I am delighted to be in Namibia again, a decade after I made a State visit here, only two years into my first term as president of Liberia and as the first elected African female president. Both visits highlight the strong ties between our two countries, which began long before Namibia became independent.
As some of you know, in 1960 Liberia and Ethiopia took the issue of the then Union of South Africa’s continued oppressive presence in Namibia to the International Court of Justice to have the expired mandate of South Africa declared illegal and self-determination and independence accelerated. Regrettably the Court evaded the issue of the mandate, ruling that Liberia and Ethiopia had no standing in the matter. It took 6 years for the Court to rule and another 24 of struggle for Namibia to win her freedom.
The motivation for Liberia came from our own history, a state founded on a desire for freedom. We also pay tribute to the efforts of the late Dr Angie Brooks, one of our most respected diplomats and jurists. She championed the twin causes of women’s empowerment and self-determination.
Dr Brooks became Liberia’s Permanent Representative to the UN in 1954 and is most famous for becoming the second woman and the first and only African woman to serve as President of the United Nations General Assembly, a situation that woefully remains the same today.
When she began her term in 1970 she inherited numerous challenges, including South Africa’s continued occupation of then South West Africa and South Africa’s apartheid policy, a matter she had championed a decade ago, as a young foreign affairs officer.
In his biography, Where Others Wavered, the revered Founding President of Namibia Sam Nujoma writes:
“From Liberia we flew to New York, together with a remarkable lady, and ally of Swapo, the Honorable Angie Brooks… She was to make a statement at the U.N. on South West Africa and to spearhead the campaign on our behalf.” Liberia facilitated the Founding President’s first trip to the United Nations and continued that solidarity and support until independence was won. I understand that two Namibians, Ambassador Kalomo and Bishop Kameeta were in Liberia at the time of the 1980 military coup. Unfortunately due to the coup, Ambassador Kalomo did not receive the funds and 500 military boots he had gone to collect for Swapo – Liberia has an outstanding debt.
With continued amity, during our time of need, Namibia rotated nearly 6,000 troops as part of the U.N. Mission in Liberia, to help stabilise our post-conflict transition. We thank you.
Your immediate predecessor and I became friends during my State visit to Namibia and his to Liberia. I send my warm greetings to him through you.
Under successive leaders, Namibia has made significant strides in women’s political leadership and active participation in national decision-making.
The Africa Gender Forum Award of which I have the honour to have been a past recipient and which [Namibia received this week], is in recognition of several deliberate policy decisions and measures designed to overcome discrimination and disadvantage – such as the ruling party rule on 50/50 gender representation at all levels of leadership.
Ending all forms of inequality, including the grip of patriarchy, requires all of society’s will and effort. Congratulations for reflecting this partnership in the other four awards.
Notably, Namibia ranks 11th highest globally in the number of women in Parliament, with 46% today.
Namibia has a youthful female Prime Minister, and a female Deputy Prime Minister, who also serves as your International Affairs and Cooperation Minister, one whose role in the Beijing Conference of 1995 is well remembered.
Together, we have fought for peace and the self-determination of our people. We have sought to leave no one behind, seeking a trajectory of prosperity and hope over poverty and despair. Women’s voices continue to be strengthened and choices expanded.
Given this history, I am deeply honoured to be decorated with the Order of the Most Ancient Welwitschia Mirabilis, in recognition of my contribution to promoting peace and security in Liberia and across the continent.
In August, Liberia will celebrate 15 years of peace. In accepting this award, I say again, with humility and gratitude, that the credit for many of my achievements goes first to the women of Liberia for their votes and to the women of Africa for their support.
In turn, I hope I ably represented their aspirations and expectations and, more importantly, gave them a voice, particularly in Liberia.
A few weeks ago I was honoured to be awarded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize in recognition of the peace and development which I brought to my country, Liberia, after close to two decades of a destructive civil conflict.
The advice I received from family and friends was that it was time to rest and I now had the means to bring to an end almost sixty years of work and the many times when they feared for my life.
I simply do not know how to do that. There is always another child who needs education, another woman to help to aspire to public office, another elderly person to provide medical support, another family who needs shelter.
Although many heads of state are friends, it was lonely to be the only woman! Africa must do better. We need a second, third, fourth, until equality is reached.
In what are rapidly changing global conditions in climate, in technology, in strategic friendships, in values, we can never stop, never rest, never give up in making the world a better place.
• Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is former president of Liberia. This is an abridged version of her acceptance speech upon conferment of the Order of the Most Ancient Welwitschia Mirabilis in Namibia this week.