By: R. Joyclyn Wea with New Narratives
She has held high-ranking United Nations positions in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa and learned firsthand about post-war democracy building and development. Now Rev. Sara Beysolow Nyanti says she wants to bring that knowledge home by serving Liberia as president.
“I’ve worked across the world, serving as the lead on development, but also as the lead on humanitarian responses as well,” Nyanti says. “I have worked leading teams in conflict, post-conflict, and other contexts, so I know what works and doesn’t work in a least developed country like Liberia.”
Nyanti is one of two women among the 20 candidates vying for the presidency in elections on October 10. She is representing the African Liberation League, a newly formed grassroots political party that registered with the National Elections Commission in May.
Nyanti follows a path carved out by Liberia’s groundbreaking first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2005 became the first woman elected to lead an African nation. Despite Sirleaf’s success women’s representation in elected office has remained low. Just 11% of the 103 seats in the Legislature are held by women, one of the lowest rates in Africa. Women made up a disappointing 15% of candidates vying for office in the October 2023 poll, meaning women’s representation in the next parliament risks falling even further.
“Liberia needs a female president right now whether she’s ready for it or not,’’ Nyanti told New Narratives in an interview at Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia. “Liberia needs a mother. Liberia needs the compassion of a mother. Liberia needs the love of a mother. Liberia needs the sternness of a mother. Liberia needs the discipline of a mother.’’
Photo credit: Sara Beysolow Nyanti
Before Nyanti announced her candidacy there was speculation that she might become a running mate to one of the leading opposition contenders in the race—Vice President Joseph Boakai, Alexander Cummings, or Tiawan Gongloe, but Nyanti says none of the other candidates shared her vision.
“I had also looked at my own vision for Liberia, where I think the country should be headed, and where I think people should be focusing in the next 10 to 20 years,’’ she says. “You have many people who have many different views and visions for the country. But none really fit into what I believe is the best for a country like Liberia.”
Though poll watchers give her low odds of winning the race, Nyanti says she entered because she realized that many voters were undecided or apathetic about voting because they have no confidence in the current crop of politicians.
“Some people don’t want to participate in our democratic process and I thought it was important that I provide an alternative so that all can engage and see the alternatives that we have as Liberians and decide where we want to take the country and who we want to identify to lead us towards that trajectory.’’
photo from Sara’s endorsement in District #17, Montserrado County in Brewerville
Nyanti’s career started in the National AIDS Control program during the reign of former President Charles Taylor. She wrote Liberia’s first proposal for the worldwide Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Nyanti also began working in her Brewerville community during the height of the civil war. She started clean-up campaigns in neighborhoods when people couldn’t return to their homes.
The U.N. Development Program (UNPD) lured her overseas from the Ministry of Health in 2005. Nyanti’s first international post was as the Global Fund’s Program Manager in Nepal. Over the next 17 years, Nyanti moved up the ranks, serving in high-profile positions in conflict and post-conflict countries: UN Resident Coordinator in Nepal (2021); United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Yemen (2019-2020); and the Gambia (2015-2017).
Dolores Edwards Togba, one of Nyanti’s colleagues with the UN Mission in South Sudan, said Nyanti was a professional with high integrity who would accomplish anything she set out to do.
“She’s very determined. You cannot tell Sara ‘this cannot be done’,” says Togba by phone from South Sudan. “She will say, ‘Okay, it cannot be done but I know I can do it’. And a majority of the time she does it and she does it to perfection. Even the bosses at the UN have a high level of respect for her, because they know that she’s she gets things done, and she has what it takes to be a leader.”
Rev. Nyanti was born in 1968, the oldest of seven children of Deacon Winston Beysolow with roots in Cape Mount, Margibi, and Montserrado counties. In a powerful 2021 speech where Nyanti hailed all the strong Liberian women who inspired her, she singled out her mother, Frances Hayes, “who worked multiple jobs to support her children.”
Nyanti was ordained a reverend and Baptist minister at the Zion Grove Baptist Church in Brewerville. She holds a doctoral degree in transformational leadership and a master’s degree in public administration from the distance learning New Charter University in Utah in the United States as well as as attended the Cuttington University.
Nyanti has also been running Social Movement for Change, her own NGO, for 10 years. The project is self-funded, doing the social movement for change, house-to-house mobilization, and partnership with communities to address their developmental needs.
The idea is that citizens from impoverished communities can develop their own communities. Nyanti has used the model to work with citizens in Brewerville and Bangor communities to build wells and learning huts to provide counseling and educational support for adolescent girls. The model has led to the construction of two learning huts that hire female teachers and female social workers.
Nyanti’s party, the African Liberation League, is running on the mantra of “all Liberians or no Liberia.”
The party’s manifesto, she says, focuses on seven pillars: health, education, labor, economic growth, agriculture, safety, and security, and streamlining government spending. She promises to tackle graft by creating a fast-track corruption court within the first 100 days. She wants to also strengthen integrity institutions such as the General Auditing Commission. She will institute a whistleblower policy and create systems for citizens to report cases of abuse by authority.
Poverty reduction will start with a focus on food security.
“Right now, over 90% of our food is imported,” Nyanti says. “How do we ensure that we strengthen our agricultural sector in a way where we can create jobs and ensure that farmers are guaranteed to purchase their crops and encourage subsistence farming?”
Nyanti has also guaranteed a 50/50 gender representation in her administration. “Naturally, a woman will think about the rights of her people, she would think about how she can ensure sustainable peace,’’ she says. Her administration will develop a fund for women and youth to start businesses or expand existing businesses.
Nyanti says an executive committee will be established to assess the effectiveness of each minister, deputy minister, assistant minister, and political appointee. She committed to strengthening the civil service.
“I want results. We’re going to have a strengthened civil service that will ensure that it’s not just about who came to work, but who delivers which results and how the results can be tracked in terms of contributing to the development plan. Our system should withstand the change in political leadership. Our system should withstand party changes. And that’s not happening. Gone are the days of just coming to work and having a position or a title.”
A Nyanti government would not implement a war crimes court.
“From the creation of Liberia until today, there have been crimes and hurts and pains from our foundation. And I think we need to have a holistic look at it, we need to have a Historical Commission that looks at all of the hurts and pains of all of the Liberians around the world, and how we address them inclusive of justice. But, just identify one problem (the war). I think it will not complete our healing.”
Nyanti has been campaigning widely since entering the race late in rural and urban cities of the country. The Vision-Saving and Loans Association, an all-female organization with over 300,000 members, recently endorsed her. But it likely won’t be enough this time say experts.
“I love Sara but I don’t think she has a chance in this election because her platform has not been sold to the public for a long time,” says Amelia Dukuly, head of Sisters of Substance for Progress, a women’s rights group. “So many people don’t know her and what she is capable of doing.”
Still Dukuly is pleased that women are running and their voices are being heard. “For elections to be truly free and fair women must have the same opportunities as men to participate in all aspects of the electoral process,” she says. “Women are entitled to enjoy these rights and freedom on the same basis as men.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.