The Inside Story of How Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Rescued Liberia

By Randall Lane*

Riva Levinson and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Riva Levinson and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past few years, Forbes has taken an interest in Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries, but also one with promise (under the leadership of of the first democratically-elected woman president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) and one which the U.S. holds historical obligations. We’ve traveled there with a delegation of philanthropists, and supported world-class social entrepreneurs likeKatie Meyler and Dr. Raj Panjabi, who have since been globally recognized for their efforts to stem the Ebola crisis, and reform the country’s education and health systems, respectively.

One of the quiet drivers in Liberia’s progress over the past decade, D.C.-based international strategist K. Riva Levinson, an advisor to President Sirleaf, recently published an excellent behind-the-scenes book, Choosing the Hero, chronicling the country’s journey (and hers) over the past decade. It was an opportune time to catch up with Riva and a country full of pain — and opportunity.

How did you first get interested in Liberia? My interest in Liberia began with my first encounter with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was July of 1996, and she was working at the United Nations, in-exile from her native Liberia, waiting for the political space to open up so she could return home. I was barely 30, but already weary and jaded with my work as an international lobbyist, burdened with meaningless client assignments, and uncertain of my ability to make a difference.  And then I met Ellen, and saw a fierce determination – a commitment to democracy and human rights without compromise. I saw in her the possibility of what Africa could be if there were capable leaders. And she saw something in me that I didn’t yet recognize in myself.  This was 20 years ago!

What has changed over the years you’ve been there? Everything has changed. When I started working in Liberia there was war, fear and deprivation. Charles Taylor, a brutal warlord, was in control of the country. He is now at The Hague, indicted for crimes against humanity.  A generation of young people had been lost to war. Teenagers, young men and women, never given the chance to study, to learn to read or write. And then in 2005, Ellen made history as the first woman elected to lead an African nation, and peace has prevailed.

Today, Liberia has made great progress in rebuilding its infrastructure, opening schools, providing healthcare and other social services, and re-building the country’s democratic institutions. Liberia in 2016 has a vibrant press and civil society. But all that being said, progress comes slow, and not without its setbacks, like Ebola, and there will always be the challenge of keeping up with the expectations of a young and restless population.

Did the Ebola crisis shake your faith in what you were going?  The Ebola crisis did not shake my faith in Liberia’s future, or in the Liberian people. But it was frightening to the marrow of your bones, and the fear sat with you, every moment of every day, an enemy that you cannot see, where a single microscopic trace of the virus can fall a healthy person in an excruciating death in a week. Liberians would tell me that they much preferred the risks of living in war, because at least then, you could run from the enemy. In the summer of 2014, when the rate of infection was increasing exponentially, there was definitely a moment in time when all of us who cared about Liberia wondered if it could beat back the disease. The US CDC was predicting 1.4 million infections within six months if the chain of transmission was not broken. But as our mutual friend, Raj Panjabi said at the time, “Liberians will not be defined by the challenges they face, but how they rise to the challenge.” And that’s what Liberians did. That’s what President Sirleaf did, and ultimately, that’s what the international community did.

How did the fact that you and President Sirleaf are women in a continent that still has a long way to go to gender equality shape your experience? President Sirleaf succeeded despite being a woman. As I explain in Choosing the Hero, everything was lined up against her when she ran for presidency in 2005 –traditional cultural beliefs about the role of women in society, bias of the regional African leaders, all men. Even the American government wrote off her candidacy. But what people did not see, and what our polling showed at the time, was that the Liberian people were tired of war. They wanted a better life for their children and they saw in Ellen, in this woman, someone who could deliver that. While there has been great progress for women’s participation in politics, Ellen remains one of only two elected women presidents on the continent of Africa. Truth is, access to money, party loyalties and party infrastructure remains largely a man’s game, and even today ambitious political women are more often scorned than celebrated.

As for me, I think being a woman gives me a level of empathy that maybe a man would not have, it makes it impossible to turn away, it drives me to work harder, to care too much. And when you are part of a struggle bigger than yourself, it is that passion to make a difference that makes all the difference.

What did you think your legacy will be? And how stable is it after President Sirleaf leaves office? I think that President Sirleaf’s legacy for Liberia will be the democratic institutions that she has built. Maintaining the peace. Giving the country hope. Liberia may have its ups and downs, but its path forward is irreversible and I believe the Liberian people will demand the best of their leaders. In the end, that is the country’s safeguard.

For me, I think my legacy will have been to help cement the powerful bond between the US and Liberia through advocacy, and to have supported the remarkable woman that is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – someone who put everything on the line for what she believed in, brought a country from war to peace, and gave inspiration to a new generation of women and girls to believe that they can do anything they set their minds to.


*Forbes. Twitter: @RandallLane

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