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African Peace Activists Discuss their Liberian Successes

Aired October 30, 2009 - 16:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, women taking a stand against war. We'll hear from two inspiring voices fighting for peace and armed only with their courage.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program, where we've tried to tackle the critical issues of our time, war and peace, as well as the perils faced by women and children in conflict zones. And tonight, we examine the legacy of a brutal civil war in Liberia, where a decade of fighting left 250,000 people dead.

The war ended after a remarkable group of women helped force the government and the gunmen who had torn their country apart to finally make peace, as chronicled in the documentary, "Praise the Devil Back to Hell."

The women, led by Leymah Gbowee, surrounded the meeting hall and wouldn't let the warring parties out until they came to a peace agreement.


LEYMAH GBOWEE, LIBERIAN PEACE ACTIVIST: So (inaudible) today is to send out a signal to the world that we, the Liberian women in Ghana, at this conference, we are fed up with the war, and we are doing this to tell the world we are tired of fighting, the killing of our people. We can do it again if we want to, and next time, it will be more than 1,000.


AMANPOUR: We welcome Leymah Gbowee, whom you just saw in that clip, and we are also joined by Angelique Kidjo, one of Africa's best-known musicians who's used her fame to campaign for human rights.


ANGELIQUE KIDJO, MUSICIAN: Once you've been to a war zone, you understand the importance of the peacekeepers.


AMANPOUR: Here, she was performing at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Welcome to you both. And also, Angelique, you provided some of the music for the documentary.

Let me turn to you first, Leymah. First of all, why "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"? That name has always been a mystery to me.

GBOWEE: Well, the name came from a quote that I gave during my interview for the documentary that President Taylor could pray the devil out of Hell. So the producer and director of the film were like, "If he could pray the devil out of Hell, let's pray him back to Hell." And that's what we think the women did.

AMANPOUR: And why did you lend your music it, Angelique?

KIDJO: I lent my music to it because I think music is one of the universal languages that link all of us and because I'm more for peace than anything else. We cannot achieve anything without peace on our continent or in the world.

AMANPOUR: What you did is actually quite extraordinary. What gave you the courage or even the idea to confront the warring parties in Liberia?

GBOWEE: Well, a group of us, group of women, Christian, Muslim women, have been working overtime. What you see in the documentary is three years of hard work, trying to build coalition, trying to build capacity. And we have gotten to the point where these women have signed a memorandum of understanding that anything that tends to impact our communities adversely, we would fight against it.

And it was at that time that, in 2003, all hell broke loose, so they called me and said, "Can we come together?" And I was like, "Sure, I will just lend -- lend my voice, give you technical support." And they were like, "No, we need you as the leader of this group, and you can move things forward."

So it was just years of rape, abuse, and one imam gave this analogy of Liberia at the time, that we gone from bad to worse to ridiculous, so we're at the ridiculous point.

AMANPOUR: So you were at the ridiculous point, and you just mentioned rape and abuse, and that's something that you talk about a lot, as well, Angelique, the whole idea of the norm of rape being used not just in war, but also certainly daily.

KIDJO: Daily.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about how it was when you were growing up.

KIDJO: I mean, when I was growing up, I was lucky to grow up with seven brothers, which were really my bodyguards, if you want to, and my father was always telling us, anything happens that you don't understand, come and talk to us. I refuse any man to stand here and justify rape to me, because every girl, every woman that is raped is their mother, their grandmother that they are raping, their sister and their daughter.

And we cannot sit back -- I can't just accept it, and I'm never going to accept it in my life's breath. If I have to fight them and pray them back to Hell for that, I will do so.

AMANPOUR: And this was in Benin, where you...

KRISBERG: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: ... were growing up. So it's -- it's a -- it's a similar situation...

KIDJO: Everywhere.

AMANPOUR: ... everywhere.

KIDJO: It's pretty much everywhere.

AMANPOUR: And, obviously, we've also seen it be used as a rape of war in -- in the Congo. What made you go from sort of directing this protest to actually taking what we see in the film you all protest every day on the side of the street as Charles Taylor, the president at that time, was -- was going past? And at one point -- and this has taken a lot of people's interest -- you also came up with a sex strike. Tell me about that.

GBOWEE: Well, we -- we -- we tried different tactics and strategy. And we were like, "We need to get people's attention." Because when we started at first, you know we got a lot of fun -- people made fun of us, toothless bulldogs, they're just out for recognition, they're out for cash from Taylor. And even the men in some communities who were supposed to be at least sympathetic of kind of in line with our cause were making fun. And some of the women were like, "We really need to take this to another level. Let's have a sex strike."

AMANPOUR: And how did that work exactly?

GBOWEE: Well, honestly, in the urban areas, they weren't as successful as in the rural areas, because in the rural areas, the women blended their sex strike with -- with a bit of religion, that we're fasting and praying for peace, and we have to abstain from sex, so it worked.

AMANPOUR: So they would tell their husbands that that was that?

GBOWEE: Yes. And -- and so most of them came back to us telling us that our husbands are helping us to pray, because this thing is really getting serious, after the war, then sex. So sometimes we have them in the room praying along with us, where we all gather.

AMANPOUR: And just to -- to jump off on what you're doing now, this whole notion of the abuse of sex, rape and sexual harassment of young girls in schools, that's what you're lending your work to now, right, in trying to -- in trying to...

KIDJO: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: ... build schools and keep girls in school?

KIDJO: I'm -- I'm trying to build school and keep girls in school. Especially, I'm more focused on secondary education, because we need highly educated women to change completely the tide. We cannot achieve clinical growth, reduce child mortality that is reducing right now, we cannot achieve anything without women being educated. It has been proven. I'm a living example of that.

My mom, because she has been to school, she fought with my father her side to keep three of the girls that she had to school, and she would kill anyone that would come to his house and take any girl out...

AMANPOUR: Take them, for what, for marriage?

KIDJO: For marriage. For early marriage. And that's what I'm facing with my foundation, Batonga, where I'm putting girls through secondary school. The mothers were the ones that comes to me and said, "The Millennium Development Goals, we have seen you on TV talking about it. We send our girls to primary school. Please help us keep them in school, to avoid the father to take them for early marriage."

We're not only facing early marriage. We're facing female genital mutilation. We are facing child trafficking. We are facing so much stuff that, if we keep the girls in school, we give them a future, and they can take a lead in their lives. We need people like Leymah and myself more in Africa. The men need to realize that, without us, they do not exist, because no men without the woman.

But my grandmother used to say, ask a man to have sex and dig a hole in the sand and see how good it is. If that is so cool, then they don't need us. But they do need us. We need to work together, hand in hand. That's why the sex strike in the movie, I crack up laughing. I was jumping everywhere. I said, if we can all decide one day in the year to go for a sex strike, the men are going to listen to us all over the board, across the board.

AMANPOUR: Well, I actually want to know where you got your courage, because at one point in the movie -- and we're going to play this right now -- you actually take your petition and you confront power. You speak truth to power. Let's look at you confronting Charles Taylor.


GBOWEE: We ask the honorable pro tem of the senate, being a woman and being in line with our cause, to kindly present this statement to His Excellency Dr. Charles Taylor with this message: that the women of Liberia, including the IDPs, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped.


AMANPOUR: That's a pretty remarkable piece of film. That really is you taking your courage into your hands and confronting the president of your country, knowing the violence and the abuse and the atrocities that he had been capable of. What were you thinking when you did that?

GBOWEE: One, I was angry. I was really angry, just looking at someone who had done so much to the Liberian people and to the region, sitting there so calmly and -- and -- and trying to be cool. That was the first thing.

The second thing was, I kept reminding myself as I went up there that you do not represent Leymah, you do not represent your children. You represent thousands of voiceless women, women who have been raped, internally displaced, those who are in refugee camps, and your ability to speak the truth to this, whoever he is, is going to either make or break all the work that you've done over the last few weeks.

AMANPOUR: You said that he was sitting there looking cool. I noticed in that picture that he's looking down. He looked ashamed. Do you feel you broke him a little bit there, you cracked the surface?

GBOWEE: I think we did. And one of the things that the film also -- we didn't get that particular clip, which was that, when we got there, he had offered us seats, and we refused his seat and sat on the floor. So that was the beginning of responding.

And Etweda Cooper, who was our adviser at the time, took the platform. They asked her to introduce the group. And she said, We are sitting on the floor to send a message to you, Mr. President, and to the rest of the warring factions that, when we run, we will not be running with chairs and beds and mattresses, and we go without shoes to let you know that we run without shoes and clothes, and our children are on our back in the sun and rain because there are no umbrellas when the guns take us out of our homes.

So, basically, we were just there to give a message, but to also speak to whatever was left of his conscience, because, in fact, we were concerned maybe there was none.

AMANPOUR: And it worked. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. And next, the power behind the first female head of state in Africa and the future of African women as a force for peace and security.



ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF, PRESIDENT OF LIBERIA: I want to, here and now, gratefully acknowledge the powerful voice of women of all walks of life whose votes brought us to victory. They defended me. They worked with me. They prayed for me. It is the women who labored and advocated for peace throughout our region.


AMANPOUR: That was the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, at her inauguration three years ago, praising the role of women as advocates for peace, as she was, as we said, the first ever woman head of state in Africa.

Joining me again, Leymah Gbowee and Angelique Kidjo.

Did you think that it would work? I mean, you got Taylor out. You got the gunmen to put their weapons down. You got a U.N. force in and an election that brought you a democratically elected president who is a woman. Was there any doubt that it would work, what you were doing?

GBOWEE: Well, I never -- after we got the signing of the peace agreement, after all of those hurdles, I became overly optimistic about the future of Liberia and the role that women could play. So we went back and, usually, after the signing of peace agreements, women would dance and celebrate and just go back to their little corners, but we thought, it's time to be strategic, so we took our peace agreement. What it lacked was a simplified version for the average Liberian woman to understand.

We had a meeting. We broke it down. We set benchmarks. At this time, you should see this happening in your community. And this -- and so what we started doing now was just constructive interference. We were involved in every process, disarmament, when it came time for voter registration. So we just thought, there is no way that we can labor for peace and be out of the governing structure of this country, that we would get a female president.

One of the quotes I used in the film is that our peace work was the cake; the female president was the icing.

AMANPOUR: And I wanted to ask you about the whole notion of leadership and accountability. Leymah confronted Charles Taylor, her president. You have said music is power. And you were asked to go recently to Zimbabwe, and that caused a lot of consternation and -- and some controversy. What was your decision when you went there?

KIDJO: I met -- I reached out to UNICEF and I reached out to human rights organizations who know what I have to do, because I receive e-mails from Zimbabwean fans of my music that it just speaks so gratefully about our continent. If you come here, it means that you're lending your voice to Mugabe.

And it was turning me -- I mean, it was tormenting me a lot. But I said to myself, music is the only thing that brings people together. Through music, we were able to free Nelson Mandela. I'm going to go there and I'm going to give my little piece into Mr. Mugabe.

And we went there. We did a press conference. The secret service were there. We couldn't speak. So I knew that my platform was going to be on the stage. When I reached the stage, this song that we just hear at the beginning about Africa, it was -- it's a song that I wrote, blessing song that I wrote for my continent, but by extension, to every single human being on this planet.

So I went on stage and I said, "We cannot, Africans, be sitting and standing every day asking for help from other people and blaming other people for our problem when we our ourselves. The problem, when our leaders becomes our butcher, when they become our jailer, we cannot sit here and say it's OK. It doesn't matter the reason that they have to be doing that. We, the people of Africa, we deserve the best, and we deserve peace."

AMANPOUR: So let me turn to you, then. Your current work, Leymah, is on security reform. What does that mean actually for your country?

GBOWEE: Well, not just our country, but for countries coming out of war, you know, usually international community believe they have -- and sometimes it's true -- they have all the answers for different countries, especially African countries, so they have this new exotic thing called the security sector reform or security system reform.

And millions of dollars go into this system. People come in. The U.S. government is currently doing the Liberian army. The U.N. is doing the police. So we're going back and really just looking into this kind of work that is being done. What perspective of the women are taking in consideration? How is it impacting communities?

But, also, one of the things that we've done by taking it further is to do a survey of Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone to say to the grassroots women, what do you understand about this? What is your perspective about the whole issue of security?

AMANPOUR: The -- the -- the end of the film was really a high point in the election of -- of the president in Liberia. But is it just a fluke or do you think this can be repeated? Was it a fluke that just you happened to be there, you had the courage and the stamina, or can this be repeated?

GBOWEE: I think definitely this can be repeated. And one of the things that I'm grateful for the documentary for is that it emboldens women in every part. You know, the first thing that happens when you start doing work like this, like with this is you question the intensity, you question whether I'm doing the right thing.

But this documentary is like a bench -- it's like a landmark or something that tells other women, "People did it before we came, we've done it, and they can also do it." So it's not a fluke; it can happen. People just need to rise up and rise above the politics that so deeply divide us as women.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to play another clip from the documentary, and that is where you surround the so-called peace talks in -- in Ghana. Let's look at what -- what you said back then.


GBOWEE: So I told the women, sit at the door and lock arms, one arm within the other. And the next thing we heard on the overhead speaker was, "Oh, my god. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They really came and locked us in, that nobody will come out until that peace agreement was signed.


AMANPOUR: That's extraordinary. I mean, I've covered a lot of peace negotiations that seem to go on for days and weeks and months. And you really seized control of that moment. You said, "No, you are not coming out."

KIDJO: Well, you know what I like about that piece is what the...

AMANPOUR: General Abubakar said.

KIDJO: ... General Abubakar said and said to the guys: You do not come up to go back in, because if you are a man, you will stand and talk -- and be to peace agreement. You're acting like a boy, and she's treating you like a boy. That's what we need to teach our little boys in Africa. You've got to respect every woman, starting home with your sister. I've seen my mom do it. I've seen my grandmother stand for the education. I mean, what you were talking about, is this the fluke...

AMANPOUR: While you're talking about education, let's just put up some of the pictures of you and your -- your project of education in Haiti and your vaccination project. But tell me...

KIDJO: The thing is, we women of Africa, we have the power. We women of the world, we have the power, but we don't know the power we have. I believe that if we want to resolve some more problem everywhere, I've been thinking about Israel and Palestine for so many years. Who's paying the highest price for that? The mothers, crying for their sons dying.

How can we help women, how the women coalition can be formed, and then we say to both sides, "Enough is enough. We are tired of war, as you said. We are tired of our children not being safe." Without peace, our children can't go to school, we can't have health care. I mean, we women, we have the power. We've got to be absolutely in power.

GBOWEE: Angelique, I'll just jump into what you said, we -- we have the power, but we don't recognize it. I would disagree a bit. I went to a little village in Liberia. We were doing some work with the community.

And we asked the women to come and sit with the men as we were talking, and these women are just standing in the back. And then they said, no, they can't sit with us, you know, the usual thing, the elders are speaking, and we have a specific -- and one of the women was (inaudible) standing, just looked, and she was actually a wife of the chief. And she smiled and whispered to me, "He's pretending to be powerful, but at the end of the day, our decision is the one he'll bring out here."

KIDJO: Absolutely.

GBOWEE: So they really understand and recognize that they have power. What we need to do and what we've done and what we did in Liberia was going back into the communities and really just reassuring these women that it's OK to step out with that power.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, because, obviously, you proved that in Liberia and -- and all of you, certainly, who -- who worked on this. But look at Democratic Republic of Congo right now, this appalling war that's going on, this appalling abuse and rape of the women there. How does what you've done really become something where women are protected, are able to stand up, or the men -- the peacekeepers or the -- the -- the government soldiers are held accountable. Is that the next step?

GBOWEE: I think -- I think definitely that is -- that is the next step. And it -- it -- it's going to take a lot of local community initiative to bring it, because as far as I can see, 10 years after U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, international community, national government, regional economic communities or regional communities have failed the women of this world. They've come up with all of these exotic resolutions, but they lack accountability mechanism, and they're almost like toothless bulldogs. Talk about toothless bulldogs.

AMANPOUR: Toothless bulldogs?

GBOWEE: Toothless bulldogs, 1325 is one, 1820 is one. I mean, one year after 1820, you have what happened in Guinea-Conakry few days ago. No one is compelling that military government to court martial all of those who raped women publicly in the streets.

AMANPOUR: To be continued. That's a very strong way to end this program. Angelique, Leymah, thank you so much for joining us.

GBOWEE: You're welcome.

AMANPOUR: And to find out more about the civil wars in Liberia, go to our Web site,, where you can see a special feature on the role of child soldiers in that conflict. So please join us there.

And next, our "Post-Script," more from Angelique Kidjo's concert at the United Nations.


AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." Tonight, more of Angelique Kidjo's special concert at the United Nations, an event celebrating peacekeepers, and in Liberia, the first-ever women's peacekeeping unit. This is what we want to leave you with, so listen.