive leadership day has dawned in Liberia, one that is regionally oriented in its outlook and attitude with the capacity and the political will for peaceful regional coexistence.

Fifteen years of conflict have left Liberians a divided people. Ethnic and religious strife are quick to surface. The role of committed leadership lies in mediating, healing and reconciling these differences; in formulating and articulating a vision based upon equity, equal opportunity and choice in pursuit of balanced and sustainable growth and development. It is the role of a leadership committed to providing the inspiration and motivation for all stakeholders to participate in the policies and programs that ensures the implementation of the national vision. My Government is committed to exemplifying the leadership which leads to the achievement of these goals.

I thank you.

About the Oppenheimer Lectures

Since the inaugural lecture by Nicky Oppenheimer in 2005 entitled 'Africa needs a hand-up not a hand-out', prominent speakers have included Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.