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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Former president of Liberia urges cooperation among leaders

The former president of Liberia discussed political cooperation and leadership in addressing international issues at the School of Media & Public Affairs on Wednesday.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — who served as president of Liberia from 2006-18 and was Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state — said issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing world conflicts require leaders and citizens to promote productive dialogue to find solutions. The Elliott School of International Affairs hosted the conversation moderated by Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Institute for African Studies.

The event was the inaugural lecture in a series hosted by the Bridges Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting African democracy and governance. The Institute endowed the Elliott School in April to support an annual lecture by an African head of state at GW and meetings of the Institute’s Africa Policy Group, a nonpartisan group of 30 Africa experts who aim to inform U.S.-Africa policy.

Sirleaf said she did not want to give a lecture during Wednesday’s event, which included a Q&A portion, and instead engage in dialogue with the audience to learn about the issues they face.

“We open a dialogue with each and every one in this room, a dialogue in which I can learn from all that we are facing,” Sirleaf said. “It is through conversation along with self discovery and experience that wisdom is often born.”

Sirleaf received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for promoting peace, strengthening women’s rights and expanding freedom of speech as the president of Liberia.

In her opening remarks, Sirleaf said now is a time of global “disarray” due to ongoing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing conflicts led by “maligned actors” that threaten democracy in Africa and uncertainties about the dangers posed by artificial intelligence technology. She said the world is losing its ability to cooperate and needs leaders who are willing to step up.

“The multilateralism that has been the bedrock of global peace and security has been compromised,” Sirleaf said. “Social media platforms have fueled shallow understandings of history and the drivers that build society’s consensus and cohesion. Our world is crying out for leadership that meets the moment.”

Sirleaf said leaders and citizens need to regain their ability to engage with those they disagree with and move forward from this time of political polarization.

“We’ve lost our desire for dialogue and consultation,” Sirleaf said. “Those were the tools we used to address conflicts, to address tensions, to be in the place to work together. That’s how global cooperation worked, but that also takes leadership committed to those processes.”

Sirleaf said aspiring leaders should learn from the examples past leaders set for effective multilateral cooperation and follow international guidelines to inform their perspective when assuming their roles. 

“We achieve our goals through influence, through examples who are leading the way,” Sirleaf said. “And that has been my experience that one has to be humble enough to know that you don’t know it all.”

In response to an audience question about reconciling differences in a time of rampant conflict in Africa and other global regions, Sirleaf said finding solutions requires leaders who are committed to the idea of peace and citizens who are committed to bolstering that idea. 

“The lack of these ingredients of justice, of collaboration, of compromise, of consensus means that you don’t get the best of effort from the citizenry,” Sirleaf said. “To see them as owners of the processes themselves, and thereby granting their full participation that we’re able to move together toward the achievement of the national vision.”

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