Mention the name “Ellen” in some circles in Brooklyn Park or Brooklyn Center, and that’s sufficient. People assume you’re talking about the first woman ever elected to head an African state.
“Ellen” came to town on Friday. And she packed Northrop Auditorium with Liberian Minnesotans who, for the most part, observed the decorum due a distinguished head of state.
But it was all they could do to restrain their exuberance. “We love you,” yelled one woman in the audience after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Minnesota and delivered this year’s Distinguished Carlson Lecture.
Because Liberia is a small country (3.5 million people) and because it has suffered so much horror and because so many Liberians escaped to Minnesota (some 25,000), the bond is especially tight between this African president and these people who found new lives half a world away.
Shared prison, traumatized spirits
For some in the audience, the bond was personal.
In 1985, Kirkpatrick Weah of Brooklyn Center sat in Monrovia’s notorious Post Stockade prison with Sirleaf. Both had been arrested for defying the military regime in power at the time.
He had ulcers but no one would give him milk or food he could easily digest. She had special standing as the former president of the Liberian National Bank and the African representative for Citibank. So she requested milk for her tea. And she gave it to him.
“She is our pride,” Weah said wholeheartedly.
Not everyone agrees in the aftermath of Liberia’s bloody civil wars. “Ellen,” aka Africa’s “Iron Lady” — and to some in Liberia, simply “Ma” — has political enemies here as well as loyal followers. Some of her foes leafleted before the event.
But politics aside, most Liberians recognize that they need a strong leader now to heal broken spirits as well as a broken homeland, said the Rev. Adventor Trye of Brooklyn Park.
“We are a traumatized people and we need consolation from our leaders,” Trye said. “It has to come from the top. We need our leaders from Africa to encourage us in the Diaspora so we can have a good conscience about the place we came from and a proud legacy we can transfer to our children.”
Devastation and recovery
Such were the high expectations as the Liberian president took the stage at Northrop. She credited the extreme hardship she and so many in the audience had suffered together for making them strong enough to rebuild their lives and their country.
“We had very little to build on but the will of a very resilient people to survive and the desire of a hopeful people to live a normal life,” Sirleaf said.
Between 1989 and 1996, Liberia was devastated by one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. More than 200,000 people died and a million others fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Sporadic fighting and bloodshed continued until 2003 when United Nations troops took responsibility for security, stabilizing the country enough for elections in late 2005 when Sirleaf defeated international soccer star George Weah for the presidency.
She took over a country so wrecked that it was without electricity and running water. Along with educated Liberians, major businesses and aid agencies had fled the violence. UN sanctions had shut down the nation’s all-important diamond and timber industries.
Now, Liberia is rebuilding with help from around the world, including substantial funds Liberians send home from their earnings in Minnesota.
Step by step
As Sirleaf outlined significant first steps the country has taken, the Minnesota audience repeatedly responded with lavish applause, setting up a litany of recovery and hope.
Electricity and water pipes have been restored to some areas of the capital city for the first time in 14 years. Roads, hospitals and schools are under repair. The University of Liberia is moving to a new facility and three community colleges should open within three years. The Peace Corps has returned to help boost literacy, and needy students are getting help with school expenses.
A 2000-person army is training for the eventual drawdown of UN forces. UN sanctions on forestry and diamond operations have been lifted. Real GDP grew by 9.5 percent in 2007. A $4.7 billion debt owed to international development banks and other outside creditors should be eliminated next year.
“Perhaps the best progress we have achieved is the restoration of hope,” she said. “One can see this in the eyes of children as they walk to school. One can see this in the farmers who slowly move back to their communities on roads that can get them there on time. One can see this in the eyes of market women who can now work under better conditions.”
We want you home
The improvements are a major issue for some 4,000 Liberians who have been allowed to live temporarily in the United States. An argument in favor of extending their stays has been that Liberia was too dysfunctional to provide their families with jobs, homes and schools.
Sirleaf has been an all-important advocate for extending their stay in the United States, most recently last month when President Obama granted them another year.
At one point in her lecture, she sounded as if she may be ready to call them to come back, saying the country needs skilled and experienced people “like many of you in this room.”
“We want you home,” she said.
But later, she said: “As much as we want them back we still understand that some of them cannot come back right away. In fact we could not even absorb all of them if they all decided to come back right away. And so while we welcome them back we know that it takes time and they have to plan it because many of them have children here in school, many of them have other kinds of obligations, many of them have jobs. They are a great source of remittances.”
The ideal outcome would be dual citizenship that would allow Liberian Americans to help the country’s reconstruction while also meeting their family obligations in the United States, she said.
Waitress to Medal of Freedom
This was the latest of several visits Sirleaf has made to the American Midwest.
She was born in Monrovia in 1938 to a mother who taught English and travelled by canoe from school to school, according to a well-sourced profile in Online Encyclopedia.
After studying in Liberian schools, Sirleaf and her then husband moved to Madison, Wis., where she worked as a waitress at a drugstore and studied business at the University of Wisconsin. Later, she earned an economics degree from the University of Colorado and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. Recently, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil award in the United States.
While campaigning for the Liberian presidency four years ago, Sirleaf made a swing through Minnesota where she has thousands of influential supporters — and, even, cousins.
One Minnesotan she calls friend is J. Brian Atwood, dean of the University’s Humphrey Institute, which organized her lecture. Atwood formerly served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and he started working with Sirleaf during one of Liberia’s many dark hours — a time when she was charged with treason and imprisoned for opposing the country’s military dictatorship.
After Sirleaf’s lecture on Friday, she and Atwood sat together on stage for a conversation.
In the current economic downturn, Liberia is a leading example of the countries facing food and energy crises. Will the $1 trillion in emergency aid approved this month at the Group of 20 Summit in London provide effective relief, Atwood asked.
“If the funds . . . are put on a fast track,” Sirleaf said. “The big issue is to get it in time so we do not lose the momentum.”
Atwood put in a plug for Sirleaf’s new memoir, ‘This Child Will Be Great.’ The book traces the consequences of her outspoken criticism of corrupt Liberian leaders: She was imprisoned, tortured and threatened with rape and death.
“What is it inside you that gives you so much courage?” Atwood asked.
“She’s a woman,” came a shout from the audience.
“I think she said it all,” Sirleaf replied to Atwood.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.