David Pilling in London | Financial Times |
(Financial Times) – Former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has become the first woman to win the $5m Mo Ibrahim prize for African leadership.
According to the award committee, the Liberian ex-president stood down this January after two six-year terms, was elected president in 2005 following prolonged periods of exile and spells in Liberian jails.
The committee awarding the prize, which is financed by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecoms billionaire and champion of good governance in Africa said: “Confronted with unprecedented and renewed challenges, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrated exceptional and transformative leadership.”
Ms. Sirleaf took over a country devastated by nearly 15 years of civil war in which one in ten civilians had been killed, hundreds of thousands of women raped and most of the country’s infrastructure destroyed.
Although criticised by some for nepotism, she won widespread acclaim for maintaining the peace and restoring a semblance of public services.
After she negotiated the write-off of much of the country’s debt, she was able to engineer a solid economic recovery, until falling commodity prices and a devastating Ebola outbreak in 2013 derailed
Mr. Ibrahim, who is not on the judging panel, said he was delighted with the award, which sent a “strong message to all African women and African girls that they could help change the continent”.
He said that, under her stewardship, Liberia had advanced in all categories of governance tracked by his foundation.
“No country in Africa has improved as fast, a matter of fact that outweighs other issues,” he said. “We are not looking for perfection. We are looking for excellence.”
In an interview hours after she learnt of the award, Ms. Sirleaf said: “This is going to be a great inspiration to women. It is going to make young girls know that, if you stay the course and if you continue to pursue your potential in life, you can be rewarded and recognised.”
“I feel that it is a reward for a very difficult life of service and a life of suffering and of promoting political change.”
Her most difficult times, she said, had come during the years when Samuel Doe, who seized power in a coup in 1980, was president.
She briefly served Doe, having been spared from a massacre of much of the cabinet, but later ran against him and spent two spells in jail, once narrowly avoiding being raped. “There was no certainty I would have survived all that,” she said. “But I did and I went on to secure a political position.”
At home, her support has suffered in recent years. In presidential elections held late last year, her party’s candidate lost to George Weah, a former football star whose victory has been interpreted as reflecting a hunger for change.
Ms. Sirleaf said that “on reflection, I should have been more careful” about appointing her two sons as chair of the national oil company and head of national security.
However, she said, although the moves might not have looked good, “I stand by their record of integrity.”
The Mo Ibrahim prize is awarded to a democratically elected head of state who serves his or her constitutionally mandated term and is seen to have demonstrated exceptional leadership. In several years since the prize’s inauguration in 2007, no African leader has been deemed a worthy recipient.