EP 4: Sustaining Peace w/ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer, and this is Liberia’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was also the first woman to be elected president of any African country.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I inherited a devastated country, which means the needs were profound. Every area of our society had been destroyed. I just became the catalyst and the spark to move all these things together into a combined, a collective force of wanting to bring the change that we have.

[Theme music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: President Sirleaf took office at a pivotal moment for her country, as it was emerging from a decades long conflict. As president, she successfully lead her country to a sustained peace, which is an incredible feat. Half of all peace agreements break down within the first five years. We know the time right after the agreement is made is crucial and including women in the process can make it or break it.

I recently spoke to President Johnson Sirleaf about how she and women in Liberia  were able to do it. But first, we bring you to the front lines of the peace process in Colombia.


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: In 2016, after more than 50 years of war against the government, Colombia’s largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agree to lay down their weapons. They had started fighting in the 1960’s over land rights for the poor but became known for bombings and kidnappings. Now that the rebels have ceased fighting, former insurgents are working to remake their lives.

With support from the Pulitzer Center, reporters Verónica Zaragovia and Laura Dixon spent months meeting former rebels, and they bring us the story of two women who’ve remade their lives since the signing of the agreement.

[President Juan Manuel Santos’ speech in Spanish in background.]

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, REPORTER: This is Verónica Zaragovia and I’m going to start us off here in downtown Bogota’s Capitol building. One of the most historic days in Colombia happened this past summer on July 20, 2018.

I watch through a window pane with other reporters as FARC members take their seats inside the House of Representatives. They’re wearing suits, collared shirts and heels… nothing like the olive green fatigues they wore in the jungle.

That’s because they’re not fighters anymore. Now they’re politicians. Something most people in Colombia thought could never happen. For decades this group was more interested in blowing up the state’s democratic institutions than taking part in them. But when the FARC signed the peace treaty on November 24th of 2016, it transformed from a rebel group into a political party.

Then-president Juan Manuel Santos stands at a podium and initiates the 2018 legislative session. He gives a special welcome to the FARC members.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: “Señores congresistas del partido FARC: ahora que han dejado las armas…”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: He says, now that you’ve laid down your arms, now that you’ve promised to support the truth and submit to the transitional justice system, now that you’ve sworn to respect our Constitution and the norms and principles of our republic, welcome to this temple of democracy.

He urges all of Congress to protect Colombia’s fragile peace settlement and to work with the FARC coalition.

To help the FARC transition from a terrorist group to a political party, the 2016 peace deal guaranteed the FARC 10 seats in Congress. Five in the House and five in the Senate for the next eight years.

Two of the seats went to women, and one of those went to a former guerilla commander who played a key role in the peace talks: Victoria Sandino.

Now, Senator Victoria Sandino.

[People in the hallway.]

After Santos’s speech, hundreds of people spilled out into the hallway.

I find Sandino and she tells me to walk and talk.

[Sandino talking in Spanish.]

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: “I’m well,” she says. “Many of our expectations are fulfilled now… we feel like members of Congress.”

And then Sandino sees people she knows and leaves me, disappearing into the crowd.

LAURA DIXON, REPORTER: This is Laura Dixon. Verónica and I organise another meeting with Sandino several weeks later, to hear how things are going. I ask her about this radical change from her guerrilla fighter life.

[Sandino talking in Spanish.]

She loves sleeping in a bed. That’s been really great, she says. Then she gets more serious, she tells us it’s a hard question.

VICTORIA SANDINO: Ay Dios esa si es una pregunta difícil…”

LAURA DIXON: She says she’s heartened that the worst of the bloodshed is over. That the deaths of Colombian soldiers and FARC combatants in the countryside have ended. That is the fundamental thing, she says.

Still, it’s an uphill battle. Sandino needs to work alongside politicians who for decades supported obliterating the FARC. And a lasting peace is not guaranteed. Sandino admits much of it remains to be implemented, in fact, the process is expected to take up to 20 years.

Questions remain about how the new president, Ivan Duque, will make his mark on the implementation of the accord. A lot of the controversies that took place during the war are still being confronted. In August, a former FARC colleague went on a daily radio talk show to make a serious accusation against Sandino.

Radio host: “La tenían como esclava sexual?”

Woman: “Esclava sexual. Aya las mujeres eran eso. En cuatro ocasiones pude decirle a Victoria Sandino que estuve siendo abusada…”

LAURA DIXON: This anonymous woman alleges a male FARC fighter raped her… and that Sandino knew it happened, and didn’t do anything about it.

Sandino says claims like this are part of a smear campaign in which the FARC’s opponents paint the group as rapists and terrorists. If the claims are true, she says, they should bring them to a special court set up by the peace treaty.

VICTORIA SANDINO:Es parte de una campaña. Yo no tengo ningún problema…”

LAURA DIXON: “I’m willing to go before the peace tribunal if anyone brings charges against me. If the tribunal calls me in, that’s where I will go,” she says.

The court has been set up to investigate accusations of crimes during the war.

[Music plays.]

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: Sandino is now 53. She was born into a poor farming family just as the war was beginning. Armed groups fighting over territory forced her family to move from their land four times.

Sandino joined several years later, after finishing her journalism degree in Bogotá.

[Sandino talking in Spanish.]

“War is cruel,” she says. “It’s very intense and in those conditions, we women had to demand more of ourselves. A lot of us weren’t used to this kind of life.”

Still, Sandino rose through the ranks and eventually became a commander. But even though women made up about a third of all troops, Sandino says the insurgency had a glass ceiling.  

VICTORIA SANDINO: Había un techo de cristal en la insurgencia…”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: “Women could only get so far… not to the highest levels of leadership,” she says.

But in peacetime, she tours the country, now that she’s able to travel openly, one place she visits is Colombia’s far north. A demilitarised zone that is home to hundreds of former FARC insurgents.

LAURA DIXON: We are in the far north of Colombia, in the region of La Guajira on the border with Venezuela. It’s a dusty open space that these ex-guerillas now call home. There are about 200 small prefabricated houses here, some decorated with murals of FARC commanders. Lush green mountains stand in the distance. Dogs lounge around. Laundry hangs to dry. Every morning, people take turns to shave and wash in communal shower and toilet blocks.

[Elisa Castro greeting in Spanish.]

LAURA DIXON: Elisa Castro greets us. That’s her war name. During the conflict, FARC fighters used aliases instead of their real names. And most of them still go by these aliases. Even Victoria Sandino.

Castro spent three decades fighting in Colombia’s mountains and jungles before coming here.

She takes us inside her home.

ELISA CASTRO: “Este es el cuarto…”

LAURA DIXON: “This is the room they gave us,” she says. “With a little bed and a fan.”

Before the peace treaty, Castro and other FARC combatants got everything they needed from their commanders — even underwear. But now, they have a budget to manage — roughly 230 dollars a month supplied by the government.

ELISA CASTRO: “Compré la nevera, compre la estufa…”

LAURA DIXON, translating for Castro: “I bought a fridge, a stove, a bed and TV, she says. She’s paid for these things by stashing away a bit from each payment.”

I ask her how life’s going now, after the war.

ELISA CASTRO, laughing: “Ahora es rutinario…”

LAURA DIXON, translating for Castro: “Everything’s a routine now. I cook. Go to meetings. We have those at 5:30 AM.”

They get updates from the leader of their camp each morning. Things like how long they can stay here until the government stops paying rent. Daily meetings are a tradition they’ve kept from the jungle days.

ELISA CASTRO: “Mi papá era guerrillero y las circunstancias. La violencia…

LAURA DIXON: Castro tells us her dad was a guerrilla fighter before she was. Right-wing armed groups — enemies of the FARC that sympathized with the Colombian army —  started killing people in her town, she says. A brother, a nephew. She says that violence led many people to join the FARC, including her. At 23, Castro left home and became a guerrilla fighter. Now she’s 57.

Those three decades in the jungle were hard — they had to trek for miles and miles carrying heavy packs. Sometimes they had to move every night. And when she got pregnant, she had to keep up the pace. So when she gave birth to a baby girl while in hiding, she only had a few weeks with her.

ELISA CASTRO: “A los dos meses porque eso ya era muy peligroso…”

LAURA DIXON, translating for Castro: “I gave her away at two months,” she says, “Because it was really dangerous. In the mountains we had operations everyday. So my friend took care of her.”

20 years after giving up her daughter, once the fighting stopped, they finally reunited.  

ELISA CASTRO: “Fue un encuentro muy bonito…”

LAURA DIXON, translating for Castro: “It was a nice reunion,” she says. “We cried and all those things.”

Castro later tells us that reuniting with her daughter was huge for her, and hard to explain, because it was so emotional. She says they hugged and kissed for two days and fell asleep in each others’ arms.

But despite the joy of seeing her daughter again, Castro says she’s not happy. Living in poverty isn’t what she fought for.

ELISA CASTRO: “Bueno como te digo…”

LAURA DIXON, translating for Castro: “Peace is when the killings stop, everyone’s doing well and the poor have their land,” she says.

[Music plays.]

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: Castro is fiercely loyal to the FARC — then, and now that it’s a political party. She won’t criticize anything about the former guerilla group and is hopeful that her colleagues-turned-politicians will work for people like her.

But she says she still feels unsafe, even in peacetime. She rarely ventures far from this camp because she says she fears for her life. And for the lives of her two sisters back home. She still hasn’t visited them even though the peace deal has been in place since 2016.

Many FARC ex-combatants have been murdered since the end of the war, and Castro’s afraid visiting her sisters could put them at risk too.

We ask her what she hopes to be doing, five years from now.

ELISA CASTRO: “Si yo vivo en ese tiempo es tener una buena casa…”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, translating for Castro: “If I’m alive then, I hope I have a good house, where I can live with my children — she says, referring to her daughter and an older son she had before joining the FARC. I want to study so when you come here next time I will have finished my high school degree. And I’ll be studying for a career that will support me.”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: This is a crucial moment for Colombia’s peace deal. Former combatants like Castro and their advocates say ex-insurgents need more support and a secure place to live. The fear is that poverty could lead some to join other armed dissident groups. In fact, many already have. There have been several reports that hundreds, if not thousands, of former FARC members have rearmed.

Victoria Sandino says more than practical help is needed. Colombia’s divided society needs to come together. People need to forgive.

VICTORIA SANDINO: “Es muy fácil para la gente que…”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, translating for Sandino: “It’s really easy for people who haven’t lived through war to see it through the media, through those opinion makers who say we were a bunch of assassins, we’re bad people.”

VICTORIA SANDINO: “Y lo que digo es, hombre…”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, translating for Sandino: “But I say, man, give us a chance to show you who we are, get to know our humanity, our commitment to peace, to Colombia as a whole and to its communities.”

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA: After decades of violent conflict and years of negotiations, Sandino says finally there is hope to bring peace to Colombia. “This is a great opportunity,” she says. “Not to be lost.”

[Theme music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Working with people who used to be your enemies is a daunting task and perhaps no one knows this better than former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After 14 years of brutal civil war, she was the first woman elected president of any African country. President Sirleaf had the support of the most powerful women in Liberia: the market women who sold their wares in outdoor marketplaces. They traveled all the way to Accra, Ghana, where the peace negotiations to end the civil war in Liberia were taking place. The women bloke the entrance to the negotiation hall until the men came up with a peace settlement. When she became president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf brought these powerful women into the political fold.

Excerpt from Sirleaf’s inauguration speech: The best days are coming. We cannot, we must not, we will not fail. So let us begin anew, moving into a future that is filled with promise, filled with hope.”

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: At the end of her two six-year terms, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was responsible for the transparent and peaceful transition of power to another democratically elected president. In 2011, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for advocating for the safety of women and for the rights of women to participate in peacebuilding.

It was a pleasure to sit down recently with her to talk about her tenure.

Let me ask you a little bit about the role that the women played in ending that almost two decades long conflict. Why was it so pivotal? How did they express that desire of enough is enough and actually take truth to power and force a peace process and ensure that it developed into something concrete?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well I think these were women who, who shared the agony of women who had been affected by the war.

They shared the disunity that existed in our society, and this is why it brought together Christian women and Muslim women in a combination of unity to stand up for certain things, to challenge the status quo, to be able to be brave and bold enough to deal with military leaders, and to say to them, it was time to change — that the suffering was too much.

As women they had borne the brunt of the suffering. Their children had been affected.  And so these were just brave women that formed an alliance and got together, regularly met and made their point known.

And so, I think they were strong, and they accomplished what they set out to do, to force the change — that they went to the Accra peace talks and took sometimes, an unorthodox position to achieve their goals.

And it worked, so we all applaud them.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: In many ways, it was the women that catapulted you to the presidency. How did they do that? How did they organize? And how did you depend on their support to, in the end, achieve the role that you’ve played so extraordinarily over the last 12 years?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well first of all, the women all ensured that they registered to vote. They had regular meetings — they didn’t have resources, they didn’t have any money, but that was not the problem. They met.

They worked with their children, their sons, you know, who were some of the young voters, and sometimes they did things to make sure that their sons didn’t get to the polls. But, you know, they were just determined people that said, our country that, over 150 years old, had never had a woman leader, and it was time for that change, and too many men leaders had lead the country to a state where it was so underdeveloped that we wanted a woman to have an opportunity. They did everything they could. And in a way the victory is theirs.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: So, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes president. She’s duly elected in a democratic process. And you confront the ravages of the war, the destruction, huge debt. How did you set priorities, and how did you begin to form a government? What were your early steps that you knew you had to undertake?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I inherited a devastated country, which means the needs were profound. Every area of our society had been destroyed. That made it very difficult because there were no resources; there were no systems. Institutions were dysfunctional. And so it was very difficult, but we were able to put together a group of young people — very dynamic, very committed, very strong. We started out with a poverty reduction program with the support of the World Bank and the IMF. We started on a massive debt relief program. We had inherited a 5 billion external debt, that hadn’t been service. And so we took 2 years negotiating the relief of that debt.

I just became the catalyst and the spark to move all these things together into a combined, a collective force of wanting to bring the change that we have. And I’m pleased that, after 12 years of service, that we’ve brought Liberia to the place where the foundation has been laid, and the new administration can now build upon that, consolidate the gains, and introduce new changes, new visions that will lead to the acceleration in growth and the acceleration in the progress that the country will have.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: In the process of doing the things you just described, you also made women a priority, in terms of appointments, in terms of their engagement in the security sector. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you made your administration inclusive, and how you brought women into be a continuing part of the solution?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We had hoped we would’ve had the majority of our positions headed by women, that was impossible, because women had not been nurtured over the years to do that. But we had very key talented, strong, educated women with all the technical skills and we put them all those key positions: Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Finance. They took those positions, and that, too, sent a big signal to everybody that the women were in charge of the major institutions. Of course, I centered a lot of my program around market women, because the market women were really the vibrant ones of the society that had been neglected. And so just giving them good working conditions enabled them to feel a part of the society. We focused on education for young girls so they, too, could know that the future was theirs. So it was a combination of all these things.

And we’ll see women, I think the inspiration of my tenure will lead to so many women in so many African countries, and I dare say beyond, know that that opportunity is theirs. They’ve got to claim it, they’ve got to work for it, they’ve got to be determined, to make sure this gender equality that we all seek takes place, and takes place in a progressive way so that it’s expanding all the time. More and more women are getting into top leadership positions, into the pinnacle of leadership in many countries.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: One last question, Madame President. What is the next chapter for you? And how do you see Africa? I think you’re bullish on Africa.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I think the record will support the bullishness, because Africa has been growing, achieving recent growth that has surpassed many other regions of the world. Africa is democratizing, if you look at the many countries now, that have moved from the strongman, autocratic leader of the past, to elections, to many that have had successive transformations, successive elections, you know, in which leadership has passed. So Africa is doing well. Yes, there are dark spots here and there.  But the majority have changed. And I think it’s a great example today in this changing world and uncertain environment where we see some backsliding by countries that have embraced international standards of democracy and participation. I think Africa is still forging ahead, and setting an example for the few laggards that have yet to catch up.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: And for you, the next months, years?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: You know, I have a restless spirit. That means the despite my age, I’m not going to retire and sit down and, you know… I’m going to be working. I’m going to be working for the promotion of women. I’m going to establish a center that’s going identify women out there who can become good business leaders, so that women can also be a part of that environment, that commands resources, that commands position, and working to have those role models share some of their experiences. And the number of women, you know, can just grow exponentially.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Thank you so much President Sirleaf.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you.

[Music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: This year, President Sirleaf was awarded the five million dollar Mo Ibrahim Prize for excellence in African leadership. She is the first woman to be awarded the prize and she plans to use the award money to establish the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. It will train women to understand their political power and will encourage women across Africa to get involved in politics.

Next time on Seeking Peace, we hear from Major General Kristen Lund, the first and only woman to command an international peacekeeping mission for the United Nations.

[Music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute of Women, Peace and Security and Foreign Policy and Hard Listening Media.

Our associate producer is Ali Post. The show is edited by Ibby Caputo and sound designed by Sara Curtis.

Our production manager is Sarah Rutherford. And our executive producer is Kate Osborn. Original music is composed by Alison Leyton Brown.

This show was made possible by the Compton Foundation.

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