Liberia: Keynote Remarks Delivered by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the Official Inaugural Ball for Liberian President Joseph Boakai [As Delivered]

Monrovia — Please have your seats. And let me thank you for that very kind introduction. I usually like to keep my introductions short, but you left out two key things that I am extraordinarily proud of. I have an honorary doctorate from the University of Liberia – [applause] – and I have an honorary doctorate from Cuttington. [Applause.] And these are two things I’m extremely proud of.

So good evening, everyone. I want to start by thanking the Chamber of Commerce for hosting us tonight, and the Liberian people for the extraordinarily warm welcome I have received since arriving here yesterday. And I particularly want to thank President Biden for selecting me to head the American delegation. [Applause.]

When I was living here a decade ago, more than a few colleagues joked that the next Liberian inauguration I would attend would be my own. [Laughter.] Obviously, I chose a different path. So, President Boakai, Vice President Koung, let me be the first to say you’re welcome. [Applause.]

In all seriousness – in all seriousness, congratulations. Congratulations to the president. Congratulations to the vice president. Congratulations to Liberia.

Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, you have a big job ahead of you – and the United States looks forward to working closely with you as we strengthen the bonds between our two countries. [Applause.]

As United States Ambassador to the United Nations, I have the privilege of traveling across the world, and people – Thank you. So, as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, I have the privilege of traveling across the world, and people often ask me, “What is it like?” And what I’ve found is that there are three kinds of trips. There are trips that make the world feel incredibly big that open your mind to the vastness of the human experience. There are trips that make the world feel incredibly small – that show you how similar we all truly are. And then there are trips to Liberia – [laughter] – visits that can only really be characterized as family reunions. And that’s why I know there’s so much talking going on, because you guys are enjoying this reunion.

It’s only fitting that when I was living in Voinjama, President Boakai gave me the Lofa name Sia, which means “first-born daughter.” He didn’t know that the superintendent had already named me Gebeh. So, I put the two together and I am known as Sia Gebeh. [Laughter.]

So, I told you this is a family reunion. You have your aunties, trying to find time to talk about some cousin’s new business venture. You have your elders, worried that you’re not getting enough food or enough sleep or enough time to visit church while you’re here – and here I’ll note that one of my very first stops in Monrovia this week was Providence Baptist Church: one of the birthplaces of Liberia’s democracy, and a home base when I lived here. And you all have all the relatives who you only see every couple of years, but when you finally reconnect, it’s like no time has passed.

This family – this family here in Liberia is a big one, and it’s a warm one in more ways than one. I’ve been lucky enough to call it mine since 1978, when I stepped off a Pan Am plane in Liberia and experienced this extraordinary country for the first but, thank god, not the last time.

And yet the story of Liberia and me is so much bigger than me. It’s so much bigger than any one of us. It’s a story that is fundamentally about freedom, and what it means to fight for it, again and again and again. It’s a story that goes back hundreds of years, when my ancestors, and I’m sure some of your ancestors, too, were stolen from their homelands and sold into chattel slavery. Many died on the journey to America, and many died helping to build it, serving those who wrote that “all men are created equal” but failed to live up to those words.

And then, in 1822, a group of their descendants boarded a ship for Liberia’s shores. Their arrival in Monrovia was a product of racism: racism that drove people to kidnap African men, women, and children in the first place; and racism that drove people to push those same men, women, and children away rather than integrate them into their free society. But their arrival was also a product of bravery, strength, and optimism – an optimism that reflected in Liberia’s declaration of independence, signed at Providence Baptist Church, and memorialized in Liberia’s coat of arms: “The love of liberty brought us here.”

I sometimes wonder if those Americans knew their arrival, their bittersweet homecoming, would mark a turning point in the history of the country, and the continent. Four decades later, America reached a turning point of its own, when at the end of a long and bloody Civil War, slavery was finally abolished. It was a turning point in my own family’s history, too. The same year African Americans were emancipated, my great-grandmother, Mary Thomas, was born: the daughter of slaves, born free – but in a world where the scourge of slavery continued through segregation and discrimination.

In the decades that followed, both of our nations have struggled to realize that vision of liberty, of freedom, of true democracy. We all should remember and recognize and acknowledge our failures, and we all should strive to become better and more perfect.

In Liberia, indigenous communities here long before Americans arrived fought for the same right to representation. In America, Black folks sat down at lunch counters and marched on Washington, relentless in their quest for equal dignity and justice. And I should note that many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement visited Liberia, as they saw this country as a beacon of hope.

In Liberia, women helped a nation rise from the ashes of war, led by Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And to this day – [applause] – to this day, no country in Africa has yet elected a woman as president. [Applause.] So, Liberia was on the cutting edge.

In America, young people worked to elect leaders that represent the extraordinary diversity of our country. And in recent years, both nations have seen ordinary citizens do extraordinary things to defend the integrity of our democracies against those who wish to undermine it.

In this room, you can see the impact of these actions – the ways in which our struggles have, over the generations, grown and strengthened our democracies. Our peoples’ quests for freedom have made it possible for the great-great-granddaughter of an enslaved American to stand before you today as a member of President Biden’s cabinet – [applause] – the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and – my proudest moment – the former ambassador to Liberia. [Applause.]

Celebrating the fact that, two centuries after the first Black Americans came to Liberia, and two decades after civil war threatened to tear this country apart, citizens peacefully voted in massive numbers, trusting that both candidates and their supporters would respect the outcome – the love of liberty, indeed.

To that end, I want to highlight President Weah’s graceful transition of power – [applause] – a transition that any country would be fortunate to receive from a leader. Liberia’s peaceful transition is especially important given the democratic backsliding we have seen across West Africa.

I’m going to give you guys a chance to catch up. You think you’re speaking quietly, but when 10 of you are speaking it gets really loud up here. So, let me start all over just in case you guys didn’t hear me. [Laughter and applause.]

Liberia’s peaceful transition is especially important given the democratic backsliding we have seen across West Africa. Throughout the Sahel, coups have denied citizens the right to dictate their own futures. And leaders have consolidated power and isolated themselves from the international community, often with dire, dire consequences. It is devastating, and it’s frustrating, because just as withdrawing from multilateral institutions can lead to violence and instability, investing in them can lead to safety and progress.

I’m close, guys. Just hold on.

You all know this better than anyone. The path to peace in Liberia ran through regional organizations like ECOMOG, and international ones like the United Nations. This was a country that once hosted over 15,000 peacekeepers. Now Liberia is contributing to UN peacekeeping missions across Africa. [Applause.]

And so once again, tonight truly is a celebration of all of this progress – of the power of choosing democracy over autocracy, multilateralism over isolation, hope over cynicism. Because ultimately, democracy is more than just a lofty idea. Democracies should deliver. Democracies deliver. Democracies protect human rights and promote economic development. It creates safer communities and ensure our voices are heard in the halls of power. It is a means to fighting our greatest challenges, from disease to climate change. But as we have seen firsthand – both here and in America – we cannot – we cannot take democracy for granted.

I said that tonight feels like a family reunion. And sometimes, the most important thing a family member can do is deliver hard truths, including the hard truth here in Liberia about corruption. You know, when I was ambassador here in Liberia, some people used to tell me, “Ambassador, you stick your nose in our business where it doesn’t belong.” [Laughter.] And what I would say to them, “If I love Liberia, I can stick my nose anywhere I want.” [Applause.] And Liberians, I want to say: this country is in my heart. [Applause.]

Last month, I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to speak at a conference on anti-corruption. And what I said there rings true in Liberia and across the world, which is that, in so many ways, corruption is the antithesis of democracy. Corruption subverts the fundamental principles of equal justice under the law. It hollows out institutions and erodes public trust. And I say this coming from a country that has had its own challenges when it comes to corruption, but corruption isn’t just unfair in principle.

When everyday government services are a pay-to-play scheme, citizens pay the price. When bribery dictates an education system, students are robbed of opportunity. When free, lifesaving medicine is stolen and sold in the black market, communities are left more vulnerable to outbreaks and less likely to survive them. And when money is stolen from government coffers, infrastructure suffers and roads go unfinished.

The power of any government, of any legislator, is endowed upon them by the people. Legislators, elected officials, work for the people. The people don’t work for them. [Applause.] In exchange for their vote, it is the expectation that their elected officials will work for them. As business leaders in this room know, you have a critical role. You have a critical role to play in holding government accountable: to introduce regulations that level the playing field so that all people can thrive – so your businesses can thrive – not only because it is the right thing to do, because it lays the foundation for foreign investment and full participation in the global economy.

I also want to talk about the other task before Liberia today, and that’s the notion of liberty – and unity. And this is personal to me. I’ve experienced firsthand the dangers of factionalism. I’ve experienced firsthand the dangers of racism. Now, I think there’s a common misconception, of dividing a country by race or tribe or political bend. Of teaching children to fear the other, rather than embrace them. Now, I think –

I think there’s a common misconception about unity – that it means ignoring people’s differences, or hiding away what makes us special, in the name of conformity. But in reality, unity is seeing those differences in others, and celebrating them – celebrating them for their differences. It’s recognizing – it’s recognizing that our individual experiences don’t preclude us from adopting a shared national identity – that whether you’re Kpelle or Bassa, or Kru or Loma, or a Congo or Americo-Liberian, you are first and foremost Liberians. [Applause.]

I know this country understands that – I know you understand it better than most – the dangers of letting democracy slip away in favor of grift and graft and disunity. Of succumbing to divides rather than finding common ground. Your country still bears the scars of war, while fresh wounds open in neighboring countries every single day.

You guys need to listen. If you want to come in, come in quietly.

I have faith in this country. I have the ultimate faith that this country is up to the task, and you have the urgent responsibility – [applause] – to continue – to continue to choose democracy over corruption and unity over division – not just on election day, not just on inauguration day, but every single day. [Applause.] That is the new administration’s task, and I think that the new administration is up to the task. I believe that the Liberian people are up to the task. [Applause.]

The market women who kept food and supplies flowing through conflict and COVID, investing in themselves and their communities along the way. The members of government who fought against each other in the civil war but now fight alongside each other on behalf of the Liberian people. The young people – the young people, ladies and gentlemen – the young people whose lives were shaped by UN Blue Helmets years ago, and who decided – who decided to become peacekeepers themselves, helping plant seeds of peace in a region plagued by conflict. The members of civil society who resist and root out corruption and sow faith in Liberia’s institutions. The journalists who speak out and share the truth. The young people learning in schools, rather than training for wars. The leaders who won gracefully, and the leaders who conceded graciously.

I’m coming to the end, guys. The extended family that welcomed me here in 1978, 2008 – 30 years later – and in 2024 that continues to open its doors to all those hoping to make a change for the better.

Friends – friends – Liberians, the story of our two nations tells us that it is not our past choices that define us, but how we reckon with those choices. How we learn from our mistakes so as not to repeat them. How we empower our children and our children’s children to aspire to things we ourselves could have never dreamed of. Let us make tonight not only a celebration of democracy but a promise to these children that we will do everything in our power to uphold this.

The love of liberty brought you here tonight. Not yesterday, not two days ago. Tonight the love of liberty brought you here. Now that same love of liberty will bring us all into the future. Know that you have an ally in me, and you have an ally in the United States.

Once again, congratulations to President Boakai and Vice President Koung. [Applause.] Congratulations to the Liberian people who voted. Congratulations to the entire nation on this historic election. And now it’s time to get to work. Thank you. [Applause.

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