• Opinion
  • December 14, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

As Africa’s first woman president, I believe our future leaders must be female

Opinion: That's why we're building the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center

africa's first woman president

This opinion piece was written by the Former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. For more like this, see our spotlight on public service leadership in Africa.


All around Africa, there is a sense that incremental change is not enough to deliver on the promise of the continent’s future. The demand of the young rings loud and clear: we must strive for transformational change.

However, women and youth, and the catalytic forces of change we know them to be, remain the missing link on this journey toward change.

I hold two mutually reinforcing positions about Africa’s future.

First, realising national development agendas depends on strong government capacity. Good governance and a robust civil service can serve as the engine for formulating and implementing policies conducive to development goals.

Second — and my main reason for writing — is that for as long as Africa excludes its women and girls from full participation in and leadership of their societies, the transformational change the continent desperately needs will remain elusive.

These truths hold not only in Liberia, where our post-conflict consolidation has seen remarkable progress in the last decade, but also in other settings still grappling with capacity challenges in delivering effective education, health, and security services to the people.

The unfettered participation and leadership of women in public life is still just an aspiration

As commentators and historians look back at Liberia’s trajectory since our war ended and after the Ebola recovery, I hope they do not overlook a critical point: the value of giving young people, especially women, an opportunity to lead in public sector contexts.

Dramatic progress on women’s political representation in Sub-Saharan Africa gives me hope. The share of female legislators on the continent has more than doubled in the last two decades. Five of the top 15 countries in the world on female representation in parliament are in Africa. Ethiopia’s latest cabinet announced last week has 50% women. In Liberia, 146 women, sought legislative seats in last year’s elections.

Without doubt, Africa is trending in the right direction. However, the unfettered participation and leadership of women in public life is still just an aspiration.

True governing powers remain largely closed to women. Women lack access to the well-established networks and pathways that continue to support patriarchal systems within party and public management structures.

We need to do much more.

Doing more to me means thinking of women’s empowerment in terms that transcend elections and politics. It means ensuring that women are also adequately represented in an apolitical cadre of professionals who enable a state to provide citizens with essential services and protections, regardless of who is victorious at the ballot box.

One sure way African governments can achieve this is by creating a merit-based, competitive path to government that opens up public life to women in an unprecedented manner.

It is with this goal in mind that, as President, I launched the President’s Young Professionals Program in 2009 to recruit and train young leaders from Liberia into civil service careers. PYPP continues to achieve near gender parity in public sector employment outcomes. And, current female fellows and alumni continue to rise up the ladder of government service, taking on more and more responsibilities commensurate with their talent and impact.

Providing meritocratic recruitment pathways is a critical ingredient for unlocking women’s leadership

The evidence generated by PYPP is clear. Providing meritocratic recruitment pathways is a critical ingredient for unlocking women’s leadership in the public sector. What’s more, when talented women get the chance to play key roles in governance, they help fill capacity gaps that limit government effectiveness, especially at the centre.

Representation is a meaningful end in itself. But in the public sector context, women’s representation matters even more for progress on policy outcomes that matter for development, such as child mortality, education, nutrition, and productivity. These outcomes are at the heart of the human capital indices against which Africa’s progress shall be judged.

It is my hope that women and girls across Africa will be inspired to break through barriers and to push back the frontiers of possibilities.

That’s why I am working with a small team of people, committed to this vision, to build the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development that will support women as agents of change, makers of peace, and drivers of progress.

By investing in women and the civil service, we have the opportunity to accelerate, and secure, Africa’s progress

That’s why the centre will stand firmly in partnership with Emerging Public Leaders, a new organisation dedicated to replicating the proven PYPP model developed in Liberia across Africa.

By investing in two critical, cross-cutting constituencies — women and the civil service — we have the opportunity to accelerate, and secure, Africa’s progress. — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

(Picture credit: Flickr/Aktiv I Oslo.no)

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