A Glimmer Of Hope For Africa

Ron Watkins
Ron Watkins
“We are free to say that in respect to political rights, we hold women to be justly entitled to all we claim for men.” --Frederick Douglass, 1848

During the 1950s, Liberia boasted the world’s second-fastest-growing economy. This was not surprising, given its abundance of natural resources – iron, ore, timber, diamonds, gold and tin – as well as rich vegetation. Today, after 14 years of civil war, Liberia is one of the poorest nations in the world, with no running water, electricity, decent public hospitals or schools. At least 85 per cent of the country’s three million-strong population are without jobs and most people are forced to live on less than $1 per day.

Since it’s incorporation in 1847, Africa’s oldest republic was ruled by a clique of former Black slaves from America known as, “Americo-Liberians.” Over the years, a kind of love-hate relationship developed. Though indigenous Liberians resented being ruled by the Americo-Liberian class, most Liberians thought of the United States as its mother and Liberia as, “Little America.” The Liberian constitution is modeled almost word for word after the American constitution. The roots of Liberia’s civil war are a cumulative result of decades of discrimination and neglect by this elite group who ruled the country and denied the indigenous tribal groups the right to full political participation and a fair share of the economic pie. Resentment against Americo-Liberian rule exploded into the 1980 military coup led by Samuel Doe, who became the country’s first indigenous president.

In 1989, I moved to Liberian and established the Sub-Saharan Gold and Diamond Fund, an “Off Shore” Trading Company involved in buying Aluvial Gold from local miners. I was living in Liberia on December 24th, 1989, when the Charles Taylor lead forces came across the border from the Ivory Coast and began their campaign to overthrow the regime of then president, Samuel Doe. I was also there on September 10th, 1990 when Prince Johnson, one of the breakaway factions of Charles Taylor, captured Doe on Bushrod Island and where two days later, he was killed.

While attending a conference in New York in 2000, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Sirleaf. I had learned about her work and how well respected she was while living in Liberia. I wanted to meet her and present her an autographed copy of my first book, “Doing Business In Africa, Myths and Realities,” which was inspired by my experiences in Liberia. Although our meeting was a brief one (about 45 minutes), She was very gracious and I was most impressed with her calm and confident demeanor and her sincere commitment to the economic progress of Africa.

The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first women president on the continent of Africa is not only important for the people of Liberia, but I believe will have a profound effect on the political maturation of the entire continent. One way to break with the traditions of “Chiefdom” politics in Africa and introduce new political and economic institutions is via the emancipation of women. A strong women’s movement, like a free press, is a good sign that modernization is making headway in a country. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's election is "a beacon of hope for women in Africa and the world in general.”

The evidence is overwhelming. The more women are included as full participants in politics and the economic development process through education, entrepreneurship and access to capital, the more successful a country is economically. I would add that in my experience, having done business in several African countries, African women are also less likely to be influenced by the culture of bribery, theft, and corruption that is the accepted norm throughout the mostly male dominated African governments. “We have shattered the glass ceiling theory; and I hope women will seize the moment to become active in civil and political affairs here at home and abroad,” says Ms. Sirleaf. The new president has promised that her administration would ensure that, “every Liberian, no matter where you come from, no matter what religious, political party or ethnic group you belong to, will feel proud to belong to this new Liberia. Never again in this nation shall a person or a group of persons feel so excluded that they have to resort to violence in the name of justice,” she added.

Ms. Sirleaf has held such prominent positions as minister of finance of Liberia, president of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment, and senior loan officer of the World Bank. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf has represented Liberia on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank. She also served five years as assistant administrator and Director of The Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Program with the rank of Assistant Secretary General of The United Nations.

Ms. Sirleaf founded and continues to support Measuagoon, a community development organization with projects throughout Liberia. She is the recipient of numerous international honors, including the Grand Commander Star of Africa Redemption from Liberia (1980), the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom of Speech Award from the United States (1988), The Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award (OIC, USA – 1995), and Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mono from Togo (1996). She holds a master of public administration degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Ms. Sirleaf’s international credibility puts her in good stead as she embarks on the mammoth task of rebuilding her country. She’s a known and respected entity, which will give her immediate access to international agencies and funds. She will need time and the cooperation of Liberia’s different ethnic groups to heal the wounds inflicted on the country after 15 years of civil war.

But one of the most important factors in successful economic growth is the motivated and creative entrepreneur. Successful economies are entrepreneur driven. Throughout Africa, there is a growing realization that it is a mistake to think governments can deliver jobs and economic prosperity to more than a few politicians and their friends. In addition to instituting a massive education program with some focus on engineering and science, a “culture of entrepreneurship” must be nurtured and encouraged. A “Culture of Entrepreneurship” is one in which the desire to become an entrepreneur is a laudable goal and is supported by family, friends, and government policies.

When I lived in Liberia, foreigners, mostly Lebanese, dominated much of the local economy. Locally owned Liberian businesses were mostly regulated to “mom and pop” type shops and the open market businesses operated by Liberian women. As in many African countries, the road to economic wealth was through control of government resources. To break away from this destructive perception, Liberia will have to create an atmosphere that promotes indigenous entrepreneur development and full participation in the economy. Liberia’s national success in entrepreneurial development will depend on the evolution on local entrepreneurs and national support (finance and training) infrastructure. Ms. Sirleaf has a long history of successfully creating and obtaining financing for these types of programs. We not only wish her well, but will be making whatever contribution we can to help that country get back on its feet.

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  • Mr. Watkins has been featured in Crain’s Chicago Business, The Chicago Tribune, The Network Journal Magazine, The Weekly Standard, The Chicago Defender, and The Wall Street Journal. He has also appeared on several local radio and television talk shows. He has taught International Business in the City College system and has organized several seminars on trade and investment with Africa and the Caribbean. In 2006, he completed the manuscript for his second book, “Thinking Globally, Black Economic Development In The New World Order.”