Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee: Liberia is progressing, but still divided

Liberian peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee praises Liberia for how far it has come since the civil war days of a decade ago, but warns that tribalism still divides her country.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee of the Women in Peacebuilding Network dances with members of her association at Monrovia, Liberia, on October 9.

Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee was half asleep on a "red eye" flight from New York to San Francisco finishing off her book tour when she found out that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her phone beeped and she looked down to see a text message that read: "Nobel. Nobel. Nobel"

“I turned to the man next to me and said: 'Sir, I think I just won the Nobel Peace Prize!'” she says with eyebrows arched and eyes widened as she recounts the moment. “He said 'really?' but didn’t seem convinced.”

A man sitting in front of them pulled out his Blackberry, pulled up the home page of The New York Times website and said, “Yes, she’s right,” says Ms. Gbowee.

“By that time the tears were coming and I was hugging all of these white men on the flight.”

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize was a crowning achievement for Gbowee, but the peace activist is no stranger to accolades, having received many for her women’s activism work in Liberia and West Africa, and the women’s peace movement she spearheaded that played a role in bringing to an end the bloody civil war that killed over 200,000 people.

While Liberia has enjoyed peace since the end of the war in 2003 and is heading into the run off of its second democratic elections, Gbowee says the nation is still divided and has not yet reconciled with the trauma of the past and that people are just “learning to live again.”

“I think that right now, people are getting out of survival mode and into the mode of living,” Gbowee told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview in Monrovia. “The confidence for living is just being built. When you sit down and you are really living, you can start thinking about all of the people who hurt you and all of those people who you hurt and you can move forward. Basically, people are still trying to put the pieces back together.”

In a restaurant of an upmarket hotel in Sinkor, Monrovia, Gbowee scans her finger across an iPad, catching up on her emails after a day of filming and interviews from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Under dim light she casts a vivid form: dressed in a bright green and orange lapa suit, with gold hoop earrings clipped to her ears and her broad face lit by the computer.

The hotel sits on Tubman Boulevard, a stretch of road that has been inscribed with meaning for the Nobel Laureate. Opposite her stands the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, the church that both nurtured her faith and was the site of a massacre in 1990, one of the worst atrocities of the war enacted by the then-President Samuel K. Doe's forces. Despite renovations to the building, bullet holes are still visible on the back walls. Further down the road is the sandy airfield on which she and thousands of women gathered to pray for the end of the war, a movement that was captured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Progress, but more work to be done

Gbowee views the recent elections and the peaceful manner in which they have played out thus far as a sign of Liberia’s political progress since the end of the war. But she says political rivalries have reopened old wounds and pointed to underlying tensions between Liberians and the need for the country to work harder at reconciliation.

Accusations about President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s involvement in the war have been made during the election campaign.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf – a former World Bank economist who is lauded by the West as a reformer – was charged with having provided financing to Charles Taylor during the early stages of the war by the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission recommended that Sirleaf and a number of other Liberian politicians be banned from politics for 30 years.

Gbowee, the Nobel Laureate, expressed concern over former-warlord-turned-presidential-candidate Prince Johnson’s pledge of support to President Sirleaf, which was welcomed by her party, the Unity Party. During the war, Mr. Johnson and his militia were responsible for numerous human rights violations, including the brutal murder of former President Doe, and many thought that his endorsement of Johnson-Sirleaf tainted her.

“His running for president shows that democracy is at work in Liberia, that was my first thought,” said Gbowee. “As painful as it is to admit … that someone who has done such harm in different parts of this country and says that he wants to run, shows democracy is at work.”

Ethnic divisions

But Gbowee says that Johnson’s success in the recent elections in which he gained 11.6 percent of the vote to become “kingmaker” reveals that tribal and ethnic divisions continue to pose a major issue to reconciliation in Liberia.

“We are still deeply divided along ethnic lines,” Gbowee says. “Prince Johnson winning that percentage of the vote has shown us as Liberian people, that a villain in my community is a hero in another community and depending on the size of that community that villain can automatically become someone powerful just overnight.”

While Gbowee would not directly criticize Sirleaf over the decision to welcome Johnson’s support, she said she was saddened by the Unity Party’s decision.

“I’m sad because I think that with or without his support the first-round numbers show that there are a huge chunk of the Liberian people that are impressed with the president’s performance and that they will go back and vote for her,” Gbowee says. “I think that the politics of patronage needs to end and I think that Prince Johnson’s endorsement of the ruling party’s acceptance is by default accepting his demands.”

But despite the political posturing and divisions between the two major parties, the CDC and the UP, during these elections Gbowee sees the future of Liberia as hopeful and believes that women will continue to make headway in the political sphere.

“We stopped and celebrated Sirleaf’s presidency for too long, so this year we missed out,” said Gbowee. “The field is ripe for women to start preparing for 2017.”

And on her own political ambitions, Gbowee is clear, she will pursue a career in politics, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of her activism.

“Even before the prize, I had made up my mind that I would be going into politics in the next couple of years,” says Gbowee. “How feasible that is, given this role with the prize and with the level of work I want to do around reconciliation, I will have to wait for a year. If my involvement in politics is going to hamper that, I will hold onto my dreams.”

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