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An African Leader Lauded For A Too Uncommon Move — Peacefully Leaving Power


Finally today, U.S.-Africa relations received a jolt this past week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut short an African tour because he was being fired. I asked about this when I spoke the other day to Liberia's former president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was visiting the U.S. Last month, Johnson Sirleaf, who is already a Nobel Peace Prize, winner won the prestigious $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership. She was the first woman president of Liberia and also presided over the first peaceful handover of power in that country in 73 years. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office after a devastating civil war, and I started our conversation by asking her what she sees as her most important accomplishment.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Without doubt, it's for us to ensure that we had peace. I was so glad to have had 12 consecutive years of peace after close to two decades of war and destruction. And the recognition given by the Mo Ibrahim Prize is, to me, more appreciated than whatever funding goes with it is that recognition of how we've been able to turn despair into hope, how we've been able to ensure that basic services, infrastructure, institutions, freedoms, you know, were all restored to the Liberian people after many years of neglect. So I didn't expect it, but I was very pleased when it came.

MARTIN: What about looking over the course of your term, what do you think is your proudest moment?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, I think when we turned on the street lights for the first time in the country, you know, based on delivery on the grid. Kids who had never seen electricity had only got lights through lanterns and candles. And the kids just ran out into the street and danced under the street lights, brought their books to study under the street lights. So that was quite an enjoyable moment.

MARTIN: And, you know, of course I'm going to ask you, what was your lowest moment?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Ebola, a devastating disease. When I went out on the streets and tried to get to a hospital, I saw so many people there dying, crying, running. There's nothing that beats an event like that. It is terrifying.

MARTIN: Do you think that you've - and the country has passed through that terrible time? Do you feel that you've recovered from that?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Yes, we have. We've developed systems of responses. We had one or two outbreaks after we were declared free of Ebola and were able to successfully respond to it. We think we've come a long way, and we now feel that - we don't want another occurrence, but we do want to prove our efficiency in controlling it. But certainly, I'm glad we've got the systems that can do so.

MARTIN: Well, I did want to ask about how, in your memoir, "This Child Will Be Great," you talked openly about having experienced abuse in your marriage. You married as a very young woman. And you appointed women to positions they hadn't had before like being chief of police. Do you think that that helped create more space in Liberia for women to do things in their own way, women other than yourself?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Absolutely. I think the examples we set by the appointment of the director of police, by the appointment of the first woman post-conflict, having all the important positions like the ministries of justice, the ministry of finance headed by women created the role models that inspired many of the younger women as a result. I think that's some of the greatest successes of my presidency.

MARTIN: Which is why there are those who wonder why more women haven't followed you into public service. I mean, if my figures are correct, only about 16 percent of the more than 1,000 candidates in the last election, which was held in October, were women. I mean, why is that? I mean, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa have specific provisions that require that women hold certain positions. You, to my knowledge, haven't supported those things. So two questions. Why is it that you think the numbers aren't higher? And do you feel it would be appropriate to mandate a certain level of participation by women?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, we've considered quotas. And in my case, we even have tabled in our legislature an empowerment bill, we just haven't passed. And we applaud Rwanda and many of the other East African countries for the progress they have made. And it's something that, you know, we all have to pay more attention to.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask about how that Trump administration is being received on the continent. How is it being viewed?

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I think the continent is watching the United States. The continent has no firm opinion because there's no firm pattern. And so it's difficult to say. Speaking for myself, I can say that we are confused. We don't understand. We have all been inspired by a U.S. democracy. And the trend in Africa toward democracy has its roots in the example set by the United States. So we really don't know how the policies or the evolving decisions here, evolving laws here - how they will affect Africa, that remains to be seen.

MARTIN: That is the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She just stepped down in January, and she was kind enough to join us from New York. Madam President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you. It was real nice to talk to you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.