Monday, March 17, 2008

"Iron Ladies of Liberia" airs on PBS "Independent Lens" on Tuesday, 18 March 2008

"We have had many governments here in the recent past that have relied upon brute force, instilling fear into people. We say that you can still exercise leadership without repression. As far as I’m concerned, so far in this administration it’s working better than the use of force."
—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

A Liberian-born, Harvard-educated grandmother of eight, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been jailed, charged with treason, exiled to Nigeria and the U.S. and has held positions at Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Now, as the first elected woman president of Africa, the “Iron Lady” and the many other powerful women she has appointed to leadership positions are not only changing the face of Liberia, but also making history worldwide.

After nearly two decades of brutal civil war, Liberia is a nation ready for change. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated the country’s first elected female president and Africa’s first freely elected female head of state. A Harvard-educated economist and grandmother of eight who had been exiled to Nigeria and nicknamed the Iron Lady, Johnson Sirleaf won a run-off election with 59 percent of the vote, but faces enormous obstacles in rebuilding a war-torn country.

Despite massive support both in Liberia and abroad, Johnson Sirleaf must not only find ways to reform a corrupt authoritarian government saddled by astronomical debts, but must also confront opponents loyal to former President Charles Taylor—all without alienating her voter base.

Since taking office, Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war.

IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA follows leaders in the Johnson Sirleaf administration such as Beatrice Munah Sieh, the newly appointed national police chief. A former deputy chief in Liberia’s police force, Sieh survived an assassination attempt allegedly ordered by her boss and worked as a special education teacher in New Jersey for 10 years. As the national police chief, Sieh must maintain order while heading an institution known more for its corruption and repressive tactics than public service.

The film also follows Dr. Antoinette Sayeh, the minister of finance, as she battles a crippling national debt of over five billion dollars and a notoriously corrupt staff. As Dr. Sayeh says, “Women have not been, to the same extent as men, party to all of the bad things of the past. They certainly were very strong voices against the atrocities in Liberia in the war, and they fought very, very hard to make sure that the democratic process worked this time around. And so, this is our biggest opportunity to change Liberia.”

Other “iron ladies” seen throughout the film include Minister of Justice Francis Johnson-Morris, Commerce Minister Olubanke King Akerele and Minister of Gender Vabah Kazaku Gayflor. How would the world be different if women were in the seat of power? As IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA illustrates, they already are.

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938. She attended high school at the College of West Africa. After marrying James Sirleaf, she traveled to the U.S. to study. Johnson Sirleaf received a B.A. in accounting from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, a diploma at the University of Colorado in economics and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1971.

After Harvard, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and became the assistant minister of finance in William Tolbert’s administration. In 1979, she became the first female minister of finance. In 1980, Samuel Doe assumed power in the country following a military coup. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile to Kenya, where she worked in the Nairobi office of Citibank.

In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the Senate. She was briefly imprisoned for criticizing the Doe regime and initially supported rebel leader Charles Taylor. During 1989 to 1996, when Liberia was entrenched in a civil war, Johnson Sirleaf lived in Washington, D.C. and worked as an economist for the World Bank and as the director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1996 and ran against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election under the Unity Party, coming in a distant second. Taylor charged her with treason. She campaigned for his removal from office, serving as the head of the Governance Reform Commission and assuming a leadership role in the transitional government after the second Liberian civil war ended in 2003.

In the private sector, Johnson Sirleaf has served on the advisory boards of the Modern Africa Growth and Investment Company (MAGIC), the Hong Kong Bank Group, the International Crisis Group, Songhai Financial Holdings, Women Waging Peace and the Center for Africa’s International Relations. She was an initial member of the World Bank Council of African Advisors and a founder of Kormah Development and Investment Corporation. She is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren.

After winning a run-off election against former soccer star George Weah in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia. But despite a long career in both national and international politics, her ascendancy to the presidency was not free of controversy.

Some critics are wary of her because of her previous support for former President Charles Taylor, whom Johnson Sirleaf later campaigned against. As of January 2008, Taylor is on trial in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, charged with war crimes for his alleged ties to the rebel insurgency in neighboring Sierra Leone. The Johnson Sirleaf administration has launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights abuses and claims of war crimes during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war.

Since taking office Johnson Sirleaf’s administration has faced monumental challenges. After decades of war and corrupt leadership, Liberia’s infrastructure and economy were in ruins. The country had an unemployment rate of 85 percent and owed billions of dollars in debt. Monrovia had been without electricity and running water for nearly 10 years. During her first year in office Johnson Sirleaf opened a large investigation into corruption, including members of the Taylor administration. Many Taylor supporters remain in Liberia, including his former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who is a member of the Senate.

Perhaps Johnson Sirleaf’s most significant accomplishment to date as president has been her successful appeal towards debt relief. The cancellations of more than a billion dollars of debt from creditors including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States government, much of which was accumulated illegitimately under the Doe regime, allows Liberia to concentrate on reconstruction and development. Recent efforts by the Johnson Sirleaf administration include fostering foreign investment opportunities with countries such as China and providing free, compulsory primary education for all elementary-school-aged Liberian children.

Director’s Statement from Daniel Junge:

When producer Henry Ansbacher and I look back on how, weeks before her inauguration, we learned we might have access to the first days of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s term in office as Liberia’s president, it’s funny to think how, at the time, we thought this might make for an interesting short film. One year and 500 taped hours later, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be more than just an interesting short film.

This indeed was appetizing subject matter for a filmmaker—a chance not only to see the inner workings of government at the highest level, but also an opportunity to explore the resonant subjects of female leadership, post-conflict re-development and democracy in the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, it offered an opportunity to witness—as our other producer Jonathan Stack calls it—“the most unabashedly positive story to come out of Africa since Nelson Mandela.” This comes from a producer whose last experience in Liberia was dodging bullets during the country’s brutal civil war.

The door cracked open for us to film the president’s inauguration for two weeks, and we firmly wedged our foot in that door, ultimately filming for a year with our Liberian crew. Often filming IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be an exercise in self-discipline. The task of simply keeping the camera steady and in focus, while remaining neutral to the significance of what we were shooting, was, to say the least, difficult. Not only were we privy to the inner workings of government at a level allowed to few in film history, and witnessing history being made by Africa’s first female president, we were also fortunate to be present at critical and possibly history-changing moments in President Sirleaf’s first dramatic year. So it was with difficulty that we had to anesthetize ourselves to these realizations just to keep the camera in focus.

As much as this proved a difficult task for our non-Liberian crew, for our Liberian co-director Siatta Johnson it was an even greater challenge. Here is a woman who, like most Liberians, lost everything during the country’s wars. Now, in Sirleaf’s presidency, she sees her first prospect for a “normal” life (a very low bar, measured by Western standards). “I’m not a partisan,” she often said, but we would catch her smiling when filming the president.

Like the best of politicians, President Sirleaf is adept at constantly reacting to her environment, and yet she was able to disregard our presence, even at moments in which her leadership may have appeared fragile. While, for the most part, she ignored our cameras (a blessing for filmmakers), producer Jonathan Stack told me that there would come a time when the president would give us “a conspiratorial look”—when she would be willing not only to let us film, but also bring us into her process. “Then,” Jonathan said, “then we’ll know we’ve got a film.”

That moment came towards the end of production, in a heated conversation between the president and representatives of the World Bank regarding Liberia’s debt relief. At a particularly rancorous moment the president looked my way. It was at a moment like this when typically we would be invited to leave the meeting. But this look was different. This look was to make sure we were rolling—a conspiratorial look —before she leveled into the men.

Indeed, we knew then we had a film.

Personally I’m honored to have been a witness and, hopefully, to have appropriately documented this critical chapter in African history, thus helping to open a wider dialogue on the themes mentioned above. While it’s easy to become a cheerleader for Ellen as she confronts her Herculean tasks, I don’t want the film to be agitprop for her nor against the dominant model in African politics, but rather for viewers to appreciate the complexity of the situation, including our complicity as Westerners. That viewers ask their own questions, not the least of which would be: Are women intrinsically better leaders than men? I have my answer to that one, but I expect audiences will come up with their own.

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