I came to Liberia to meet the woman with the hardest job in Africa, but before I met her I saw thousands of her problems: peasant manioc vendors, children who walk ten kilometres a day just to fetch drinking water, the entire female population… In short, on her shoulders sits the burden of having to reconstruct a country razed by years of civil war, reduced to an equatorial ground zero with billions of dollars in foreign debt, without running water or electricity, an extremely poor economy, male unemployment running at 90 percent, and all hope in tatters.
And at last there she is: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, EJS to her friends, the president of the republic since 2006, and the first woman head of state in African history; they call her the iron lady, the black Thatcher. She has been manager of the World Bank, Minister of Finance, president of the African Section of the United Nations Development Programme. And in 2011 she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—along with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen —in recognition of the three women’s “non-violent struggle for the safety of women, and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
You were chosen for what is probably the most difficult job in Africa. As a woman are you daunted by this?
All my life I have carried out complex tasks considered inappropriate for a woman, so no, I have no problem with it. However, everything I do would not be possible without the aid my staff and the collaboration of the Liberian people.
Do you think being woman has been a disadvantage for your career?
Absolutely not. I always say to people: I am a technocrat, a professional, and by chance also a woman. I bring the same competence and credibility to my job as any man. Moreover, being a woman has advantages: I am sensitive to human needs. I am a mother and a grandmother, and I put that passion into the job. But at the same time, I can be as hard as any man.