An admiring, conversational biography of the first elected woman head of state in Africa.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in her own memoirs, tells the story oAn admiring, conversational biography of the first elected woman head of state in Africa.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in her own memoirs, tells the story of a visitor to her parents house went over the baby and prophesied: 'this child will be great'. Cooper, a correspondent for the New York Times with Liberian roots, knows this is a translation. Liberian English is so distinct as to be barely intelligible by outsiders. The original is more like "Ma, de pekin wa'na easy oh."
Liberian societal roles, as well as her family's precarious financial status, did not look promising. She married at age 17, and had four children. It was a lonesome marriage to an abusive husband. When an opportunity came, she seized it with both hands and never let go. When her husband went to the United States to earn a graduate degree, she came along and earned a degree in accounting, and then a job at the Liberian treasury department. She left her husband, and then moved further up the ladder, with degrees from the Harvard Kennedy school, forming networks with international finance, and then becoming the finance minister under President William Tolbert.
Tolbert was overthrown in a military coup in 1980, the result of tensions between Americo-Liberians (descendants of those sent over in the 19th century) and the native population. Almost all of Tolbert's cabinet was killed by firing squad, but Sirleaf was kept alive. She fled the country a few months later to work in a finance job, but then was drawn back to Liberia to run for a Senate position in 1985. She was placed under arrest for criticizing the military dictator, Samuel K. Doe, but was soon released under international pressure. The country fell into civil war in the 1990s, and Doe's reign of terror collapsed into unrestrained chaos.
By 2005, Johnson-Sirleaf ran as a candidate in the presidential elections. Her core constituency was the women of Liberia, who had endured the unendurable in the civil war, and she won over due to relentless campaigning, her identification with their struggle, and voter registration drives. Her administration was the first Liberian president with coherent policies in decades and perhaps its first competent president ever. It was marked by years of peace, re-establishment of basic services (paving the roads, intermittent trash collection), and most importantly, the waiving of almost $5 billion of foreign debts.
Cooper notes her approval was not unanimous - some officials still squirreled away funds, and she was dogged by accusations of nepotism after appointing a relative to a key position. But she still won the 2010 election by a much larger margin than before, and was an international darling for her effort. I hoped that the author was able to interview more of Sirleaf's democratic opponents and some of the citizens who would disagree with her - but let's be fair, many of her opponents and those who reigned in terror before are now beyond the pale.
Sirleaf had the qualities and ability to so nimbly tread the tightrope of political success. She knew how to adapt, how to speak other languages, how to appeal to Liberia's ethnic groups and constituencies, and to foreign institutions. She was also a survivor, where rage and indignation and maltreatment was the means and motivation to soldier on.
The book closes with an account of the Ebola crisis. Sirleaf was quick to marshal foreign aid, and the decisive international response led to the eradication of Ebola within a year. Even so, the plague torched much of the deliberate progress made over the past ten years, and her final term in office ends soon. But Liberia goes on, remembering its pain and now with a more than a touch of pride....more