By Robtel Neajai Pailey
Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf have forever transformed the image of Liberia, from a pariah nation of warlords and gun-slinging, drug-induced prepubescent boys, to a country clawing its way back to civility and normality.
Their journeys to this prestigious award, announced just four days ahead of Liberia’s high-stakes presidential and legislative elections — elections that will determine the country’s development trajectory and democratic consolidation — signify Liberia’s journey to consciousness.
As someone who most recently worked in the Liberian Executive Mansion under Johnson Sirleaf’s tutelage for four years, I know that she and Gbowee, whom I interviewed earlier in the year, represent the ethos of our nation.
In 2003, Liberia was on the verge of spiralling into chaos and barbarism, and becoming another example of Africa’s tragedy, when Gbowee and her fellow female peace warriors stood up to the fearsome warlords, practically shoving them into negotiation rooms in Accra, Ghana. They threatened to strip naked if the men did not comply, a classic offence in Africa’s social order, as a woman’s naked body exposed to the elements is a big shame.
Eight years later, in a United Nations Mission in Liberia radio studio, surrounded by other Liberian women activists, Gbowee outlined her views on the challenges of ensuring gender equity in Liberia despite having a woman at the mantle of power. I had invited her to join other women activists in a discussion about what had been achieved to date for Liberian women, in commemoration of International Women’s Day in March 2011.
Gbowee stressed that Liberian women would not be able to inhabit their rightful places next to their male counterparts until they were formally educated and could earn a living wage. Perhaps this is why she is working hard to establish a technology centre in Monrovia, where literacy and computer skills training will be provided to women and girls in a safe and supportive space.
When I asked Gbowee what the Nobel prize signifies for her, she said: “The prize is a recognition that global peace can only be achieved if women’s needs, concerns, aspirations and skills are utilised and maximised.”
Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf are not dissimilar in their approaches to activism, as detailed in their respective memoirs, Mighty Be Our Powers and This Child Will Be Great.
Johnson Sirleaf, older and more measured in her approach now as president and mother of the nation, has taken a long and arduous journey through Liberia’s political and social upheavals. From political prisoner to president of Liberia, she has tried to remain steadfast despite the innumerable challenges of rebuilding a nation from the spoils of war.
It was under her leadership that Liberia’s $4.9 billion debt was cancelled. Within her first 150 days in office, controversial concession agreements such as Firestone and ArcelorMittal were renegotiated. She endorsed an expansive rape law, which was enacted immediately after her historic win at the polls in 2005, to protect victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Criminal Court E was subsequently established to fast-track such cases.
Johnson Sirleaf’s Market Women’s Fund has increased the profile of the eponymous “market woman”, raising millions of dollars to build markets and support adult literacy for Liberia’s most visible local entrepreneurs.
She has been the voice of reason in international regional bodies such as the Mano River Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the African Union, preaching the gospel of non-aggression and dialogue in conflicts in neighbouring Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee represent the resilience of Liberian women, of African women, of women the world over who thirst for an end to militarism, gender-based violence, death, destruction, war, and missile strikes in the name of “liberation”.
Though the Nobel prize is a great honour for Liberia, we must not rest on our laurels, for a luta continua (the struggle continues).
For the past few weeks, hundreds of Liberian women draped in white lappas and head wraps symbolising peace have camped out in a large field across from the president’s residence, in a historic space where their predecessors held prayer vigils eight years ago when the country was under siege. Though buoyed by the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to two of their own, they have not budged. They are a sobering reminder of how October 11 is the beginning of the rest of our lives — it lured me back to Liberia from London to cast a ballot for the first time in my entire life, despite protests from family and friends who survived the war and understand Liberia’s volatility. I remain optimistic, however, that we will go to the polls in peace.
Some may argue that the timing of the Nobel prize announcement could be an international ploy to coerce voters to re-elect the incumbent. I take a slightly different perspective. The announcement has, in essence, provoked Liberians to live up to the image that has now been projected internationally of a reconciling nation.
It has placed the spotlight back on a country with a peculiar migratory history, a nation of firsts, a nation that has been resurrected. It has reminded Liberians that we have a responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to the giants on whose shoulders we now stand, who fought for peace and sacrificed their lives so that we may now boast of two Nobel laureates.
It has reminded us that when we line up to cast our ballots, we must vote with our conscience. The prize could not have come at a better time. Now, we must show that we are deserving of it after October 11.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is currently pursuing a PhD in development studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a published writer and activist.
This op-ed was originally published in The Guardian (UK)