In a special session to discuss the opportunities for partnerships between the African continent and the United Kingdom (UK), Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made an address to the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on June 18, 2020. In her opening remarks, Madam Sirleaf used the opportunity to speak to British political leaders, “honestly and candidly, as a friend,” at a time when the human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on the economy, and global protests against systemic racism are coming together to create, “a new and urgent demand for change in our world.”
During her 30-minute address, followed by an extensive Q&A session, Madam Sirleaf called for greater representation of Africa in key global institutions such as the United Nations Security Council.
“It is long overdue that Africa is permanently represented on the Security Council of the United Nations. Not as a desire to exercise power, but a search for increased leverage and deserved credibility to reposition Africa to end our wars, threats of terrorism on our shores, hold itself more accountable for peace and development, and bring its collective experience to bear and contribute to international peace.”
Reflecting on previous global partnerships, Madam Sirleaf highlighted how too many have left African countries poorer, exploited, and with weakened education, health, and security systems, and with growing debt and dependency. And, while recognizing that Africa cannot excuse the challenges in its own leadership, she asked:
“Can Africa find a willing partner in the United Kingdom, and can a UK/Africa partnership prioritize the interests of the UK and Africa? Africa seeks partnerships that will lead to job creation, and more opportunities on the continent to stem the tide of migration and improve conditions for repatriation.”
Examining the current COVID-19 pandemic more closely, and lessons that have been learned from previous Ebola outbreaks in Africa, Madam Sirleaf warned that allowing the continent to fall into recession for the first time in 25 years risked erasing the progress of the last two decades. She urged the international community not to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to disengage with Africa.
Additionally, she pointed to the need for a united—not fragmented—World Health Organization, highlighting that the success in containing Ebola outbreaks had been due to a global effort underpinned by local community ownership.
She also highlighted the need to reduce public misinformation—much of which is spread via social media—and noted its connection to a lack of public trust in authorities and government:
“ tendency to dis- and misinform presented Liberia with a difficult problem in fighting Ebola. Invariably, at the heart of public disinformation is the looming lack of trust in authorities and government. It is therefore important to understand that a fundamental duty of governance is to build trust with the governed, by providing truthful information, however difficult it may be. Governments need to trust citizens with the truth, so that they may make informed decisions about their lives and livelihoods.”
Madam Sirleaf also spoke about the remarkable accomplishments of women leaders around the globe in not just flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also managing the safe reopening of their economies. She noted the importance of continuing to increase women’s participation in public life:
“We must continue to open the space for increasing women’s political partnership and leadership.”
In conclusion, Madam Sirleaf asked whether the lasting effects of COVID-19 would be more than its tragic death tolls and paralyzing effect on the global economy, and whether its effects on humanity and society may come to be measured by positive change as people demand that their leaders seek the full safety and welfare of all of their people:
“I hope that those leaders who are honored to lead at this time of change will boldly embrace the wind of change for the benefit of all humanity.”
You can watch the full opening remarks and Q&A here.