Sirleaf’s Nobel Prize is a banner day for Africa

October 12th, 2011

StithThe following opinion piece was written by Charles Stith, director of BU’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.




Congratulations President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, an African president dots the front pages of western dailies for a story not about staying in office too long. The symbolic significance of her election as Africa’s first female head of state might well have merited the coveted award, but it is her substantive work in that role on behalf of Africa’s women that led to the much deserved¬† recognition. While this is her moment in the sun, it’s also a golden opportunity to make a point about the state of leadership in Africa today.

Despite the preponderance of coverage that despots like Mugabe, Gbagbo, and recently “retired” Gadhafi get in the conversation about African leadership, democratically-elected leaders like Johnson-Sirleaf are increasingly becoming the face of Africa. Just last month, Michael Sata was inaugurated as president of Zambia in the fifth peaceful transition of power to take place in that country over the past several decades — an unthinkable trend only a generation ago.

And in every region of the continent there are similar stories. In Tanzania, where I served as U.S. ambassador during the Clinton administration, they’ve had seven cycles of multiparty democratic elections. Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, and Mozambique are among the 16 African nations where democracy has taken root and democratic traditions and institutions are gaining traction.

The bad news is that this represents about one third of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The overwhelming good news is that they are the most heavily populated with about two-thirds of Africa’s population. That means the vast majority of Africa’s people wake up each day in countries where they have say in who leads. Also good news, with the event of the so-called Arab Spring, is that north Africa is now following the south’s lead.

Western democracies have provided an important example of the value and virtue of accountable government, the present debacle in Washington, D.C., notwithstanding. But more than the West’s example, this trend reflects African aspirations. That was clearly what we saw coming out of Tunisia and Egypt as the throngs took to the streets — people want governments that are accountable.

It’s what I witnessed in Tanzania after our controversial election in 2000. While one Tanzanian newspaper took a shot with the headline, “U.S. joins third world in vote mismanagement,” for the most part Tanzanians interpreted what we were experiencing in a more reasonable way. They knew that if a more mature democracy such as ours could have such problems, it meant they would have to be more vigilant to insure that their nascent democracy didn’t die on the vine.

What does this trend toward democratization in Africa mean beyond the obvious? For starters, it means that despite the all too often characterization of Africa as a lost cause, things are looking up. Does the continent continue to have challenges? Yes. But Africa is more than the sum of its problems. Its potential is reflected both in this trend toward democratization and in the economic indicators. While much of the developed world is mired in recession, Africa’s economies are still growing.

While the rest of the world has long lamented Africa’s lagging behind other regions in terms of development, the recent efforts by the rest of the world to engage Africa have borne fruit. Trade with China has worked. Aid, like the Bush-era efforts to support infrastructure development and health care, has helped. If these dual trends toward greater democracy and development are to continue, the rest of the world must stay engaged.

While we in the West extol the merits of good government (meaning democracy) to any African within ear shot, people can’t eat platitudes. Unless democracy can deliver a dividend, its shelf life in Africa will be short. As I told a European Union meeting in Brussels not long after Johnson-Sirleaf’s initial election, “If she is going to be successful as Liberia’s leader, she needs checks more than cheers.”

Ironically, the Arab Spring has not only raised the stakes for Africa’s dictators, it’s also raised the stakes for Africa’s democracies. More development has resulted in greater expectations. Although progress won’t be stellar for the near future because of the world’s economic woes, it must remain steady. This is where strategically targeted aid as well as free and fair trade with the rest of the world can make a difference.

So while the “Iron Lady” of Liberia deserves kudos, as we celebrate her accomplishments let’s also keep these other lessons of global interdependence in mind.


Contact Stith at 617-353-5452;

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