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University of Minnesota

Leading the way

April 7, 2009

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia, a nation of 3.5 million people established by former slaves from America, and the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf comes to the U

By Wokie C. Freeman

In January 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as president of the Republic of Liberia, becoming Africa's first democratically elected female head of state. A remarkable feat on a continent where some countries are accused of "waging war on women."

Prior to her election, the Harvard–educated economist, nicknamed Africa's "Iron Lady," served as Liberia's first female finance minister, held various executive-level positions in local and international banking, and ran the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Africa.

At 2 p.m April 10, Sirleaf will be featured as the 2009 Distinguished Carlson Lecturer in a conversation with J. Brian Atwood, dean of the U's Humphrey Institute. Also during the event at Northrop Auditorium, the University will give Sirleaf its highest award, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for public service. All tickets for the event, which is free, have been given out, but a rush line will form at Northrop box office at 1:00 p.m. No recording devices, cameras, or backpacks will be allowed in the auditorium.

In her new book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President, Sirleaf shares intimate details about her rise to power and openly discusses the abuse she faced at the hands of her ex-husband.

Up from the depths

Sirleaf has always been one to speak her mind, highlighting the failures and shortcomings of government, and has experienced house arrest, imprisonment, self-imposed exile, and the threat of execution. Now halfway through her term, Sirleaf has revived national hope and restored Liberia's international reputation and credibility.

Nearly 85 percent unemployment contributes to an unstable economy [in Liberia], one that, like many other African countries, relies heavily on funds sent home to relatives by family members working abroad.

"This is a woman who has an idealistic and optimistic vision for her country," says Atwood. "She personifies the hope that people have that their lives will be better." But, Atwood warns in a recent Minneapolis StarTribune op-ed, the global economic crisis now threatens all African heads of state. "If democratically elected governments with impressive leaders like Sirleaf are allowed to fail because of a global problem we helped create, we can expect a strong backlash from their less responsible successors," he wrote.

Sirleaf acknowledges an obligation to the women of Liberia, like the nearly 37,000 "market women" who have been the backbone of Liberian society, serving as heads of households while educating their children on money made as street vendors and traders. Not only did these women help get her elected, they demonstrated for peace during the 14-year-long civil war that killed more than 250,000 people and displaced another 1.5 million. The award-winning film Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story of their efforts.

Books for Africa

In advance of the President Sirleaf's visit to the University of Minnesota, the Humphrey Institute and Books for Africa are hosting a book drive to send donated textbooks to Liberia.

Books for Africa is the largest shipper of donated text and library books to the African continent.

A drop box is available in front of Northrop Auditorium from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., April 6 - 10.

In 2006, looking for a way to repay these women, Johnson Sirleaf launched the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund. It raises money to rebuild the war-ravaged markets that serve as multipurpose social centers, providing day care facilities, schools, and clinics.

Sirleaf is well respected and admired by colleagues around the world, including Atwood, who helped lead an international campaign to release her from prison in 1986 during Samuel Doe's military regime.

In 2007, in recognition for her tireless efforts to make Liberia a post-conflict success story, President Bush awarded Sirleaf the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor an American president can bestow.

A precarious future

Although Sirleaf's administration has made considerable progress toward cancelling the national debt by rebuilding many facilities and roads and alleviating corruption, the country still faces significant challenges. Nearly 85 percent unemployment contributes to an unstable economy, one that, like many other African countries, relies heavily on funds sent home to relatives by family members working abroad.

The imminent deportation this year of thousands of Liberians residing legally in the United States under Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status, which was scheduled to expire on March 31, threatened that arrangement. Minnesota is home to nearly 30,000 Liberians, and an estimated 1,000 currently live under this temporary status as refugees.

On March 20, President Obama extended DED status to eligible Liberians, granting them a 12-month reprieve.

The Liberian community could not be more delighted to welcome President Sirleaf to Minnesota, especially the women. "We are so proud," says Doris K. Parker, executive director of Liberian Women's Initiatives-MN, a Brooklyn Park-based organization that provides services to the Liberian community. "It will be an honor and encouragement to hear her story firsthand. Her visit to Minnesota will empower young women and girls to strive for success."