Perry, Ruth 1939–
Ruth Perry 1939–
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When Ruth Perry was sworn in in 1996 as head of an interim government in Liberia, the former teacher, bank executive, and senator became the first female head of state in contemporary Africa. Yet Perry’s next challenge was a difficult one: seventeen years of political conflict and seven years of civil war had brought the once-prosperous West African nation to its knees. Viable businesses, social services, and the personal safety of Liberian citizens had disappeared. Perry’s task was to lead Liberia though a peace process that would culminate in 1997 elections and perhaps reward her with another “first”-the first female elected head of state in modern Africa.
Perry was born July 16, 1939 in the rural area of Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, the daughter of Marjon and AlHaji Semila Fahnbulleh. Her family were Vai Muslim, one of the several indigenous ethnic groups in Liberia. The country had been settled by former African-American slaves in the early nineteenth century by an American society that helped freed slaves return to their ancestral continent. Liberia became an independent country in 1847, but descendants of the African-American colonists continued to hold the majority of economic and political power. As a child, Perry learned about her Vai Muslim heritage through the Sande Society, a traditional school for youths; she also attended regular classes. Later, the Fahnbullehs enrolled their daughter in a Roman Catholic school for girls in Monrovia run by missionary nuns.
As a young woman, Perry trained at the Teachers College of the University of Liberia and worked for a time as an elementary school teacher in Grand Cape Mount. She married McDonald Perry, who would later enjoy a career as a circuit court judge and legislator. Together they would have four sons and three daughters, and when the last of the children reached school age, Perry went to work at the Monrovia offices of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1971. She also taught at the Sande School as an elder. Promoted to positions of increasing responsibility, Perry unfortunately lost her job at Chase Manhattan when the company closed its Liberian offices as a result of political tensions in 1985.
That year marked a revival of civil and political strife in Liberia. The descendants of the American slaves remained in power until violence erupted in 1979 over a government-mandated increase in the price of rice, a diet staple. Tensions led to the ousting of the Americo-Liberians the following year, and a young military officer, Samuel K. Doe, was appointed ruler. Periods of strife continued until Doe called elections in 1985, in which he “won the presidency with a seal of approval from the United States State Department in a vote that was otherwise widely perceived as stolen,” noted the New York Times’s Howard W. French. In that same election, Perry won a seat in the Liberian Senate as a Unity Party candidate. However, in response to the fraudulent election, Unity Party office-holders and other
Full name, Ruth Sando Perry; bom July 16, 1939, in Grand CapeMount, Liberia; daughter ofMarçonandAlHajiSemila Fahnbulleh; married McDonald Perry (ajudgeand legislator); seven children.Education: Graduated from the Teachers Collegeofthe University of Liberia.Religion: Muslim.
Sande School (a heritage school for people of Vai ancestry); elementary school teacher, Grand Cape Mount, Liberia; employed by Chase Manhattan Bank, Monrovia, Liberia, 1971-1985; founded a retail business; elected to the Liberian Senate as a Unity Party member, 1985; namedchairof Council of State forthe Liberia National Transitional Governments (interim government), August, 1996.
Member: Women Initiative in Liberia, Women in Action for Goodwill, Association of Social Services.
Addresses: Office-c/o Embassy of the Republic of Liberia, Washington, DC 20011.
official opposition politicians boycotted the Senate in protest, asserting that the Doe government was illegitimate. Perry did not join in the boycott and became the lone member of the opposition in the Assembly. “One cannot resolve problems by staying away,” Perry explained at the time, according to her official biography.
Perry remained a Liberian senator until 1989, when civil strife escalated between Americo-Liberian factions and groups of indigenous heritage. Doe was assassinated the following year by the rebel forces of Charles Taylor, a former Doe regime official. Over the next several years, troops from neighboring West African countries (at the behest of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States) arrived in Liberia. These ECOMOG (ECOWAS’s peacekeeping force) troops managed to restore and maintain some semblance of order, but thousands were killed and even more left homeless or forced to flee to refugee camps in neighboring countries such as Sierra Leone. West African leaders, concerned the civil strife would have a domino effect in their countries, were eager to see an end to the conflict and spearheaded negotiation talks between warring factions. Over a dozen peace accords were signed during these years, but all were broken by warring militia groups.
During this time, Perry launched a retail business and became active in civilian groups such as Women Initiative in Liberia, Women in Action for Goodwill, and the Association of Social Services that sought an end to the conflict. As a former teacher, she spoke out often on the importance of returning some normalcy to Liberia’s ravaged educational system, and also stressed the need for disarmament. The final showdown between Liberia’s warring militia groups came in April of 1996. In several weeks of fighting, nearly 3,000 people died, bringing the death toll for Liberia’s years of civil conflict to 150,000 lives; 2.6 million Liberians were homeless. By the end of May, all businesses in Monrovia were leveled, and after peacekeeping troops took control of the capital again, those Monrovians still living in the capital browsed along makeshift street stands stocked with used consumer goods in what Liberians called B.Y.O.B-buy your own back. Even international aid organizations reported widespread thefts of vehicles and supplies.
On August 17, 1996, ECOWAS representatives engineered a cease-fire between Liberia’s warring factions and announced that Perry would replace Wilton Sankawulo as chair of the Council of State in an interim government. Perry did admit to experiencing some trepidation. “I didn’t lobby for the job, but the good Lord has made his choice and I will continue to pray for guidance, “she told the Detroit Free Press. At her swearing-in ceremony in September of 1996,--a ceremony for which she wore traditional African dress-Perry became the first woman to become head of state in contemporary Africa. Reportedly all four warlords in the Liberian conflict had agreed to the peace agreement with Perry as interim leader. It was hoped that having a woman in control would set the country on the right course back to normalcy. “We have tried the men for more than five years,” a Liberian woman told the Detroit Free Press.”The whole world is now convinced that the men have failed us.”
As head of Liberia, Perry’s first priorities were to insure that the warring militia groups and citizens follow the specifications of the peace agreement. Disarmament was a top priority, as was some restoration of economic viability. Since the 1980s, Liberia has experienced extremely high unemployment, with international aid organizations becoming the biggest employers of Liberians. Federal elections were scheduled to be held in May of 1997. “I wish to seize this occasion to publicly accept this awesome responsibility,” the New York Times reported Perry as stating in her acceptance speech. “We owe this pledge to God and to the Liberian people. We have no illusions and shall endeavor to have no other loyalties to any group or faction.”
Detroit Free Press, August 19, 1996, p. 5A.
Emerge, November 1996, p. 22.
New York Times, August 19, 1996, p. A4; August 21, 1996, p. A8.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Liberian Information Center of the Liberian Embassy to the United States.
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