Sunday, April 9, 2017

Liberia's Iron Lady

Following is my review of  Madame President - The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper, Simon and Schuster, NY, 2017.

This is an authorized biography that is really glowing in its depiction of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president. Ellen or Ma as she is called by many of her constituents rose to power via the votes of women. By 2005 Liberian women had had enough of war, of rape, of terror, of destroyed families, of lives lost and of livelihoods devastated. So when the time came they were rallied and did rally around to assure that a woman would lead Liberia out of perdition.  Ellen, who is still president, began that process, which continues today. 

A woman did not fit the mold for political leadership in Africa. So how Ellen rose to such heights is the grist of the book. She was not from the traditional ruling class of descendants of freed slaves from America that founded Liberia in the 19th century and who shamelessly ruled as an aristocratic class for 150 years. However, Ellen resembled them on account of a German grandfather. Light complexions counted for much in 20th century Liberia. Ellen’s father was an up-country African, son of a chief of the Gola tribe.  Ellen grew up privileged. She went to the right schools where she proved her academic mettle. She wed young, had four sons, but her marriage to Doc Sirleaf did not last; not the least because of physical abuse.  Ellen managed an American education and became an accomplished economist. For thirty years she was only sporadically in Liberia while otherwise gainfully employed in international finance by the World Bank, the United Nations or several private banks. 

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf lamented Liberia’s slide into chaos and terror under Master Sergeant Samuel Doe who took power in 1980.  She initially supported Charles Taylor when he invaded in 1989 and thus began a new round of violence. Doe was killed in 1990, but civil war dragged on for years. Ellen quickly realized her error in endorsing Taylor as his true colors emerged. He was a violent, vengeful leader whose militia, including child soldiers, wreaked havoc on the citizenry. Thenceforth she opposed him and battled him politically at every turn, even running against him for the presidency in 1997. Taylor was ousted in 2003 and fair elections were held in 2005.  As the book recounts, politics in Liberia - as in most of Africa - was essentially a man’s game, so how Ellen and her supporters prevailed is a good story. But prevail she did; then as president used her knowledge, experience and contacts in the international system to get Liberia’s debt rescinded and to gain support for Liberia’s economic recovery. Most importantly, she ushered in a new era of peace. Her accomplishments led to a second term in 2011. 

Alas, just as matters were looking better, Ebola struck in 2014 and again Liberia went into crisis.  However, yet again Madame President’s steady hand and solid leadership helped surmount the problem. 

Author Cooper’s prose is precise and readable.  Although favorable towards Madame President for the most part, the author also frankly addressed shortcomings and lapses in judgment.  That criticism along with regular insertions of dialogue in Liberian English provided a good dose of reality and local color to the saga. 

I served in the U.S. embassy in 2002 while Taylor was in power and later led a team of observers for the 2005 voter registration drive, so am familiar with places, issues and some personalities mentioned in the book.  However, even persons with no inside knowledge of Liberia will find this biography fascinating and enlightening. It is indeed the story of a strong and determined woman. It is well worth reading.