22 October 2012

Liberia: Gbowee's Critique Hardens Feminist Solidarity - Women To Ellen: 'You Brought Pride to Liberia'

Photo: AllAfrica
2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners: L-R Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

It has been some time since elaborate welcome ceremonies were organized in honor of President Sirleaf from a foreign visit. Liberian presidents, including the incumbent, have a tradition of arriving from abroad to lavish welcome back home programs organized by partisans, supporters and even the Government as a show of support or victory over domestic detractors. Following months of lapse, Wednesday, October 17 brought back the memories as the tradition propped up to the President's arrive from Tokyo, Japan, where she had served a key speaker at seminar hosted by the World Bank and IMF. The Analyst reports.

The grandiose thanksgiving and welcome program last Wednesday was indeed more than about the achievements of the trip—assurances from the Japanese to help construct an 8-lane Somalia Drive amongst other things the President worked out while in Tokyo; it was also or mainly about domestic affairs, principally scathing criticisms some coming from a fellow female and former ally.

The chief organizers, women under the banner "women in Liberia" needed a forum not only to rebuff Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee criticism of President Sirleaf's "lack of reconciliation agenda" and nepotism, but also to demonstrate their support and solidarity to the President, their chief inspirer. The women achieved those objectives, as their statements of welcome connote.

Mrs. Una Kumba Thompson who spoke for the women said: "Madam President, we the women of Liberia gathered here today from all walks of life near and in the capital wish to warmly welcome you back to Liberia. We thank the good Lord for His traveling mercies and for bringing you and your delegation safely back to your home, your people and your country," the first paragraph of the women's statement read, without beating around the bush. "We also want to continue to give thanks to the Almighty for your courage and humility in leadership that you continue to show in the midst of the challenges you face including the most recent and unfortunate statements made by Ms. LeymahGbowee. We say it is unfortunate because our traditional and cultural values require not just respect to you as a person but to the office of the Presidency. We believe in freedom of speech, the tenets of good governance and that collectively, we hold the conscience of society and can speak to issues when need be and at the appropriate forum."

The women further said: "We say it was wrong for Ms. Gbowee who enjoyed your confidence and had unhindered access to you, to attempt to cast a shadow not only on your person but also on the great image you have tried to rebuild for a Country known in the past decade for war, destruction and striving towards a developed, better Liberia, peace and reconciliation.

"Today Madam President, we the women of Liberia want you to know that when we look back to where God has brought us from and see where we are now, words are inadequate to say that you have indeed brought pride to womanhood in Liberia, Africa and the World."

The women's statement further noted that President Sirleaf's many accomplishments in steering the affairs of our country, her numerous academic, regional and global awards including the Nobel Peace Prize are a manifestation of the good works she has done.

"We believe the best is yet to come and that you will continue your good works for our country, Africa and the world at large.  We believe in your vision for Liberia and Hope for our children's future as you set trajectory for education especially for the girl child, for peace, reconciliation, stability in Liberia and the Region," they told the President. "Madam President, we appreciate you. Our presence here today demonstrates our trust in your leadership. Our country continues to face challenges and we recognize the daunting challenges to your leadership and administration. Therefore it is our continuous prayer that the Almighty God will grant you the wisdom, strength and courage to lead your people and to remain focused, committed and faithful to this calling."

Other Statements

Rev. Dr. Keturah York Cooper, Founder and Pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, who gave the Invocation, called on Liberians to move the nation forward and pursue the unbridled advocacy for the full empowerment of women, saying, "it was time for Liberian women to unite."

She said: "First, we must learn to respect each other. We must respect leadership. We must work hard to respect those who have opinions different from us. This shows maturity and strength. We must find the right language to voice our differences. We must find a way to build a bridge of reconciliation among us. We must build that bridge constructively and strategically, focusing on the important issues that affect our lives and the future of our children. Women, channel your energy wisely. All this month we are celebrating International Day of the Girl Child. Our girl children are looking to us and watching how we are handling ourselves. What are we teaching them about respect?"

Minister of Gender and Development, Julia Duncan Cassell, said it was a very special day on which the women of Liberia from the 15 political sub-divisions of the country had gathered, not only to welcome the President back but to hold a round table to dialogue about issues concerning Liberia's women. October was a very important month for women, she pointed out: the celebration of the Day of the Girl Child; National Rural Women's Day; Breast Cancer Month; and the month in which the three women Nobel laureates were named. She said the women had thus asked permission from the Dean of the Cabinet, the Foreign Minister, that this Thanksgiving Service be led by the women of Liberia, and that was what was happening.

Justice Minister Christiana Tah, Acting Chair of the Cabinet during the absence of the President from Liberia, welcomed the President and her delegation back from Japan, where she was engaged in matters on behalf of the people of Liberia. She wished to report that "the ship of State is relatively calm, relatively, notwithstanding the usual challenges that portend in times like these."

She recalled how, last October, Liberians were very happy on the special day when the world learned that President Sirleaf and Ms. Leymah Gbowee had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"We still have this lingering euphoria and we are still very proud of both of you," the Justice Minister continued. "But I'd like to say something about the Nobel Peace Prize. This is a very important Prize. It is coveted by the most powerful and the most famous people in the world. It's not an ordinary Prize. And the custodians of this Prize do their utmost to ensure that its sanctity is not defiled, and the value is not diminished.

"Our President and Ms. Gbowee have an awesome task, but we also, as Liberian people. They did not win this Prize as individuals; they won it on behalf of all of us. All of us, as Liberians, have a responsibility to ensure that we respect ourselves and we respect this Prize and continue to hold Liberia up, because the winning of this Prize signifies the role, the aspirations that we have to put us back on the map and put us back on the road that we used to be on before we went into a civil war."

She concluded by saying that while she was deeply honored to be selected to Chair the Cabinet in the absence of the President, she was also equally happy that the President had returned and she was "happy to give it back to you in one piece, and to say that the peace and stability that you left two weeks ago, we still have."

In his Exhortation, the Rev. Dr. Brown prayed for the President to have "a rightful spirit." He also said special prayers for the President of the Republic and for peace and sustainability of the nation.

The President of the National Rural Women, Madam Kebeh Monger, gave the vote of thanks, and Madam Haja Maima Jallebah Freeman, of Muslim Women for Peace, gave the closing prayer.

President Responds

As it was time to clear the air on criticism by Lemah Gbowee and others that her reconciliation agenda was inactive, President Sirleaf assures Liberians that it was now time for a big push for peace and reconciliation in Liberia.

"For me, it's time for the big push," the President said. "The big push for peace. And peace can only come when there's peace in your own heart, peace within yourself. You then have peace with your neighbor, and you have peace with someone else. So that Big Push for Peace has to come from inside each and every one of us."

Regarding reconciliation, she said: "Again, one has to recognize that Liberia belongs to everybody--big, small, rich, poor, Christian, Moslem. Whatever you are, you can't change the fact that you were born here, and you live here, and you are to be here. The Constitution gives you the right to travel, and that's fine; but by the end of the day, Liberia's success, Liberia's progress, rests in the hands of each Liberian. If we do not do it, nobody will do it for us."

Also speaking of other things at the colorful ceremonies, President Sirleaf  expressed rage about the state of AB Tolbert Road.

" I traveled on that road A.B. Tolbert Road today," she said emphatically inquiring whether the Minister of Public Works was in the hall. "I left the Minister over there [Japan]. I will not travel on that road again, in that state!"

The President said  there is, and there will be, a "The Big Push for Development" which, according to her, "requires that each of us has to carry out our responsibility to the fullest, whether you are Superintendent, whether you're an Assistant Minister, whether you are a Director, whether you are a Minister, whether you are a legislator."

She said every Liberian has a part to play, because at the end of the day, this development she is  pushing for is something which affects each and every one of citizen, irrespective of party affiliation, irrespective of where you come from.

"If we build a road, or expand the power, or we increase water supply, it benefits you in your community, I don't care who you are," she added.

President Sirleaf further declared: "The Big Push is coming. I understand that while I was away, Rev. [Emmanuel] Bowier said that I'm like 'October rain.' How he described it, October rain comes down hooooooo, and then it stops and the sun comes up. Well, I accept that characterization. So, let me end by saying, like October rain, lead, follow or get out of the way!"

Briefing the nation about the Tokyo trip, the President said it was a bit of a long trip, due to the distance, due to the inconveniences of commercial travel, but I'm glad it was a resulting trip.

"As many of you know, I went to join the Annual Meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, on the urging of Dr. Antoinette Sayeh, our former Minister of Finance, who is the Head of the Africa Department at the IMF, who wanted me to bring an African voice into the high-level discussion on globalization. I also felt that some of my good colleagues at the IMF and World Bank thought I needed some intellectual resuscitation."

The President reported that her delegation used the occasion to bring to the consciousness of high-level financiers and officials that, indeed, in today's world, globalization makes us all interconnected.

"There's no escaping the effects of what happens in the developed countries when it comes to the underdeveloped countries; that in the world today we have three categories: those in the developed countries; those representing the emerging countries – those are the BRIC nations [Brazil, Russia, India and China]); and what I like to call the frontier countries – frontier countries representing those who have the greatest potential for the expansion of global trade and global financial transactions."

She further said: "So what happens in the Euro zone today affects us. We are in the supply chain of not only the BRIC nations but the supply chain of the developed world, and until we can benefit from the increase of capital income and by the continuation of direct foreign investment, and by sorting out the global financial deficiencies, we will all not expand this global economic pie. I hope we tried to make that point very well.

"We also used the occasion to focus on women and development; how women can play a more active role, a more participatory role, not just through humanitarian gestures of micro-credits, but to move them up to the place where they can become full-fledged entrepreneurs of large-scale enterprises. It will be our challenge in each of our countries to formulate the policies and the interventions that will enable us to achieve that objective.

"We know we have some programs here: the World Bank program on the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (EPAG), the 10,000 Women program of Goldman Sachs; and our own Central Bank programs. But they all seem to be small-scale and we need to something to work on them.

"We used the occasion of the visit to do some bilateral work: to meet with the authorities, to hold some bilateral meetings – with the Emperor, with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance – to be able to talk about Japan-Liberia relationship; to express appreciation for the support they have given us, but to focus particularly on two activities that have already been reported, I believe, in the local press, to try to put a timetable on their commitment to supplying a 10-megawatt generator, as well as the four-lane pavement of the Freeport to Red Light road.

"You know how these things operate. The fact that they make a commitment doesn't mean they will start paving the road tomorrow. We know the commitment is real and is sound. Our purpose was to urge urgency and to try to set a timetable that will enable us to get these activities concluded, we hope, within the next two to three years. I believe they will be sending a mission out next month; they've already done the feasibility study anyway, it's just a question now of getting it to their Diet – which is their parliament or legislature – to get it approved, and so we had the occasion to meet with members of their Diet, on both sides, and to encourage them, also trying to get them to re-establish their Embassy here in Monrovia.

"So in all respects, those things went well; I had some Ministers with me: the Minister of Public Works was there; the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Minister of Commerce, who was concluding arrangements for another supply of strategic commodities, and I do believe that they were loading, when we were leaving, the first shipment of rice that should be coming in for Christmas."

One of the most interesting things the President said she witnessed was a doctor who was in a wheelchair, a Japanese doctor who has built hospitals in Japan and has started to construct hospitals in Africa. To see him in that state; talk about spirit, Pastor Brown [referring to the Rev. Dr. Herman Brown, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, who delivered the exhortation and special prayers], the spirit of promotion, the spirit of humanity, the spirit of giving.

"And to spend some time with him. He could not talk, but he has a system where he uses the Japanese symbols with his fingers and his eyes, and they are able to translate what he had to say. I had with me Dr. Wvannie-Mae Scott-McDonald from the John F. Kennedy Hospital, and our session with him went so well. What he has promised is to support the establishment of a Dialysis Center and also an Emergency Center."

"Because I am one of the three co-Chairs of the post-2015 High-Level Panel established by the UN Secretary-General, we also had some meetings on what we are going to do about the new global development agenda when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach their target date of 2015. We had meetings there and first determined that we should not take our eye off the ball on the MDGs; we still have three years to go.

Liberia may reach two of those Goals: the empowerment of women, I think we are on track to achieve that; the reduction in infant mortality, we've made good progress. When it comes to the partnership, I think that, too, we've done very well on. Reduction of poverty, we've made some impact, but to be able to reduce it by 50 percent by 2015 is a tall order.

"We need to concentrate now on which of those indicators we have the possibility to achieve, and to direct our resources into those areas so that we can achieve at least a few of them.

"The post-2015 Agenda is likely to build upon the MDGs, being able to pick out the ones that we think can be carried beyond 2015 and then to include some of the new circumstances, such as climate change, sustainable development, obviously things like women's empowerment, youth employment – something which we made a very strong case for – are likely to be included in the Agenda.

But the Agenda is not going to be done by the Panel, and certainly not by the co-Chairs. It's going to come from a robust consultative process across the regions, working with UN agencies, working with civil society, to see if we can find what exactly the people want us to do."

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