All the recipients have one thing in common: they have somehow brought their people to make a shift in their thinking, in the way they see themselves and how they conduct their lives. The recipients also provided their compatriots with a new direction in life, a new hope and a sense of empowerment that set them on a path of self-reliance. For example, the 1989 recipient was Dr. Bernard Ouedraogo, the founder of Naam Movement, the most successful grassroots movement for self-reliance in the history of Burkina Faso. He motivated hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers in the dry Sahel region of West Africa to take command of their own development. Today, Burkina Faso exports strawberries and grapes to Europe! Mrs. Maryam Babaginda launched Better Life Program for the Rural Woman in Nigeria that empowered women to become self-sufficient in food production. Notwithstanding the ups and downs of Nigeria politics, that program is still well alive.
The 2006 winner, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president on the African continent falls in the same category of leaders who provided their compatriots with a new vision for the future. Although known mostly for her political and international development work, Mrs. Sirleaf has headed various grassroots organizations in Liberia that include Measuagon, a rural development organizations as well as a small loan project for women in rural areas. For many years, even while in exile, she financed market projects, schools and provided scholarships for children from various parts of the country.
In announcing the award a few months ago, Ms. Joan Holmes, President of the Project, said: “Can you imagine the courage it would take, the wisdom it would take, and belief in the goodness and resilience of people it would take to lead a country with this amount of devastation? We have always said that we award the Africa Prize to leaders who exhibit courage, vision and the commitment to the well-being of Africa’s people. This statement has never more true than in the case of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”
Indeed, if providing inspiration and standing up, as a model to an entire generation of people is a criterion, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf deserves to be the recipient of this award. By far, she is the most inspiring story on the continent in this past year. Not simply because she is the first elected woman president on the continent- although that may count for some – but because she takes over a nation that has been so identified with failure and ‘strong men” in over an entire generation.
The eradication of hunger is just one aspect of the many challenges facing the Sirleaf administration. During her campaign a year ago, an aide is said to have asked her, while she was having her usual frugal breakfast of oatmeal and papaya: “Why does anyone want to be president of this country at this time?” It was early, around six o’clock and the campaign caravan was set to ply the muddy country roads to reach voters in small villages. Mrs. Sirleaf is said to have held her spoon in mid-air and looked at the aide, intensively, without uttering a word and then went back to her meal. Maybe there was no other answer than saying “someone has to do it.” Why would anyone leave the comfort of international finances and politics to get embroiled in the politics of Liberia, a country that had all but turned into the poster-child of failed statehood? Dedication? A calling?
Hunger is a known quantity in Liberia. In a recent speech, President Sirleaf said that hunger had even caused her compatriots to harm the environment. This was a result of the instability and war that devastated the country in the past quarter of century. Just a few years ago, the President said, Lofa County was the breadbasket of Liberia. It produced enough food not only to feed the entire nation, but also to export grains to neighboring Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. Lofa County, however, had a curse: because it is rich in diamonds and gold, it became a killing field for the warlords who thrived to finance their war-machines with the minerals. As peace returns to the nation in 2003, Lofa was all but an empty land, with most of its courageous farmers living in refugee camps and displaced centers. What happened in that county somehow epitomized what the rest of the country went through.
In Monrovia itself, not too far from the US Embassy in the plush neighborhood of Mamba Point, there was a natural park called Coconut Plantation. It was a breathtaking natural setting, right on the beach, with thousands of palm trees on golden sand. Kids played soccer between the trees and it was home to thousands of stray cats and dogs, a sort of natural haven. At the high of the war, just 15 years ago, the inhabitants of Monrovia not only cut down every palm tree to eat the cabbage, but they also killed and eat every single dog and cat that lived there. By 1991, thousands of people were buried in the sands of Coconut Plantation.
During the war, more than two third of the entire national population was displaced, uprooted from their dwellings and forced to live in refugee camps and displaced centers. Women and children were the greatest victims of this upheaval as usual.
A country that once boasted of so many positives just a few decades earlier, notwithstanding its internal struggles, found itself stranded in a midst of hunger, poverty and despair. But the movement towards a new life has begun, a year ago, with the holding of the first truly democratic elections in the history of Liberia. The fact that Liberians have elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to lead the recovery process is an indication of their resilience and their will to move forward.
The challenges facing the government are many. Just deciding what is priority one and what is number two is a challenge. Getting Liberians to feed themselves again will be a serious one. Moving from survival level through international aid and handout to self-sustenance will be even a bigger one. A nation that cannot feed itself is doomed to dependency and the first most important accomplishment of President Sirleaf will be to get her compatriots to feed themselves, not through food aid or imported cheap rice, but rather through their own production.
In most instances, a prize is awarded for work that has already been accomplished. This one going to President Sirleaf is a prize for things to come, in another word, a challenge to her government. She has inspired Liberians, Africans and women throughout the world. Now, it is time to translate that faith and promise into national policy of self-reliance. The first sign of self-reliance will not be found in the amount of iron ore exported, the number of ships flying Liberia flag or the number of companies flocking in the country to take advantage of cheap labor, but rather in how much food Liberians will produce to feed themselves and go to bed without worrying about the next allocation of food aid or the upcoming shipload of cheap rice.
President Sirleaf says that Liberia has a tremendous wealth, in her people and her natural setting. This all bodes well for the future. The challenge ahead is to provide inspiration to the people to take advantage of the great possibilities. And so far, President Sirleaf has shown that she is capable of doing that, and more.
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