‘Not a loud gun,’ say Liberia’s women peacebuilders. The office of Leymah Gbowee is a hive of activity. There are at least a dozen people inside its bright, mural-covered walls at any given time. Gbowee commands authority from behind her generously proportioned desk, yelling “Come!” in response to frequent knocks on the door.
The men and women who enter, on the other hand, are relaxed and show her a lot of affection. As the Liberian Nobel Peace laureate eats a hurried late lunch, she receives hugs and kisses from friends, at least one of whom picks up her fork and swipes a mouthful of fried potato greens from her plate.
Compared to Gbowee’s larger-than-life demeanor, the older woman on the other side of the desk appears more subdued. While Gbowee, 49, wears thick-rimmed spectacles, silver trainers, and bold Bantu knots – intricate cornrows coiled into buns on her head – Etweda “Sugars” Cooper wears smart leather shoes and has her grey hair cropped short. Nonetheless, at 74, she shares her protégé’s vigor, gamely propelling her office chair across the floor to engage in a conversation on the other side of the room.
It is the end of a busy morning commemorating International Women’s Day at the Gbowee Peace Foundation’s headquarters near Monrovia, Liberia. A ceremony attended by officials, diplomats, women’s rights, and peace activists culminated in the unveiling of a memorial wall bearing the names of 300 women who were instrumental in ending Liberia’s second civil war nearly 20 years ago, led by Gbowee under the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace campaign.
As they fasted, sang, and prayed for peace while dressed in white, the women became visible in wartime Monrovia. They continued to fight in the pouring rain and scorching sun, even threatening a sex strike for as long as the fighting went on. Thousands of women from various religious and social backgrounds joined the peaceful sit-ins. Gbowee and her female peace warriors accompanied then-President Charles Taylor and rebel leaders to talks in Ghana in June 2003; when progress stalled, they blocked the negotiating hall’s exits until a consensus was reached.
From 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003, back-to-back civil wars in Liberia killed approximately 250,000 people and displaced more than a million. On Christmas Eve 1989, Taylor led a group of rebels into Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast with the intention of deposing then-President Samuel Doe. Doe was assassinated in 1990, but it took 13 years and multiple rebel groups to bring the second war to an end by signing the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Taylor was exiled, and a transitional government ran the country until Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in 2005.
Early days of comradeship
Gbowee and Sugars – who was given her nickname as a child by her sisters – first met three years before their triumph in Accra. Gbowee approached a group of established female activists at the age of 28 with the idea of establishing a Liberian branch of the regional Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), which later gave birth to the Mass Action for Peace campaign.
Sugars was a founding member of the Liberian Women’s Initiative, which had advocated for women’s rights and tried to carve out a space for women in peace negotiations since the mid-1990s. Her mother was a major influence in her advocacy because she believed that women should be recognized as people rather than as someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. “She always said, a woman is never her own,'” Sugars recalls, adding that as a result of their mother’s conviction, she and her sisters were highly educated ahead of their time and avid readers of National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek.
When war broke out, Sugars maintained her conviction: “I thought Liberia was my home, and we [the women] were the ones to do something for her.” When her children were sent to safety overseas, Sugars’ agenda was to help bring peace “to encourage them to come home and be Liberians.” Her daughter, Jeanine, is the current Minister of Agriculture.
“Sugars was unyielding in her activism,” Gbowee recalls, as Sugars bows her head in agreement. “President Taylor had stated that she was the only woman he truly admired. If she said she disliked you as a politician, she meant it, and she would never come to you in the middle of the night to ask for a dime or anything. Others could be harmed, but not she.
“She was the oracle to consult if you wanted to start a network of women’s peacebuilders,” Gbowee says matter-of-factly, “so I went to her.”
It was a good thing she did. In her role as a community social worker, Gbowee was more used to working with men, giving trauma counseling to former child soldiers. She had not expected the outpouring of anger that would follow her plan to lead the new group: “These women were sharks!”
Aside from the fact that Gbowee was an unknown entity, their cold reception resulted from deep-seated social problems. Many of the leading female activists, including Sugars, were members of the Americo-Liberian aristocracy, descended from freed slaves who settled in Liberia in the first half of the nineteenth century. This tiny minority had traditionally dominated Liberian politics, instilling inequity and complaints among the rest of the population, which were among the civil war’s root causes.
Gbowee, on the other hand, was seen as uneducated and unworthy of the leadership role by many of the women because she was a member of the Indigenous Kpelle ethnic group. Sugars, on the other hand, felt she possessed attributes that the other women lacked. “I didn’t know her at all, but I knew the other women, and my gut instinct told me she’d do a better job,” she says.
Sugars took Gbowee aside and told her to pull herself together before returning to the meeting and introducing her new protégé as the WIPNET leader. “The place went silent, no one said anything, and I was the leader,” Gbowee recalls.
Sugars continued to open doors for Gbowee as the peace movement gained traction, and the two women worked closely together from then on, fostering a solid mother-daughter dynamic. “I was coming with a new idea, and she knew the landscape,” Gbowee explains. “She served as a link between the established women’s organizations and us.”
Their shared journey has rarely been straightforward. Sugars often felt obligated to protect her mentee in the face of animosity and rumors that persisted even during peacetime, and she was chastised for doing so. Gbowee remembers meeting a noticeably distraught Sugars on the sidelines of the Accra peace talks one morning. A group of women had chastised her for portraying herself as a humble “countrywoman” by associating so closely with Gbowee: “She thought they were just reinforcing the same nonsense that caused the war in the first place.”
Gbowee became enraged at this. “I believe it transported me back to 2000 when I was judged based on my social status rather than my intellectual ability or the work I was able to do. ‘Let me tell you old witches that the next time any of you opens your mouth and talks to Sugars in that manner, I will deal with you,’ I barged into that room. But by lunchtime, we were all back together.”
While Gbowee is grateful to Sugars for putting her at the helm of WIPNET and for her subsequent mentorship and allegiance, this is just one example of their mutual support. Sugars concede she avoids the spotlight despite being a fearless activist in her own right, brokering peace deals and disarming factions at the end of the first civil war, and being impervious to the call of the gravy train as she focused on her cause. “I prefer to be in the background,” she admits.
Post-war and the co-Nobel fallout
Following the establishment of peace, Gbowee focused her efforts on furthering her education in the United States and advancing grassroots peace movements worldwide. Sugars, meanwhile, was elected mayor of Edina in 2010 before becoming superintendent of Grand Bassa County two years later.
Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011 and then-President Sirleaf and Yemeni campaigner Tawakkol Karman. The trio was honored for its “nonviolent struggle for women’s safety and women’s rights to full involvement in peacebuilding work.”
Even though she refers to Sirleaf as “my co-Nobel sister,” Gbowee is open about the schism that has developed between them. Gbowee retired as head of the government’s peace and reconciliation commission less than a year after supporting Sirleaf’s successful bid for a second six-year presidential term and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. She openly chastised Sirleaf for corruption and nepotism.
“I was speaking up because we were trying to protect the rights of the women,” she says. One of the things we said was if President Sirleaf doesn’t do well, her failure will be an indictment for women’s leadership in this country. And today we see it! You were there for 12 years, and what did you all do?”
Gbowee remembers feeling betrayed when WIPNET members went to the gender ministry and proclaimed their support for Sirleaf in the face of her criticism. “What bothered me was that some of the very women I worked with were among those who signed, declaring me a disgrace to womanhood.”
The wounds seem to have healed nine years later, as women dressed in white are out in force at Gbowee’s International Women’s Day reception, and Sirleaf is among the first guests to arrive, sitting silently at the end of the VIP row, waiting for the proceedings to begin. In a brief speech, she reveals that Gbowee intimidated her into giving a speech by threatening that “if you don’t go there and talk, they’ll say we’re still fussing!”
Sirleaf goes on to acknowledge Gbowee, Sugars, and their team of women for their crucial role in bringing peace to Liberia, paving the way for democratic elections in 2005 and “for me to become president.”
Meanwhile, when Gbowee thanks her mentor for “staying in the shadows and allowing me to shine,” the women in white give a call-and-response of “Sugars!” and “Spice!”
The future of female activism
Gbowee claims to have “stumbled upon peacebuilding.” Because of the outbreak of war, she had to abandon a long-held aspiration to become a pediatrician and apply for a social work program focusing on trauma-healing. “One of my stronger qualities has always been engaging with people,” she admits. This, coupled with her natural talent for public speaking, which she honed in school, prepared her well for the world of women’s activism.
Gbowee’s life has revolved around peacebuilding both at home and overseas since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Through the Gbowee Peace Foundation, which she launched in 2012, she offers educational support and mentorship to young Liberians and scholarships and social support to approximately 700 students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Besides, the foundation organizes peace camps worldwide to promote reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and educating young people about the war.
Gbowee works to raise the voices and work of grassroots women’s organizations worldwide, and she has aided in peacebuilding endeavors ranging from Libya to Sri Lanka. She effectively lobbied for sexual and gender-based violence triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns to be included in the UN’s call for a worldwide ceasefire during the pandemic in her role as UN Secretary-advisor General on mediation.
Gbowee concedes that the weight of her words has made her more deliberate in her advocacy. “I’m not a loud gun,” she claims. But that does not mean she is deafeningly quiet. As Liberians faced the consequences of worsening economic hardship, she used her platform as the national orator of the state-organized Independence Day celebration in July 2019 to launch a scathing assault on the ruling party’s performance and opposition.
As a result of her speech, Gbowee believes her government invitations are no longer valid. But she acknowledges this as part of activism’s loneliness, as her mentor taught her early on. “Sugars was isolated, and he was never invited to any government functions.” She was much too vocal for their liking.”
Sugars are no longer involved in front-line campaigning or public service. “What I needed was someone else to carry the torch, and that’s exactly what Leymah is doing,” she explains. “And she’s only getting started.” We could have probably avoided the civil war if we had started earlier and worked harder, but maybe we needed the crisis to show us that we still need to do a lot for Liberia.”
Gbowee declares at a Women’s Day celebration that she is looking for a woman who will one day succeed. She does, however, have reservations about the current generation of feminist activists. “It wasn’t about notoriety or who had the most likes when we were advocating for peace in Liberia. It was all about the work: we just wanted to be at peace. But nowadays, a lot of it is about winning an award, a grant, or going on a trip. There isn’t much modesty among this new generation of activists.”
One of her goals for this year is to spend more time with Sugars. “To say I’ve neglected her is an understatement.” Sugars smile wryly as Gbowee recalls their trip to a nightclub in Ghana to celebrate Sugars’ 60th birthday. “Sugars is a nice lady. The active role is over, so the next phase of our relationship is sitting under the baobab tree and soaking up all of her advice because it’s always a treat.”