Liberia: Women Lead Differently

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president for the past 12 years. Photograph: Noor Khamis/Reuters

In December of 2016 the President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, was thwarted in his quest to secure a 5th term as President. 

A businessman, Adama Barrow, used an election to end the rule of a President who came to power via a Coup d’état.  But, days before Barrow’s inauguration in January of 2017 — Jammeh declared a state of emergency and refused to leave office. The Economic Organization of West African States, ECOWAS successfully intervened.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was ECOWAS Chair at the time. This very tense stalemate in the Gambia was resolved without ECOWAS military intervention. Troops were summoned to the Gambian border. The threat was there, but never used.

Is it possible that her style of leadership made the difference? There has been much research on women’s leadership. The Harvard Business Review, Forbes and other journals have described women’s leadership style as collaborative, creative, communicative. Is it possible that Africa’s first democratically elected woman President made the difference? We know that patience was exercised. 

There were discussions and a very creative solution was employed. It took time. But the situation was diffused without the widespread death and destruction typical of African political standoffs.

The Gambia’s 2017 scenario comes to mind in the wake of ECOWAS’ apparently more muscular approach to the coup d’état in Niger. On July 26, the President of Niger, Mohammed Bazoum, was deposed by members of the Presidential Palace Guards. 

He is still in detention. On July 28th ECOWAS condemned the coup and gave the coup plotters a 15-day ultimatum to stand down. ECOWAS stated that if President Bazoum is not released in the time given-- ECOWAS would effect change through force. 

Two of ECOWAS member states— Mali and Burkina Faso-- are now threatening to leave the regional body and side with Niger if this ultimatum is executed.

The article below offers that war is at hand in the sub region. The scenario (Niger, Mali & Burkina Faso vs. ECOWAS) is the absolute worst case. Wars have held Africa back from achieving its rightful place in the world for decades. How many wars will it take for our leaders to learn this painful lesson?  

A brutal campaign is currently underway in Sudan. Wars continue to simmer in DRC Congo, Libya, Cameroon Ethiopia and Eritrea to name a few. The only sides who win in war are the international arms conglomerates and their middlemen. No ECOWAS nation manufactures weapons of war. The losers are the women their children and nations that could have been.

The ability to work patiently through back channels and analyze the situation without bluster is desperately needed in the Niger today. Sadly, there are currently no women heads of state among the 15 ECOWAS nations. Can ECOWAS execute now as they did in The Gambia in 2017? 

The Author

Veda A. N. Simpson is Board Chair, ORWOCH and former Nat’l Coordinator, Women’s Situation Room, ABIC.