Rise of Africa's first woman president foretells Clinton quest
© K. Riva Levinson

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in politics for more than three decades, and past retirement age, before she emerged as the president of the Republic of Liberia, and the first democratically elected woman to become president of an African nation.

Along the way, she fought against deeply held cultural stereotypes, where a woman’s place was always behind the man: the father, the brother, the husband, the uncle, the village chief.


But from a young age, guided by her mother, growing up in a remote village with limited access to electricity and running water, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was seized with a sense of purpose: To make a difference for her country. Before succeeding, she would be imprisoned, threatened with execution and rape, and exiled. From her setbacks she would gain renewed strength.

Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is at the close of her second term as president of Liberia. Every day she still questions herself, “Have I done all that I could have done?” She is not perfect. She has made mistakes. Like all of us, she has regrets.

But Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been utterly consistent her entire life. It has always been the wellbeing of the people of Liberia that she desired most, their future and promise that she sought to protect.

One can see the similarities between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Hillary Rodham Clinton, whether you support Hillary or not, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or you are completely disillusioned with American politics.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE has been in public service nearly her entire adult life. First as an advocate for women and children working for a nonprofit in Arkansas, then as a governor’s wife, as the First Lady of the United States, a Senator from the state of New York, U.S. Secretary of State, and now the standard bearer of the Democratic Party.

When she is confirmed as the democratic presidential candidate this week, she will make history: The first woman to lead a major U.S. political party. Win or lose the presidential contest, she has made history.

One can disagree with Hillary Clinton on many fronts: the decisions she made in support of the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya; her calls for greater government intervention in healthcare and education; her judgement to use a personal email server when she served as Secretary of State and to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street firms when she left that office.

But what one cannot deny about Hillary Clinton is her humanity, the consistency of her life’s choices, her sense of mission, and the fact that despite her flaws and miscalculations, Hillary Clinton has consistently put other people first, as wife and mother, and as a political leader.

Watching the election cycles unfold in the U.S. and Liberia, I see many similarities, and they concern me deeply. In both countries, the state of discourse is often toxic. Political opponents feel compelled to destroy and tear down in order to build themselves up.

In Liberia, this is particularly dangerous because of the still fragile, post-conflict state of society there. But in the U.S. this is just as troubling. We pride ourselves on being the leader of the free world, an example of how democracy should work.

I was asked the question recently about my hopes for the future of Liberia now that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will soon depart office. I answered, “Liberia may have its ups and downs, but its path forward is irreversible, and I believe the Liberian people will demand the best of their leaders. In the end, that is the country’s safeguard.

Then without prompt, I added, “It is further my hope that one day in Africa, ambitious women will be more likely to be celebrated than scorned.

And it occurred to me that those are my hopes for the United States, too.

K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC www.krlinernational.com a DC-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016).

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