Monrovia – When Cornelia Kruah-Togba, 29, was a teenager who couldn’t vote in the 2005 general and presidential elections for her candidate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, she convinced the one person who could – her mother.
“I became a champion for Madam Sirleaf’s Presidency,” she says. “My target was my family especially my mother because, at that age, I believed that was the highest level of influence I had. I managed to get my mother to vote her in 2005.”
Liberia election laws state eligible voters must be 18 and above. Then 15, Cornelia would have to wait for the next election cycle—six years later— to cast her first ballot.
“In 2011, I co-founded one of the biggest auxiliaries of the Unity Party called the University Students for the Re-election of Madam Sirleaf. In both instances, my drive was simply because Madam Sirleaf inspired me to believe I could do anything I wanted to do and be anything! I, therefore, wanted to ensure that I help make her dream come true as well.”
That inspiration, she says, began when she was a little girl attending the St. Teresa Convent High School, an all-girls high school in Monrovia. There, she added, she was reminded by her teachers about the great women who were alumni of the institution and blazed the trail before her.
“I remember my female teachers reminding me to actualize my best self to embrace the glorious burden of continuing the legacy of great women who walked those same halls,” she says.
“I remember growing in an ecosystem of other emerging female leaders who were passionate about public service and who mutually supported each other’s shared aspirations.”
Taking those words with her, Cornelia joined the inaugural class of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a community of young entrepreneurial leaders and changemakers from twenty-eight countries across Africa where she won several awards, earned her Bachelors and Masters from Stella Maris Polytechnic University (Monrovia) and Kingston University (UK) enrolled at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia, and very recently, the wife and mother of one was chosen as one of two Liberian fellows for AMUJAE. The other is former Assistant Minister of Gender, Kula V. Fofana.
AMUJAE, which means “We’re Going Up” in the Kru dialect is the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, started by Nobel Laureate former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The center was launched at the Farmington Hotel in Margibi on International Women’s Day and was graced by several distinguished personalities, including former Nigerian President Olusegun Obassanjo, former Malawian President, Dr. Joyce Banda amongst others.
Its mission, according to the center, is to inspire and prepare women to unapologetically take up roles and excel in the highest echelons of public leadership, and to bring other women along.
“The AMUJAE initiative goals are” enhancing the capacity of women in public service, to strengthen the ties among a growing network of capable and experienced women, embolden women as they navigate career paths in public leadership and to positively influence public’s perception of women leadership across Africa.”
“The first cohort of ‘AMUJAE Leaders’ taking part in the program come from countries across the continent – women from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Guinea, among other nations. With backgrounds in law, government, business, education and activism, their achievements are as varied as their origins, but they all have a common purpose; to serve their countries and advocate for their fellow women.”
President Sirleaf, Cornelia says, has been a role model for her since 2005 when the Nobel laureate made a run for the presidency following the cessation of the civil crisis.
“At a young age, I had heard a lot of stories about her. The woman who got married at 17, had her sons but still went on to graduate from Harvard University. The woman who won the Senate of Montserrado but refused to take office because she and her party believed the election was marked by fraud. The woman who spoke against the ills of society and against mismanagement of the state to the extent of getting arrested. These were all stories that attracted me more to following the life of Madam Sirleaf in order to learn from her and hopefully get an opportunity to be mentored. “
She says her selection is a testament to the work she has done over the years. “Being selected for this program based on my contribution to country and advocacy for women’s involvement in leadership comes as an accomplishment. I feel proud that I set a goal a few years ago and I’m achieving it.”
Over the last decade, she served six years in a slew of public sector positions, including chief of office staff in the office of former Minister of Education, George K. Werner, a program assistant in the President Delivery Unit at the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs, executive assistant to former Minister of Public Works, Gyude Moore, and youth program officer at the Angie Brooks Randolph International Center.
Her selection, she intimated, comes with a lot of pressure. “As AMUJAE leaders, we are expected to ensure that we and other women reach the zenith of leadership. This is a huge task—one that requires a lot of intentional planning and actions.”
But intentional planning, hard work, and actions are the knack which Cornelia has always been known for, says James Kiawon, manager of strategy and development of The Khana Group. The duo were the first Liberians in the inaugural class of the ALA and he would later graduate from Princeton.
“She is a hard worker and a doer,” he remembered. “Cornelia is a natural leader who attracts following. It was and still is amazing how easily people submit to her authority. It is amazing how a group of highly-educated people, ambitious, and forward-thinking emerging naturally around one person.”
Kiawon’s view is shared by Mr. George K. Werner, former Minister of Education, who maintains he’s not surprised by the inroads of his former staff. “She’s intelligent driven, ambitious and independent in her thinking. She’s a leader.”
For Mahmud Johnson, founder and CEO of the cosmetic brand, Kernel Fresh, Cornelia’s organizational skills is an added advantage. “She’s able to assemble a team and get things done well. I believe that through AMUJAE, she’ll get the training, mentorship, networking opportunities and access to the kind of support she needs to take on a bigger role in public life.”
But overall, Cornelia says, she remains buoyed by the achievements of President Sirleaf.
“Madam Sirleaf, despite all the political hurdles, became the first woman African President. This is a big deal for me being a woman in politics. This is a big deal for me being a woman in politics.
“This singular achievement makes the shoes so big to be filled. However, the Amujae Initiative is there to guide us through this process. We’ll have giants on whose shoulders we can stand to achieve our goals through the mentorship component. Thankfully, Madam Sirleaf and other women leaders who have risen to the highest seat have laid the foundation so that our tasks become less difficult.”
The foreseeable future looks shiny over the horizon for Cornelia Kruah-Togba whose dream is to fill up the shoes of her role model – becoming President of Liberia.
For the little girl who once walked through the walls of St. Teresa Convent with big dreams, it sums up in the words of the woman who shattered the glass ceiling in Africa: “If your dreams don’t scare you, then they aren’t big enough.”
Gboko Stewart is a freelance journalist