Iron Lady: The Promise of Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

A few months ago, Musa Shannon was enjoying a Sunday afternoon at his new surf camp, built to lure boarders and Bettys to one of this post-war-torn country’s fledgling—but stunning—new beach destinations, when a motorcade of SUVs appeared at the top of the rocky promontory leading to the shore.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had come to pay a surprise visit.

Shannon was wearing swimming trunks like the rest of the surfers on the beach; he quickly threw on a shirt before running over to the dignitary getting out of the car. “I couldn’t believe that the president had come to check us out at Nana’s Lodge,” he said afterward. “That’s not the kind of thing we’re used to here.”

Maybe not, but then, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is not the kind of president Liberia is used to, either.

In November 2005, Liberian women strapped their babies on their backs and flocked to voting tables all across their war-racked country to elect the then sixty-seven-year-old grandmother as Africa’s first female president. It was a seminal moment in the political history of not just Liberia but the entire continent, where patriarchal rule has long dominated, leaving African women on the sidelines to fetch water, carry logs, tend farms, sell market wares, and bear children, while their men-folk launched one pointless war after another.

Since then, Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated darling of the international development circuit, has demonstrated an astonishing ability to take charge. A life spent talking tough to the lunatics around her, from Samuel K. Doe, the army sergeant who took control of the country during a bloody coup in 1980 and later jailed Sirleaf, to Charles Taylor, the former president whose decade-long rampage led to blood diamond–fueled wars in three countries, has left Sirleaf with a take-no-prisoners style and an apt nickname on the trash-strewn streets of Monrovia: the Iron Lady.


W hen Sirleaf first came into office, she faced a task that makes the global economic collapse that greeted Barack Obama look like a spat over a zoning ordinance. Decimated by twenty-five years of violence, two horrific civil wars, and umpteen coups that together had killed upwards of 250,000 of the country’s three million people, Liberia epitomized the phrase “African basket case.” There was no electricity or running water—hadn’t been any since 1992, when rebel soldiers bombed the country’s hydroelectric facilities. The streets of Monrovia were still strewn with former child soldiers—amphetamine-fueled youngsters who had known nothing but war during their young lives.

Fast-forward five years to the fall of 2010. Liberia still looks like a hellhole. But there’s electricity in Monrovia and a handful of other urban areas. School enrollment has shot up forty percent, and the country’s external debt has plummeted thanks to Sirleaf’s personal efforts with big donor countries. A tourism industry is getting off the ground; in September, Delta Airlines inaugurated the first U.S.-Monrovia flight in twenty years. Welcoming the maiden flight on the tarmac of Roberts International Airport, Sirleaf put into words what so many Liberians felt: Delta’s service, she said, had “psychological significance” for the war-battered country because it was reconnecting Liberia with its on-again/off-again love, the United States.

Now Sirleaf is running for re-election. “I have an unfinished agenda,” she said in an interview. If she wins another term, she will be seventy-eight years old when her second term is finished, but she’s not ready to hand over the reins quite yet. “We need a little more continuity to achieve what we want to achieve,” she said.

As the next election approaches, her campaign methods are leaving the boys checking to see who’s behind them. In August, she recalled Liberia’s ambassador to the United States, Nathaniel Barnes, in what most Liberians interpreted as a summary dismissal after reports surfaced that Barnes, the leader of a rival political party, had been discussing his plans to run against his boss in the next election with the Liberian expat community in the United States.

And then there’s the case of the naked George Weah and the Italian ladies. Weah, a former soccer icon whom Sirleaf beat in 2005 for the presidency, is preparing for another run. Somehow, a fourteen-year-old commercial for cologne that Weah made in Italy has suddenly surfaced in the Liberian media. Liberian political observers suspect someone in Sirleaf’s camp might have had something to do with the unearthing. In the commercial, Weah—at the time a world-famous striker with the Italian team AC Milan, walks into a restaurant to greet his white dinner date after dousing himself in cologne. He’s fully clothed at the beginning, but when the woman sees him from across the room, she’s so overcome she imagines him naked.

To get an idea of how this commercial is playing in the Liberian body politic, you first have to understand this country’s curious mix of Bible-spouting Puritanism and racial scars. Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed American blacks, many of them the mixed-race children of white slave owners, who proceeded to set up in Liberia the same kind of antebellum society they had fled in the American South—except this time, the lighter-skinned colonists were the upper class, lording it over the native Liberians. While Liberia is slowly emerging from that toxic stew, matters of race still strike deep into the heart of the average Liberian.

So for many Liberians, it was bad enough Weah was strutting around naked on Italian TV to begin with, but in front of white women?!

“Liberia: Weah Walks Butt Naked!” screamed the headline on TLC Africa , a Liberian online magazine. “The video scene portrays white women, in looks of sexual awe and ecstasy, glancing at the black man with his athletic and muscular features, exposing his genitals flipping, walking before them.”

Weah’s political supporters are trying to brazen their way through the resulting firestorm—which has taken on overtones of the Willie Horton and Harold Ford “call me” ads. “Mr. Weah committed no crime by posing butt naked,” one party official helpfully told TLC Africa . “Only constitutional deviants should not be elected,” he added, giving no hint as to what that meant.

Several Weah supporters admitted privately that the unearthed video could hurt Weah’s standing among Liberian women. But hey—politics in Monrovia is hardball, not slow-pitch. In some ways, Sirleaf may have simply been giving Weah a taste of his own medicine. When she beat him back in 2005 to become the first female elected president of an African country, winning 59.4 percent of the vote in a runoff election, Weah at first refused to accept the results.

Echoing the very behavior and mistakes of the old-guard leadership he had himself criticized during the campaign, Weah said back then that the elections were fraudulent. Announcing that “revolution is a noble cause,” he fired up the jobless young men who made up his base to take to Monrovia’s already torn-up streets to protest.

“It is our right to seek justice, and we will use all means to obtain that,” he said. His supporters subsequently clashed with police and U.N. peacekeepers with their usual chanting of “No Weah, No Peace.”


W eah eventually came to his senses, and Sirleaf got down to the business of trying to put the country back together, block by excruciating block. She put in place a truth and reconciliation committee, based on the South Africa model, to address the multitude of horrific acts of violence over the past two decades that had turned literally every single Liberian on the street into a walking survivor of horrors most Americans could never contemplate. She went to work with foreign investors; the Chinese in particular were only too happy to respond.

She undertook a public works campaign to tackle basic problems, like paving the country’s potholed main streets, teaching airport workers that they really shouldn’t hold up arriving passengers for bribes, and investing in childhood education and programs for the legions of former child soldiers who needed to learn how to be people again.

One of the first things she did after winning the presidency was to go on a campaign to stigmatize rape—particularly of underage girls, which is sadly a commonplace event in West Africa. In Liberia, as in so many other places in Africa, there had been no real law on the books that stipulates punishment for rape—so sexual predators were never prosecuted. During the 2005 presidential campaign, before she had even won, Sirleaf and a handful of female lawyers in Liberia asked the legislature to prescribe sentences for rapists. “Do you know the farthest the legislature would go is seven years?” Sirleaf said, disgustedly.

Still, in West Africa, where girls not yet into puberty are often the prey of men in their fifties, seven years was something. Sirleaf’s first test of the new law came a few weeks after she was elected, when reports surfaced that a Nigerian soldier who was part of the international peacekeeping mission in Liberia was suspected of raping a nine-year-old girl. An enraged Sirleaf was quickly on the phone to the head of the peacekeeping operation.

“Don’t let him leave Liberia,” she ordered. “If he leaves Liberia and goes back to Nigeria, they’ll free him.”

Then she went on the radio with a warning to all: “I’ve got granddaughters that age,” she said. “Those who engage in rape better know that from now on, we’re going to prosecute.”

Prosecution for men who rape nine-year-old girls should be pretty basic, but not so in places where endless war has broken down social constraints, and a population has become so demoralized that the fabric of humanity is stretched to the breaking point. But Sirleaf shares common ground with abused Liberian women.

In 1985, then forty-seven and an opposition leader against the strongman Samuel Doe, Sirleaf was arrested during a roundup of Doe’s political opponents after an attempted coup. Several soldiers came to her house at night, hauled her to the army barracks in Schieffelin, outside Monrovia, and threw her into a cell with fifteen men.

Just after midnight, the soldiers returned to the cell with a rope. It ran out after they had tied together the hands of fourteen of the prisoners, so they took Sirleaf’s shoelaces and used them to tie the last man to the group. As the future president stood shaking in a corner, the soldiers led the fifteen prisoners outside and executed them in short bursts of machine gun fire. Sirleaf was convince she was next.

Still trying to retain some patina of international legitimacy and foreign aid money, Doe had told his soldiers not to kill Sirleaf, but she didn’t know that as she sat huddled in that jail cell listening to one fellow inmate after another be gunned down outside.

Then, after the shooting stopped, one of the soldiers entered Sirleaf’s cell and tried to rape her, only to be stopped by another soldier from the same ethnic group as Sirleaf, who told her, “I will sleep on the floor here in your cell tonight so no one hurts you.”

In talking of this stroke of luck, Sirleaf likes to tell the story of an old man who, within days of her birth, visited to pay his respects. The man looked at the baby, then turned to her mother with a strange expression and said, “This child will be great.” Sirleaf often refers to this story with irony; her family would wryly remind her of it when, for instance, she was trapped in a physically abusive marriage, or when she fell into the latrine, or, for that matter, when she barely escaped rape.

But all across Africa, women dearly need for this woman to be great. They need this feisty, grandmotherly technocrat to succeed, to show the enormous potential of a continent that can be great too if only it can figure out a way to capitalize on the strength of its women. And she, too, is well aware of what she is carrying on her shoulders—the aspirations of women and girls across all of Africa, and indeed, across the third world. She says that as far as she is concerned, women do a better job of running things than men. “I look at those societies where women have been given the opportunity, and those are the societies that succeed,” she said. “I look in Africa, and I look at Rwanda, with the highest representative of women in parliament. Rwanda has transformed beyond expectations.”

Conversely, she says, “If you were to go back to countries where women have not been allowed to prosper, those countries haven’t been able to move their society along in the same way.”

Her unorthodox views—“If I had my way, I would have had an all-woman cabinet. But I didn’t have enough women to fill those strategic positions”—took some sectors of Liberian politics by surprise at first. But these days in Liberia, this unabashed exploration of girl power is having resonance throughout the country, in hard-to-get-to villages and inner-city slums.

An aid worker with UNICEF tells a story of a recent encounter she had in a rural village in Liberia. The principal of a school—a man—broke up a schoolyard scuffle between a girl and a boy. He chastised the girl—“girls don’t fight”—but not the boy. The girl looked at him when he was done and said: “Mr. Principal, please take time how you talk to me. Don’t forget a woman is president.”

Sirleaf loves that story. “I know I represent the aspirations and expectations of women,” she said. “It’s an unbelievable responsibility because I’m always under the microscope.” But, she added, “because of me the doors are open. Women are running for political office all over the continent.”


S o do women really make better leaders in Africa than men? As yet, that’s not a question with an answer. But for sure, women in Africa have done a far better job of simply holding things together than the men have. For decades now, what little structured society that has existed in war-torn African countries has existed because of the women, not the men. While the men were fighting and killing and raping and running their governments into the ground, the African women were in the fields, babies strapped to their backs, working. Old women—old in some parts of Africa can mean thirty-five or so—with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their backs, the burdens larger than the backs themselves, trudged up one hill after another to take wood for home fires. Market women in their colorful dresses huddled together on the sides of roads selling oranges, hard-boiled eggs, and kola nuts. While the men fought, young women and girls, sitting in front of village huts, bathed their sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters in rubber buckets.

These are the women that I grew up with in Liberia, the women all across Africa—the worst place there is to be a woman—who somehow manage to carry that entire continent on their backs. When their sons were kidnapped and drugged to fight for rebel factions, and when their husbands came home from brothels and infected them with HIV, and when government soldiers invaded their houses and raped them in front of their teenage sons, these women picked themselves up and kept going. They kept selling fish, cassava, and kola nuts so they could feed their families. They gave birth to the children of their rapists in the forests and carried the children on their backs as they balanced jugs of water on their heads.

These women are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s constituency—they are the women who went to the polls and put her into office, and the women who will keep her there next year, with a little help from some naked George Weah ads and the very obvious signs of development and economic renewal underway in Liberia.

In fact, the country has come so far since the Charles Taylor days of U.N. blood diamond sanctions that American law enforcement officials recently went out of their way to laud their Liberian counterparts for stopping a South African–Colombian drug ring.

Drug traffickers had met with two senior Liberian officials—one of them Sirleaf’s stepson, Fombah—and offered them millions of dollars in bribes to ensure safe passage for cocaine shipments, to be sent by boat or plane through Liberia and then reshipped to markets in West Africa and Europe. But the Liberians were working with the DEA. In June, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan announced the unsealing of narcotics conspiracy charges against nine defendants in the case.

Russell Benson, who oversaw the investigation as the DEA’s regional director, said the traffickers “wanted a safe haven that they could exploit as long as they could.” They did not think that the president’s stepson “would consider the rule of law more important than taking a bribe, and he picked up the phone and called us.”

Sirleaf and her stepson were in close contact during the operation. “It was a big deal,” she said. In a place where bribes to government officials used to be as routine as the crow of the rooster every morning, the actions of Fombah Sirleaf still have Liberians shaking their heads in wonder.

“Just think of what would have happened if he had been able to be compromised,” Sirleaf said.

She sounded both pleased, and awestruck, at the same time.

Helene Cooper is a correspondent for the New York Times.

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