“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The quote sums up the tenet of a great leader and a formidable woman, a woman whose dreams seemed to be beyond reality, and her life was full of thorns, a woman who lifted her country from a gloomy destiny with determination and peace. It is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who aspired to the welfare and prosperity of the Liberian people after the misery they witnessed throughout the bloody civil wars.
The anecdote started when an old wise man saw the young baby, “This child shall be great” said the old man with strange expressions built upon his face. The prophecy turned true years later as Johnson Sirleaf became the world's first elected black female president and Africa's first elected female head of state. Ellen’s life wasn’t a bed of roses, though. Ellen married when she was seventeen years old and her marriage wasn’t very successful as her husband abused her physically. She was a mother of four at a very young age but she didn’t yield as she managed to get a respectable education abroad. She earned an accounting degree at the Madison College of Business, later studied economics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and eventually received a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ellen was nominated “The Iron Lady” for her mental strength and courage. She used to have a rebellious attitude and that appeared in all instances of her political life. She resigned from a position of assistant minister in the government of William Tolbert as she disagreed with the adopted spending policy. Ellen was imprisoned for sedition against Doe’s regime but released later only to win the elections to became a senate in Montserrado, a position that she refused to accept as she protested against the corrupt elections, and was eventually imprisoned again in the light of the failed coup led by Quiwonkpa, “There are times when taking positions got me into trouble…I ended up in prison couple of times,” she said. “But that also propelled [me forward].” Even in the era of Charles Taylor who dethroned Doe at 1990, Ellen was exiled in Abidjan after the resolution of the presidential election of Liberia in 1997.
Ellen managed to win the elections of presidency after the second civil war had come to an end. She became the first female president in Africa and that event heralded a comprehensive reform of the Liberian infrastructure that was exhausted by years of raving wars and more importantly a change in the view of the society to women, “All girls know that they can be anything now. That transformation is to me one of the most satisfying things. [Having a woman President] sends a signal. Women just all of a sudden come alive because they have a role model, because they know it's possible”, said Ellen in her interview with Karen Leigh in 2011.
Ellen always embraced optimism and struggled with all enthusiasm to fulfill her dream of a better country, “I was always optimistic that it could change—and there were enough people committed to that change—and that if we all were able to show the courage to be a part of the processes of change, that it would happen. And it did”. Ellen’s efforts were capped by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work”. Ellen was keen on improving the stature of women in Liberia and aimed at achieving better education for all “Through the mutilation of our bodies and the destruction of our ambitions, women and girls have disproportionately paid the price of domestic and international armed conflict. We have paid in the currencies of blood, of tears, and of dignity. However, the need to defend the rights of women is not limited to the battlefield, and the threats to those rights do not emanate only from armed violence. Girls’ education, seen far too often as an unnecessary indulgence rather than the key investment it is, is still under-funded and under-staffed. Too often girls are discouraged from pursuing an academic training, no matter how promising they may be” said Ellen in her Nobel Lecture.
There is still long way to go till we see Liberia at a the condition that Ellen dreamt of; however, The Iron Lady with the kind heart and the peaceful mind taught us how to have the faith in ourselves and how the small blocks can build a giant edifice with hope and perspiration “One has to look at my life story to see what I've done. I've paid a heavy price that many people don't realize.” Thanks Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on behalf of the world, for your honest service to your people and your impact on enlightening women about their true value in their society.
By Ahmed Magdi Youssef
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President.
Kurt Davis Jr. In Perspective: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf And The Liberian Dream. Ventures Africa, November 24, 2013.
Moira Forbes, Lessons In Courage From Africa's First Female President. Forbes-Woman, November 21, 2013.
Stephen Hayes. How Africa's First Female President Led Her Country Back from the Brink. US News, May 20, 2013.
Helene Cooper. Madame President. The New York Times, May 15, 2009.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Nobel Lecture: A Voice for Freedom!
Mark Whitaker and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A Conversation with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President, Republic of Liberia. Council on Foreign Relations, May 25, 2010.
Karren Leigh. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia Going for Another Term. Time World, September 30, 2011.