Liberia's Ruth Sando Perry named new Balfour African President-in-Residence
By David J. Craig
Boston University's African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) recently appointed former Liberian leader Ruth Sando Perry as its second Balfour African President-in-Residence. Perry, the only female African head of state in modern times, in 1996 and 1997 led a transitional government in Liberia that temporarily stabilized the nation after a devastating seven-year civil war and organized free elections.
During her BU residency, which will last several months, Perry will discuss with scholars, policy makers, and students how Western nations can help facilitate democratic and free-market reforms in Africa. She also will reflect on how democracy and peace disintegrated in Liberia following the 1997 election of former president Charles Taylor, who was exiled to Nigeria last year and is wanted for crimes against humanity.
“Madam Perry's appointment provides a unique window of opportunity to see and understand the problems of African countries in crisis and to better understand what the United States and other Western nations can do to enable these countries to move from crisis to stability,” says Rev. Charles Stith, APARC director and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania. “Even more importantly, her appointment enables us to understand what we can do to prevent the spirals of decline from occurring.”
The Balfour African President-in-Residence program was created in 2002 to bring former heads of state of African nations to Boston University, in part to demonstrate to current African leaders the contributions they can make as statesmen after leaving office peacefully. The program is funded by a grant from the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation, which is administered by trustee Fleet National Bank. BU's first African President-in-Residence, appointed in 2002, was Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
Perry, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher, legislator, and bank executive, was asked by Liberia's warlords to head the country in 1996, after seven years of civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. During the year she served as chairperson of Liberia's National Transitional Government, she successfully enforced a cease-fire, helped disarm 80 percent of Liberia's civil war combatants, many of whom were children, and oversaw the nation's first free elections. Since stepping down from politics, the 64-year-old widowed mother of seven and grandmother has continued to advocate for peace and for improvement in the status of women in Africa. She is the founder and CEO of the Perry Center, a relief agency that fosters peace, stability, and development in Africa, with offices in Liberia as well as in Columbus, Ohio, where members of Perry's family live.
Addressing about 120 people at a January 24 reception in her honor at BU, Perry beseeched Americans to recognize that “the world has become a global village” and that “what transpires in one part of the village can very quickly and easily be felt in another part.” Deepened relationships between the United States and African nations will benefit Americans, she said, adding that she will push for “greater and more sustained U.S. involvement in restoring peace” to Liberia, which is under a U.N peacekeeping mandate.
CAS Anthropology Professor James Pritchett spoke at the reception, saying that Perry's residency offers an important opportunity “to expand the kinds of images that typical Americans have of Liberia -- to let them know that typical Liberians are not 14-year-old drug-crazed child soldiers with AK-47s,” but “honest, hard-working persons trying to make a living and a better world for their children.” Pritchett, who is the assistant director of BU's African Studies Center, noted that since its founding by freed American slaves early in the 19th century, Liberia has had a “long and deep” history of cooperating with the United States on military and other matters, and that generations of African-Americans have felt a special camaraderie with Liberians. In recent years, however, as media images of Liberia have been almost exclusively negative, he said, that sense of camaraderie has been deteriorating.
BU trustee Esther A. H. Hopkins (CAS'47) concurred that Americans “have forgotten” their country's special relationship with Liberia. “I think that the University having set up the African Presidential Archives and Research Center is a very farsighted thing,” said Hopkins, who is African-American, “and that inviting a woman leader from Liberia will inspire African-American women, as well as African women.”
For more information on APARC, see http://www.bu.edu/aparc .