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A review of ‘Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’ by Helene Cooper (Simon & Schuster 2017.)
Ventures Africa

The book is a fascinating portrait of a deeply courageous, intelligent, shrewd and determined woman possessed, at an early age, of a sense of high destiny and a deeply patriotic commitment to serving her country – even if that meant making frankly rebarbative choices. Serleaf has been consistently pragmatic, determined to undo decades of despoliation visited upon Liberia by successive regimes, in some of which she served.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will end her final term in office as Liberia’s – and Africa’s first elected woman – President in January next year. She will be 79. If she manages an orderly transition, she would have capped an extraordinarily successful political journey. This journey effectively began nearly 40 years ago when, in 1979, the soon-to-be assassinated President William Tolbert appointed Sirleaf as the country’s first female Minister of Finance. Her political trajectory was by no means certain at that point: a bloody coup barely eight months later terminated that appointment.

But somehow, her preternatural instinct for political survival, and a calculating and ruthless ambition, guided her through imprisonment by the murderous junta, physical violence, a barbarous civil war and normative collapse, to the ultimate position she had seemed not at all destined for. Perhaps until 2004, she alone thought she would be President, never mind the Nobel Peace Prize winner. As a woman, her accomplishment is unrivalled in Africa; and her enemies who affect to belittle it do themselves no favours.

This achievement, both personal and political, needs to be judiciously evaluated. Her own account, This Child will be Great, published in 2009, is, though illuminating, partial and selective. Now comes Helene Cooper’s Madame President: a well-written and often insightful biography that complements Sirleaf’s account, and which, though celebratory, is not entirely uncritical.

Cooper is a journalist of the first rank, the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times; and as a Liberian-American (formerly Americo-Liberian), her depth of contextual knowledge gives an easy authenticity to her account. She established her bona fide with her affecting memoir of a charmed childhood interrupted by a coup in Liberia, The House at Sugar Beach, in 2008.

In many of the areas it covers, Madame President does not differ much from This Child will be Great, but the author presents a more complete picture of Sirleaf’s political struggles, her landmark election in 2005, her re-election in 2011, and above all her performance in office. To judge that performance fairly, one must examine both her struggles to get to the presidency, and the state of Liberia she inherited. In this Cooper does not disappoint: though obviously friendly to Sirleaf and admiring of her splendid achievements, her journalistic instinct is so strong that it leads her to dig out unflattering facts that are glossed over in Sirleaf’s own book.

What emerges from her account is a fascinating portrait of a deeply courageous, intelligent, shrewd, and determined woman possessed, at an early age, of a sense of high destiny and a deeply patriotic commitment to serving her country – even if that meant making, in some instances, frankly rebarbative choices. She has been consistently pragmatic, never articulating a grand vision or a guiding philosophy other than a drive to undo decades of despoliation visited upon her country by successive regimes, in some of which she served.

In the end, the record is of an energetic and highly capable repairwoman: repairing the enormous damage to Liberia’s image by years of nihilistic violence, re-establishing state institutions and a normative society, restoring hope to millions, and, such as it ever was, revamping the economy. One can detect from this sympathetic account no hint that she aspired, never mind succeeded, in making fundamental changes to the inherent structure of the state and the economy, whose proneness to rent-extraction and autocracy remains intact, corruption the most palpable manifestation, benefiting, as before, a small though admittedly growing elite.

That is the political Sirleaf. The personal Sirleaf is, though strong-willed, a sentimental mother, loyal to her friends, long suffering but, like every normal human being, obviously flawed; lucky overall but rather unlucky in her choice of men.

The first of that choice was her abusive husband, who she married at age 17, and who shortly after terrorised her into divorce. Women in such a situation in Africa do not dream big. In her case, the divorce was liberating: allowed to keep only one of her four sons (all born before she was 21), she continued her professional career as a civil servant at the Treasury. She could not find much solace from a lover, clearly because, burdened by her first experience of marriage, she had become distrustful of men. College education in the United States, including graduate school at Harvard, provided her better solace and company. Then there were two other, purely political, relationships with bad men.

The first was with Sergeant (shortly after General) Samuel Doe, the coup-maker who, with a handful of others, murdered Sirleaf’s boss, President Tolbert, in his bedroom; ended her ministerial career; and slaughtered 13 of her former colleagues on the beach. Miraculously, Sirleaf was spared (she had gained some fame by going rogue as a government minister, publicly criticising the corruption she saw all around her; and Doe claimed, out of character, that he had a soft spot for Sirleaf because her mother had been kind to him in the past). Doe got her instead to become an informal adviser, and later appointed her to a formal position heading a government bank. Sirleaf had a World Bank job waiting for her abroad, and she could easily leave the country, but she has explained that by accepting Doe’s offer, she thought she could influence the regime in a positive direction and perhaps help alleviate its compulsive depredations.

Other civilians, including some of the intellectuals who constituted the ‘progressive’ factor in Liberia, made the same choice perhaps for the same reason. Predictably, they were all disappointed. She resigned earlier than others, and left the country. Though she is so very much a technocrat, a highly successful international civil servant, Sirleaf is at heart a politician; and she frequently, with pardonable insouciance, abandoned important international jobs to return to her country’s dangerous political scene. Predictably, Doe later descended on her with barbaric vengeance after he foiled a coup that Sirleaf evidently supported. Cooper describes these events with great acuity, making no judgment at all, but leaving the reader with a sense that she both admires Sirleaf’s courage and political ambition, and deplores her occasional lack of judgment.

Next was Sirleaf’s early support for another man, Charles Taylor: the support was driven, not by any affinity with Taylor’s inchoate political project, but above all by a desire to rid Liberia of the sanguinary Doe. Her enemies have exaggerated this support, in large part because she handed Taylor over to be tried for war crimes. In fact, many well-meaning Liberians – including former allies of Doe whom he had forced into exile – were driven by revulsion towards Doe to support one brutal faction or another against him. It is the reason why there is almost zero support among the political elite for any real inquiry that could lead to prosecution for the crimes associated with the civil war (the Truth and Reconciliation was not such an inquiry). Sirleaf provided a persuasive account in her book about her dealings with Taylor – which Cooper judiciously iterates, adding details that make Sirleaf’s account look somewhat partial and selective.

Sirleaf states that she met Taylor exactly three times, first in a formal setting when she was Minister of Finance and met Taylor among a group of visiting Liberian activists from America; later in Paris shortly before Taylor launched his war; and still later when, as a member of the Taylor-supporting US-based Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL), in May 1990, she ventured into Taylor territory during the war to present him with $10,000 the ACDL had raised in his support. In that meeting, Taylor revealed a murderous streak and a lack of a reforming vision, vowing to destroy “all those radicals like Amos Sawyer and Baccus Mathews” who he claimed were responsible – not him or Doe – for Liberia’s woes. Taylor instead yearned after William Tubman’s era, during which, Cooper writes, Tubman ran Liberia “as if it were a village and he as its chief.” This should have given Sirleaf pause.

Cooper writes that Sirleaf made other visits and efforts to raise support for Taylor, having convinced herself that Taylor couldn’t be possibly worse than Doe. Many Liberians now find this support – from someone privileged to be living in luxury in the United States at the time – objectionable. Her jaunty interview with the BBC in July 1990, stating that if Taylor’s forces destroyed the Executive Mansion “we will rebuild it,” is particularly remembered with a rawness of feeling. Indeed, her activism at this time falls in the old world tradition of ‘revolutionaries’ who visit centres of revolution with their return air tickets, in the end merely celebrating their own security and privilege. 

Cooper writes that Sirleaf ended her “alliance with Taylor” after Taylor murdered the politician who probably won the rigged presidential elections of 1985 (which General Doe stole), Jackson Doe (no relations to the 1980 coup maker), presumably in November 1990 (page 115). Sirleaf claimed to have recommended the popular Jackson Doe to Taylor to be the face of the rebellion. Taylor, not one to tolerate rivals, instead killed Doe. (The account of that murder remains controversial.) Sirleaf, who never concealed her own presidential ambition, became a formidable foe, a rival of Taylor after the same office.

Cooper’s account of the West African-led peace efforts, the 1997 elections the region’s leaders helped organise – and in which Taylor, having intimidated the whole country, handily defeated Sirleaf – is a model of measured and accurate reporting. Sirleaf fled to exile in Abidjan. When I met her there in 2001, I found an immensely charming politician unbowed, still convinced that with a level-playing field she would beat any rival, maintaining a network of activists, many of them women, within Liberia, activists bringing her news all the time: keeping, as it were, hope alive. She never doubted that she would become President, perhaps guided throughout by an old man’s premonition about her destiny upon her birth (“This child will be great” – which she modestly used as title for her memoirs). As it happens, she convincingly won in 2005. As someone who was in Liberia during the 2005 election, I find Cooper’s account of the important role played by women, particularly Medina Wesseh, Etweda Cooper, Mary Broh and Grace Kpaan, in Sirleaf’s win persuasive.

As daunting as that journey had been, the prospect of governing what remained of Liberia was more intimidating. The civil war had killed tens of thousands of people, totally destroying the country’s already parlous infrastructure and economy: by 2003, state employees had not been paid for close to two years, and 80 percent of teachers and school administrators could not be accounted for by an audit team. The total revenue officially generated by Liberia in 2003 was only $44.2 million, and its external debt amounted to $2.9 billion (650 percent of GDP), almost all of it in arrears ($2.6 billion), and about half of which was owed to multilateral creditors. The so-called National Transitional Government of Liberia, headed by a bland kleptomaniac named Gyude Bryant, in its short lifespan did what might have seem inconceivable: made things worse.

Cooper’s description of the dynamics of Sirleaf’s presidency – particularly her adept wooing of the US government – provides valuable new insights into the thinking of the President, and shows why she had seemed more popular abroad than at home. But it served her purpose well. The first priority was to get debt forgiveness and, as they say, ‘kick-start’ the economy. In March 2006, Sirleaf got to make a direct plea to the United States from the august platform of the joint session of Congress (Cooper, overwhelmed by this honour for her hero, mentions only that it had been previously bestowed on the great Mandela. In fact, Tolbert was the first African head of state to be so honoured, in September 1976, though the event was marred by unguarded and foolish racially-tinged comments by Vice President Rockefeller and Speaker of the House Carl Albert overheard through the microphone in the House’s chamber as Tolbert made his way to the podium; Edwin Barclay addressed both houses of Congress, though less than half full, and not jointly, in 1943).

Sirleaf charmed the American ruling elite, securing concrete financial support, including forgiveness of Liberia’s crippling debt. This support has remained steady, and was most critically important during the terrible crisis of Ebola in 2014 and 2015. Though initially wobbly, Sirleaf’s handling of the crisis was far more assured and effective than that of her colleagues in Guinea and Sierra Leone, in large part because of the external support she courted and got.

It is to her credit that Sirleaf does not crow about her achievements; her last state of the nation address in January, though in large part a read-out of economic, legislative and foreign policy achievements, was measured and reflective, admitting to the persistence of corruption and the absence of reconciliation in the country. Not one can accuse her of creating a cult personality, which abounds among lesser leaders in Africa. Visiting women notables, seeing her as an inspiration and a model – or, as Cooper suggestively puts it, oracle – find, perhaps to their disappointment, a modest woman who does not demagogue about the women’s prospects in African politics.

In a chapter entitled “Empire Strikes Back”, Cooper suggests that some Liberian men, perhaps feeling humiliated at being governed by a woman, reacted to Sirleaf’s presidency by a surge of rape and domestic violence incidents. Pushbacks like these are depressingly familiar; racial outrages appeared to have increased after Obama’s inauguration, which perhaps also made possible the improbable emergence of Donald Trump. In Liberia, though the delightful Ms. Macdella Cooper remains determined to forge ahead as presidential candidate in the October elections, it has been a daunting task (her leadership was rejected in her preferred party by powerful male members, forcing her to join a newer party).

Was Sirleaf’s election a fluke? In 2005 when she was elected, only five women emerged as senators in the 50-member Senate, and eight women for the 64-member House of Representatives. In 2011, though Sirleaf was re-elected with a wide margin, women representation in the legislation showed a marked drop. Has Sirleaf done anything about this? She has over the years appointed women to prominent cabinet positions and in the judiciary (two of the five justices of the Supreme Court are women), but women currently constitute only 21 per cent of executive branch officials. In the local government, women hold less than six per cent of leadership positions in Liberia. Liberia is a long way from gender parity (or mainstreaming).

Cooper does not reflect on this issue, but in all other areas her Madame President sets a high bar for other would-be Sirleaf biographers, for there surely will be others. Sirleaf’s eventful, storied life, personal suffering, and ultimate triumph will long continue to be an inspiration to many people in Liberia, Africa, and the world.

* LANSANA GBERIE is writing a book on war, memory and politics in Liberia.



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