Last month, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was joined by Amujae Leaders Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr and Bogolo Kenewendo on Al Jazeera English’s The Stream broadcast, which uses its online platform to bring together audiences and interviewees for interactive discussions. Madam Sirleaf and the two Amujae Leaders joined The Stream host Femi Oke for a discussion centered on the question, “Is governance across Africa in crisis?”
The discussion was held in light of findings published in the 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), which reported the first decline in Africans’ perception of the continent’s governance in a decade. The report concluded that economic progress is at risk of being undone, and that other losses are being compounded by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the conversation, Madam Sirleaf spoke about the need for leaders to continue to engage with their communities and encourage their participation in governance as stakeholders, with a particular focus on young people. She also spoke of the need for leaders to listen to their people, to respect their priorities, and recognize their capacity. Madam Sirleaf then went on to highlight that the IIAG’s findings could offer leaders the opportunity to develop more collaborative relationships with citizens, working “toward a common goal of development and prosperity.”
2020 Amujae Leader and Mayor of Freetown Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr added to these comments by emphasizing that all leaders should engage with their communities, and more leaders should look to using technology and performance management tools to encourage community ownership of governance. This is something that Mayor Aki-Sawyerr has already brought to bear in Freetown, through the implementation of Freetown City Council’s Digital Town Hall initiative, which will see town hall meetings across 30 wards conducted over a digital platform to ensure residents can gather safely to discuss and vote on the development priorities for their communities. The initiative is one of the first of its kind in Africa and takes an innovative approach to participatory governance.
Former Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry in Botswana and 2021 Amujae Leader Bogolo Kenewendo then spoke about the challenges African governance has faced with regard to the inclusion of young people, women, and people with disabilities. Having herself been the youngest minister in Africa at the time of her appointment in 2018, Ms. Kenewendo reflected on the myriad of challenges she faced as a young leader, which inspired her to encourage other heads of state to appoint young people in office. Ms. Kenewendo acknowledged that progress had been made in recent years, referencing the 2020 appointment of Namibia’s youngest Deputy Minister, Emma Theofulus, but she emphasized the need to increase access to politics for young people, many of whom face social, economic, or other barriers which prevent them from participating.
Madam Sirleaf also reflected on her tenure as President of Liberia and expressed her hopefulness that “change is coming”:
“In my administration I made sure I emphasized two things: young people and women. Because those are the two that have been marginalized by society, and it is time for change to address those inequalities.”
In response to questions about how young people, as leaders of the digital world, can deliver positive change through the use of technology, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr highlighted the need to ensure that young people are also adequately prepared for leadership roles through a combined approach by governments to address school drop-out rates, lack of access to education, and lack of access to healthcare.
Host Ms. Oke then highlighted the Amujae Initiative for The Stream‘s audience, noting that the program aims to unleash Africa’s greatest untapped power—its women. Madam Sirleaf added that while more women are stepping into leadership roles at all levels, there is a need to ensure that more women are ready to take on, and excel in, roles at the highest levels of public leadership:
“…e have streams of women leaders who are preparing themselves for leadership, who have already earned leadership at whatever level they’re in, but are moving on to higher levels. And we must get them into the upper chambers. We must get them as presidents where they have the power and influence to make change… so that they can make the laws that will protect women and that will promote children.”
To conclude the program, Ms. Kenewendo offered advice to aspiring young leaders in Africa, touching on the importance of having a mentor, staying focused, and leaving self doubt behind:
“If you have any doubt that you belong, that it is your time, that you can contribute—take away that doubt because youth leadership is African.”