Liberia’s Madame President Addresses the Richmond Forum

The first sitting head of state to speak at the Richmond Forum – the “Iron Lady” of Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – did not disappoint the sold-out crowd at the Landmark Theatre.

Tricia Pearsall

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s Madame President, at the Richmond Forum

In 2007 I wrote an article for Virginia Living concerning the Virginia-Liberia connection, titled, “The African Jamestown,” so a chance to hear Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the much revered and respected President of Liberia, speak on Saturday November 6 was an absolute must. This is one amazing woman, and that fact was not lost on the sold-out crowd at Richmond’s Landmark Theater—hundreds of Liberians now living in Virginia (many of whom were elegantly attired in Liberian fashion) as well as a huge cadre of students from area high schools and colleges. Not only is President Sirleaf the first female head of state in Africa, but she is the first sitting head of state to address the Richmond Forum. She did not disappoint.

Virginia’s Liberian community was a flutter. At the Jefferson Hotel, Chef Ma-Musu (Ida Daniels) of Africanne On Main, located at 2nd and Main in Richmond, prepared a sumptuous pre-event dinner of Liberian cuisine for dignitaries, sponsors and special guests. On Sunday, President Sirleaf spoke at Virginia Union University at a special worship service sponsored by the Liberian Association of Virginia followed by a wreath-laying ceremony in Petersburg at the monument to Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Petersburg native and First President of Liberia.

Sirleaf’s lecture topic was Africa and Its Place in the World. When I first saw that, my reaction was, who was the idiot who gave her such a task? Few countries in Africa have any similarity other than being located on the same continent. But Sirleaf handled her mission with no-nonsense grace, facts and optimism, not focusing on the myriad of known negatives, but rather on opportunities possible for this gigantic landmass of 53 countries and over one billion people. She gave hope to the potential inherent in Africa’s largest population segment—its youth—and to the possibilities of encouraging economic growth and security being realized in good governance.

She was careful, however, to separate the troubles in Somalia from the strides she has made in Liberia, and proudly so. She once referred to the rise of women holding positions in African public service – humorously inferring they had been ‘cleaning up the mess made by men.’

The first question in the session following Sirleaf’s prepared remarks concerned the almost blanket ‘stop-order’ she put on her cabinet just three days prior. In a quiet voice, she said simply, “Complacency had set in a bit.” When asked would any cabinet members be asked to return? She responded that some would, but others “I don’t know about.” She is known as the “Iron Lady” of Africa for good reason, and is very proud of Liberia’s almost elevator-like rise in the Corruption Perception Ranking for 2010. When asked about economic investment, she repeated twice that China has demonstrated the most aggressive investment both publically and privately in Africa in general and in Liberia as well. Where is the U.S.? Far behind.

But at times, she sounded tired and admitted wanting to have time to swing in a hammock and play with her grandchildren. Elections will be held again soon. It would be impossible for even the ‘Iron Lady’ to restore and rebuild in one presidential term what took 15 years of war to destroy, but as Virginians, we should care. It is fair to say that in many ways, we birthed the nation of Liberia…for the good and noble, and for the not so righteous, even reprehensible. It’s a conversation worth having in our history classes, that’s for certain. Liberia’s future is both Africa’s heritage and Virginia’s heritage as well.

For in-depth information on Virginia’s role in the history of Liberia, also see Marie Tyler McGraw’s book, An African Republic.

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