Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Leadership Challenges

The President of Liberia talks about challenges in other African countries, such as Nigeria and the crisis in Darfur. She goes on to discuss her experience as the only woman currently leading a nation on her continent.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few moments the founder of Black Entertainment Television talks about why Americans can and should do more to help Liberia. But first, we continue our conversation with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She's in the United States this week raising money for her country and inspiring college students at graduations.

We spoke with her when she stopped in Washington. We talked about her status as the only elected female leader of an African nation. But I asked her if that's ever a lonely place to be.

President ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF (Liberia): Well, yes, it is, because, you know, one in certain circumstances has to be restrained. You know, I go to African Union summits and I'm the only woman there, so I can't huddle. You know, if there were another woman, we'll huddle in the corner and take common positions. It's difficult to do that when you're alone.

MARTIN: Why can't you huddle?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, you can, but you know, with restraint.

MARTIN: Why? Is it considered...

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Don't forget, although as a professional with many of the leaders having known me for many years, I'm fully accepted, but at the same time, you know, they are wondering what positions you will take. Will you, as a woman, bring some strange ideas to the debate and the dialogue, or will you be pushing the kinds of things that don't get on the table conventionally? So you find your way, and sometimes you feel a bit lonely and wish there were two or three others of your kind that could push a common agenda.

MARTIN: Do you ever not push an issue that's important to you, like for example in Liberia you pushed the legislature to toughen the laws against rape, which had not been done? Do you ever hesitate in the international sphere to not push those issues forward because you feel that people just don't want to hear it from you?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there are some subjects that one has to be very careful on, you know, how you handle them. Political sensitivities can be high in certain areas. You know, matters relating to ownership, relating to protecting the African tradition and the African ideas in the midst of globalization, require a lot of thoughtfulness as you take positions, and so one must be careful.

MARTIN: Internally, though, you've appointed women to positions that they had not previously had before in the cabinet; for example, I think the finance minister, the chief of the national police, among other positions. How have Liberians reacted to these moves?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Oh, with - I think with full acceptance. I mean - because in each of these cases these are women that possess the requisite competence, you know, and character and courage. So they're fully accepted. As a matter of fact, I think sometimes they intimidate the others. And this is happening not only just in Liberia. You know, if you look across the African continent, you find that women are taking positions that have not been traditional women area, so to speak.

MARTIN: But sometimes women - for example, in some countries they have set up all-female peacekeeping forces because they feel that there's less of an opportunity for corruption. So I'm wondering, is it a statement that you're making by choosing women for these positions?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Oh, it's a definitely a statement. If I had enough women ready to take 50 percent of the positions in cabinet, I'd do that. But also we have certain criteria, you know, for the selection of cabinet people, and many women are just not available yet. And so the next best thing is to put them in all the strategic positions, sending a message to people, you know, that women are going to hold the positions like justice and commerce and finance and police and all of those areas that have been traditionally male-dominated areas.

MARTIN: And of course it sends a message to the next generation that these opportunities might be available to them. I wanted to ask you, though, how do you feel the next generation is healing from all that they have experienced? How do you feel that they are faring?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: The healing process is still ongoing. There's still a lot of trauma. Many of our young people who have participated in atrocities sometimes not under their own control - the program for demobilization, disarmament and reintegration has provided them some level of counseling, but they now have to go back to their communities and be reintegrated.

That's not a very easy process because many times the older people in the village, you know, still regard them as offenders and aggressors, and so being able to get them integrated, accepted, working in the community - and many have not been to school. Just imagine, 85 percent of the primary school children from the ages of eight to 20, when really, you know, first grades, you have people like 15-year-olds just starting in first grade; can you imagine what they go through with being in class with a seven-year-old and they have to adjust to this?

MARTIN: This is a situation I think Americans have recently acquainted with, because the stories of child soldiers and young women who've been, you know, pressed into sexual servitude have recently been told in a very vivid way. So I think it's on the minds of a lot of Americans. Is there something that they can do?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, you know, we're trying to see if we can encourage volunteer service, particularly in the teaching field, because we have - too many of our trained teachers left the country, and those who are giving volunteer service now are those who are not equipped, really. So those who have vast experience here, perhaps those who have retired but need to be able to share some of their talents are the type of thing we'd like to encourage. I hope some Americans out there who are hearing this will step to the plate and say we volunteer to come a month, two months, three months - whatever time they can afford - and just help us to teach and respond to these children's needs.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask a little bit about some regional issues. Nigeria recently held elections. Human Rights Watch believes the elections were rigged in favor of the incumbent President Obasanjo, and they are concerned that this encourages corruption throughout the region - at least it could be extended - and I wanted to know if you share that concern.

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Look, the Nigerian elections are over. I think everybody will agree that the person elected by whatever means probably represents the best person for continuity and for ensuring that the very important development agenda that President Obasanjo has pursued over these years will be carried out, and so let's accept it for what it is and move on.

MARTIN: What about Zimbabwe?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: You've got to remember that here you're dealing with an icon, an old icon who led all the liberation movements and supported them throughout southern Africa. And it's difficult for people to, you know, to all of a sudden ostracize him and see him in any other role than this engaging activist who promoted Africa liberation.

But the situation there is grave. It does require attention, and I think all African leaders know that what they're looking for now is a process that will leave the past with this dignity, but give the future an opportunity.

MARTIN: Are you concerned that the march toward democracy on the continent is being stalled?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: No, it's not. As a matter of fact, I think it's moving on very well. If you look at how many countries have gone to two or three successful elections - and I mean good elections in many cases - you'll find that Africa is moving on, and the few that are still either in conflict or have not embraced democracy will find themselves on the outside. And I think the younger generations are claiming the future, and it's an irreversible course.

MARTIN: Darfur is an issue that engages many Americans very concerned about ongoing conflict there. Is there anything that the West can do to be helpful here, or is this - does this need to be an African solution?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: No. At this stage I think Africa has accepted that we don't have the logistics for - to support the kind of intervention that will be required to settle the Darfur conflict, and that support through the United Nations is very useful. And I think the African leadership is working with the Sudan leadership to ensure that Africa's own engagement is supported and expanded through the United Nations and that this will bring another dimension that will help to lead to better resolution of this crisis.

I mean, we are concerned about what's happening to women and children, and it's something that cannot be tolerated. They have to be protected, and I think all Africans will embrace anything that brings relief to that situation.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask about the commencement addresses you're giving this week. You are visiting two universities, Langston University in Oklahoma and Spelman College in Atlanta. It's time consuming. I wonder, you know, why do you make the time, and what is your message to these graduates?

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: It's part of the Liberia renewal, telling people that no longer is Liberia a failed state - a place that, oh, that's mired in conflict and destruction and death, but that Liberia can stand its own. It has leadership that's competitive, that's able and that can bring the story of a renewed Liberia to America, and that this is going to help to build a strong constituency for Liberia here.

So the message to the young people - Liberia represents another place, come and take a look. Share with us your talents, your experience. Come and work with us. Come and invest in us. And that's going well. But beside that, you know, there's some concrete things that I get out of these. In many cases when I speak I have an understanding with those universities that they will provide scholarships for some of our young people.

And that helps. We can't afford a foreign scholarship program now. We're trying to build our own institutions, but we do need for some of our people to get intensive and advanced training in different areas or profession, and these scholarships provide that opportunity to them.

MARTIN: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you.

MARTIN: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Pres. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you.

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