President Sirleaf ‘s Burden: Projecting a Positive Image of Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 16, 2007


The next two weeks will provide President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with a chance to further the cause of her country, make appeals for debt relief appeals as well as present a positive and redeeming image of the country. She will stand on two podiums that, in the past decades, have hosted some of the greatest political leaders in recent history.

The Africare Dinner, named by many as the “African political and social event of the year in Washington, DC,” and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, have both honored in recent years leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, just to name a few.

Both events will present the Liberian president with a rare opportunity to showcase her country and invite investors as well as exiled Liberians to take a new look at the country she has been leading out of the pit for the past twenty months. Liberia, a country that epitomized just a few years ago failed-statehood is rapidly recovering.

Armed with determination and her contagious optimism, Mrs. Sirleaf will speak on podiums where people who changed the lives of million others stood to share their vision and their commitment to justice, freedom and the betterment of humanity.

A few months before she kicked-off her historic campaign in 2005, she said in an interview published by “We can make Liberia great, a model on the continent. We can show that after a war, we can rise out of the ashes and create a nation that we are all proud of, a nation that stands out as an example to show that conflict can only be a small digression and that one can rise above it and use it as a stepping stone. Liberian people are ready; they have been resilient, strong, and courageous and now we are hopeful for the future.”

Before Washington and Memphis, President Sirleaf will make a stopover in Europe where she will talk about the image of Africa as projected by the Western media. For Liberia and the rest of the continent, shaking away the negative images that the international press has managed to create, sometimes with the help of African leaders always lining up for “aid funds” constitutes a gigantic task that would take decades. The African media professionals did not help either, because there were not so much positives to speak about and good news is usually no news. African leaders crisscross the world looking for handouts and seem to have no problems in emphasizing the negatives of their development process to have access to humanitarian aid. Their international language seems to be forever centered on “aid” or “assistance.” Correcting this perception will mostly include projecting a more positive image of the continent by African leaders and they must stop turning every forum into an assembly of beggars.

Like a child unburdened by the negatives around her, and armed with her enthusiasm, energy, strength and excitement, President Sirleaf has been relentless since she came to power. She says she always sees the glass half full, pointing to her own life as an example.

Reversing the popular convictions about Liberia in the minds of people around the world may be even harder than finding solutions to the economic and social woes of the war torn country. If one image is worth thousands words, the world has seen its share of negative images about Liberia, from mass executions to gruesome snapshots and television footage of a fourteen year barbaric war.

Liberians take solace in the fact that they elected someone that captured the imagination of the entire world. Just like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Sirleaf came up on the plate when there was little hope for the country. Liberians surprised themselves and happily surprised the world by electing her to the presidency. Her election carries a lot more symbolic values that go well beyond her personal qualifications and aura. It gives Liberia another image on which the country can bank on.

The greatest burden for President Sirleaf in trying to convince the world that there is a new Liberia on the rise, may be to convince her compatriots who have been let down so many times in recent history that they have stopped believing in their own capacity to effect positive change on their national destiny.

While on this semi-private visit, President Sirleaf will meet with President George W. Bush at his request. It would be their third meeting. Although an agenda has yet to filter, it is expected that AFRICOM and the issue of Liberia’s debt will be on the table. President Sirleaf made a bold move when, just a few days prior to an African Union Summit, with major powerhouses in Africa in total opposition to the presence of the American military on the continent, she not only supported the plan but offered to host it in her country. President Bush can make a similar move and pay her back in kind, in taking a risk on her and provide real solutions to the debt issues so that Liberia can start to fly on its own.

Liberians now expect President Bush to take a risk on Liberia and embark on a new policy that would jumpstart the reconstruction process in earnest. The days when Liberian leaders were happy to fly into US for a tea party at the White House must now be a thing of the past. Liberia could well be a foreign policy success for President Bush, and it would all cost less than what he spends weekly in Iraq.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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