Former Liberian President Visits Georgetown

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as the president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as the president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Georgetown students and faculty had the opportunity to hear the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, speak about women in diplomacy on April 10 as part of an all-woman panel organized by the School of Foreign Service. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a senior U.S. diplomat; Roya Rahmani, the current Afghan Ambassador to the United States; and Ambassador Melanie Verveer, who moderated the conversations, joined Sirleaf in a discussion during her three-day visit to campus.

Much of the discussion centered on the speakers’ extensive diplomatic experience. Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2005 as the West African country emerged from two decades of instability and civil conflict. She recounted the significant role activist women played in bringing that conflict to a peaceful end, including a particularly memorable anecdote about Liberian negotiators who ensured their safety by locking themselves in a room and threatening that anyone who entered would find them naked—something she recognized was “not exactly a repeatable negotiating strategy.”

Sirleaf also reflected on the considerable challenges that faced her presidency, specifically on how to preside over a country in which conflict and division had become part of the national psyche. She acknowledged the triumph she considers her greatest legacy: replacing 15 years of continuous conflict with 15 years of continuous peace.

Thomas-Greenfield also played a role in this transformation as ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012 and the first female diplomat to represent the U.S. in Africa. She remembered this period as a “lifechanging four years” for herself and the country, remarking on how easy it was to work alongside a president with a vision. Sirleaf returned the compliment, insisting that, despite her own symbolic victory in becoming the first female head of state in Africa, sustained peace would have been impossible without strong partnerships.

In terms of what their own experiences mean for the prospects of female leadership and diplomacy on the continent, Sirleaf reflected simply, “One president does not women in power make.” She noted that her groundbreaking premiership was an outlier and that every other African nation is currently headed by a male leader.

Sirleaf also emphasized the need to “walk the talk” and support empowering rhetoric with greater resources. Women need to penetrate traditionally male leadership positions in ministerial posts, political parties, and corporate bodies. It was on this theme that she rounded off the discussion. She cautioned that “we have a lot more work to do,” and used her last words to address the women in the audience: “It’s not going to be given to you. You gotta take it, you gotta earn it.”