Liberia An Uncompromising Woman



Taryn Simon for The New York Times

“Tell them to stop leaning on the fence!” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and the first woman ever elected head of state on the continent of Africa, ordered the leader of her security team. We were driving along one of the scarce paved avenues in her nation’s capital, Monrovia. With her convoy rode United Nations gunmen, part of a peacekeeping force of 10,000 charged with preventing a conflagration in the aftermath of 14 years of horrific civil war. The fighting ended in 2003, but outside the windows of Sirleaf’s S.U.V., the skeletons of abandoned buildings and the cries, at once thrilled and desperate, of the onlookers along the president’s route were signs of the country’s position near last on any list of how well the world’s nations are functioning. Yet Sirleaf’s attention narrowed on a bit of black iron railing and a cluster of leaning teenage boys. The simple, wilting fence — a rare adornment on the avenue’s median and a hint of order in a city still reeling from war’s anarchy — looked close to collapse. The 71-year-old president’s focus, always exacting, grew fierce. “Tell them to stop,” she repeated in her scratchy voice. She meant for her security man to radio back to someone else in the convoy to scold and scatter the boys. It seemed she would have rather done the scolding herself. Below her purple, geometrically patterned head wrap of African cloth, severe grandmotherly disapproval seized her face. “They will break that fence!”
Sirleaf, who beat a Liberian soccer star, George Weah, to win the presidency in 2005, and who has announced that she will run for a second term next year, is seen as a figure of profound hope for Africa by many in the West and as a savior by some Liberians, partly because she is so stern, her resolve palpable and her standards high, and partly because she is a woman. Her rivals in the next election are likely to include Weah again, as well as an ex-rebel commander named Prince Yormie Johnson, who slaughtered one of the country’s recent presidents.
Sirleaf would agree with the assessments of why she should keep running Liberia. She takes pride in working long into every night and in standing above — and, as much as possible, standing up to — the country’s legendary and crippling government corruption. She credits some of her strength to having survived a violently abusive husband. And she doesn’t hesitate in declaring that women make better leaders. Women lead more than a quarter of her ministries. If she could find enough qualified females, she told me this summer, and if she could make changes across the board without upsetting political balances, she would appoint women to lead every one of them.
“Women are more committed,” she said, as we rode past one of the Monrovia neighborhoods that has recently regained public electricity, after Sirleaf’s administration started mending the capital’s electrical grid that was damaged by the war’s ravages. The rest of the city relies on private generators, with most of the cratered streets pitch dark at night. “Women work harder,” she continued. “And women are more honest; they have less reasons to be corrupt. They don’t have so many diversions. Men have more than one wife; they have their concubines. We have polygamy here, not polyandry.” She laughed quietly at her pointed logic.
Sirleaf’s precise, pointed manner has helped make her a darling in the world of international aid, a reason for believing that the rescue of Africa, with all its misrule, remains possible. Right before she tried to save the keeling fence, she sat in a booth at a Monrovia radio station. She educated listeners about the $4.6 billion worth of debt relief her government had just gained through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Her administration won the reprieve by designing and starting to implement an auspicious set of fiscal reforms. The relief was, she said to me, perhaps the most important achievement of her presidency so far. And certainly her skilled and perpetual soliciting of international support — including the forgiven billions; a $20-million-plus loan program for Liberian businesses set up by the African-American entrepreneur and Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson; and $500,000 newly awarded by an American sorority to help Liberia’s market women — has been a centerpiece of her leadership.
“Dey pour penalty on top,” she explained from the ramshackle radio station, as the broadcast reached much of the country of around three and a half million; its land — about the size of Ohio — runs from West African beach to jungle interior. Speaking in Liberia’s patois to make sure she was understood, she lectured on the consequence of the debt that had accumulated over decades and dwarfed the nation’s current $350 million annual budget: “We could no borrow a penny!” She talked about the more modest loans — with better terms — she will seek and can well hope to get, now that Liberia has been granted this fresh start and vote of confidence.
It was, to an extent, a typical political performance, a president telling her people how wisely she served them. And I couldn’t help wondering whether the new loans Sirleaf anticipated, with their generous deferrals of payment, would only result later in another round of impossible amounts owed, another round of forgiveness sought from the world’s powerful nations, another confirmation of Liberia’s — and Africa’s — mismanagement and dispiriting dependence on international charity.
Yet Sirleaf’s no-nonsense tone hushed misgivings. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and a reputation for fiscal vigilance dating back to her rise through Liberia’s financial ministry in the late 1960s and ’70s. By the ’80s, her stances against dictatorial repression and official plundering earned her a sentence to prison and years in exile.
“We see her as one of us,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, said, describing Sirleaf’s appeal to Western diplomats and dispensers of aid. Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American who originally came to Liberia as a doctoral student studying rice production in the late ’70s, and who heard about Sirleaf then, stressed the importance of Sirleaf’s having worked, while in exile, as a senior U.N. official and as a Citicorp vice president in Nairobi in charge of the bank’s African operation. Sirleaf, she said, straddles worlds with agility. The president is able to address Liberian constituents in ways that disarm distrust of her “book” learning; she has managed to work with old political enemies now in the Liberian Legislature; and, the ambassador said: “She speaks our language. We know, with her, that good governance and corruption are being taken seriously. She’s tremendously well liked. We know our dollars are being well spent. And then there’s the fact that she’s a woman — the first. We don’t want to see her fail.”
Thomas-Greenfield described Sirleaf’s lobbying style: “I wouldn’t say that she’s charismatic. It’s more that she’s very serious, very focused. Down to the most minute detail.” This was easy to imagine, given Sirleaf’s attention to the fence amid all else that is awry after a war that unleashed widespread rape and the conscription of child soldiers, perhaps as young as 7, some of them forced to kill their own parents. “She’s bringing this country out of darkness into light,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Not all Liberians, though, are so enthusiastic. Plenty do recognize Sirleaf’s favored status among international benefactors — and Liberians tend to be keenly aware of the importance of foreign benevolence. But Sirleaf has been in office four years now, and there is a level of impatience with her leadership that I didn’t hear on my last trip to Liberia a year ago. She may still be beloved by some as “Mama Ellen,” and she may be likely to win another term, yet many Liberians are resentful that they continue to count on packs of vigilantes to protect them, because the police — whose starting salary is just over $4.50 a day — are ineffectual and relentlessly corrupt and the courts too slow to matter. Bureaucrats high and low go on requiring bribes and siphoning government funds in ways that have long robbed the country of infrastructure and debilitated the economy. “We can’t stamp it out, not yet,” Sirleaf said to me, clenching her fists in frustration over the country’s bone-deep corruption. She spoke of being torn between firing every transgressing official and keeping enough ministers and staff members at their desks so the government can go on operating, no matter how badly it is compromised. And meanwhile, unemployment in the country, whose population shifted heavily to Monrovia during the war, stands as high as 85 percent by some estimates. Instilling faith that Liberia’s economic wasteland can be redeemed, however gradually, may be the only way to ensure long-lasting peace, especially with the U.N. troops expected to start pulling out after next year’s elections. Over the radio, Sirleaf put the emphasis on gradually. “I beg you I no magician,” she said, letting a plea seep into her lecture. “I can’t just wave a magic wand.”
The president has
a light, red-brown complexion; skin that serves as a particular reminder of one cause of her country’s implosion. Liberia was founded — as a coastal settlement in 1822 and as Africa’s first republic in 1847 — by free American blacks, and the settler class that developed did all it could to replicate the American society it had sailed away from. The men wore top hats and tails; the women, bonnets and bustles. The republic designed its flag after the Stars and Stripes of the United States, named its capital after the U.S. president James Monroe and subjugated the tribes within its borders in ways that sometimes resembled outright slavery.
Not until 1980 did Liberia have its first indigenous ruler, Samuel Doe, an army sergeant whose coup can be understood as a surge of long-­suppressed rage. He disemboweled the president, then executed 13 government ministers before a crowd of hundreds on Monrovia’s beach. Today, the divide between the people Liberians refer to as “native” and those called “Americo-Liberian” still plagues the nation. And Sirleaf, whose complexion is lighter than just about any Liberian’s, has pointed out frequently and emphatically that her color is misleading, that she actually has no Americo-Liberian blood whatsoever, that she does not belong to the racial elite whose greed and historic oppression is named by some as the origin of Liberia’s brutal collapse.
Sirleaf’s complexion and her privileged childhood make for a complicated story. She is the granddaughter, on her father’s side, of a prominent rural chief and one of his eight wives, and on her mother’s of a market woman and a German trader who was soon banished from Liberia, along with all Germans, as Liberia proclaimed its loyalty to the United States at the start of World War I. It’s the German lineage that lightens Sirleaf’s skin, but the access to education and power that elevated her girlhood stems from a Liberian tradition known as the ward system.
Since the early years of the republic, the poor have often sent their sons and daughters to live with the better off, to serve them in return for the promise of schooling and the hope of other opportunities. In this way, indigenous children have cleaned the homes and cooked the meals of the settler class. They have belonged, more or less, to their warder families, as something between slaves and foster children; they have generally been given their warders’ last names. Over generations, the tradition hasn’t eradicated distinctions of blood and status — the schooling provided can be meager and the chance for advancement minimal — but it has blurred the lines. And in Sirleaf’s case, it eliminated them. Sent from his remote village to Monrovia as a ward, her father was treated relatively well, in Sirleaf’s telling, because his father, as a chief, had become acquainted with the nation’s president. Her father apprenticed himself to a lawyer, then practiced as a lawyer and, before a stroke paralyzed him in his 40s, became the first indigenous man elected to Liberia’s House of Representatives. Sirleaf’s mother, after a cruel stint with her first settler family, was claimed by another warder and raised generously — in part because of her nearly white skin.
Sirleaf’s own rise started with sheer girlhood determination. She reminisced with me about her preparations for a fistfight with a neighbor girl over a stolen plum. When she was about 9, Sirleaf asked her grandmother to arrange for her to be given “a potion, fighting medicine.” The underside of her left wrist was sliced repeatedly with a razor blade, the potion spread into the wounds. She showed me the still-visible dark scars, as a sign of how badly she wanted to win that battle.
Her older sister, Jennie Bernard, recalled Sirleaf’s drive and success in school, yet at 17 Sirleaf detoured abruptly from ambition when she fell in love with a man seven years older who had just returned home after going to college in the United States. He married her and took her along when he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for a master’s degree in agriculture. She enrolled as an undergraduate at a local business college and, when they were strapped for cash, worked in a drugstore. Jealous of her time and ashamed of her menial job, her husband, who has since died, lurched into the store one evening, she recounted, ripped a broom from her hands and screamed that she should be home. He drank and grew more and more aggressive in Madison and when they moved back to Monrovia. At one point, he struck her head with the butt of a gun. Her sister remembered that he once walked into Sirleaf’s office, during her early years at the ministry of finance, and slapped her for working late.
In reflective tones, Sirleaf spoke with me about his love for her and his possessiveness. She wrested herself from the marriage at last, she said, after he leveled a gun at her in front of one of their four young sons. The boy grabbed a can of mosquito repellent and tried to spray it in his father’s eyes to wake him from his blind rage.
Sirleaf’s marriage seems
to have hardened a resilience she always possessed and to have steeled her against the violence that was coming to her country. By the time Samuel Doe carried out his murderous coup in 1980, she had earned her master’s at Harvard with the help of an American economics professor advising the government in Monrovia, and she was Liberia’s minister of finance. In the overthrow, she had reason to expect to be killed, by Doe himself or by the roving throngs taking revenge on well-off Monrovians. Yet she managed to survive, by her account, through a combination of composure and a knowledge of financial matters that Doe desperately needed. At the dictator’s request, she ran one of the nation’s largest banks; then, after rebuking the regime for greed and corruption, she fled into exile. When Doe sought the legitimacy of being elected, she risked returning to Liberia and taking an acerbic part in the campaign against him. She was locked up and sentenced to 10 years, then was let go almost immediately, partly because of pressure from the Reagan administration, which supported Doe as a cold-war ally. The experience didn’t stop her from defying Doe. Soon she was taken captive again by his men, threatened with rape and told she would be buried alive. Released, she went back into exile.
In 1989, while living in the United States, Sirleaf raised money for an insurgency against Doe led by Charles Taylor, who went on to stoke the country’s all-consuming war, who claimed Liberia’s presidency in a dubious election in 1997, who enriched himself immensely during his rule and who is now on trial, in a special court at the Hague, charged with crimes against humanity committed as he stirred war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Because of her early and enthusiastic backing for Taylor, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with helping the nation to heal, recommended last year that she be barred from public office for 30 years. The proposal, which holds no legal power, seems to be viewed by Liberians and Westerners, and by Sirleaf herself, as almost precious. “We were trying to bring down a dictator,” Sirleaf said to me, with more impatience than apology. We were creeping along a mud road just outside Monrovia, where the city gives way swiftly to villages and bush. She was going to a ceremony for a new maritime-training center that, she hoped, would help Liberians land jobs as deckhands on foreign ships. As her convoy approached a village, a dusty man beat a conga drum that had a badly torn head, and an impromptu, bedraggled choir sang in tribute. Ordering the convoy to stop, Sirleaf directed one of her staff workers to give the village leader about $20 in cash. It was Sirleaf’s money. She did this regularly. She glanced at me, chagrined by the impropriety in the gesture — but, again, hardly apologetic. There was no government system of support for the poor, she said tersely; this, for now, was the best she could do.
One reality she contends with — the nearness of her nation’s explosive history — may be best captured by the presidential candidacy of Prince Yormie Johnson, the rebel who, in 1990, after a split from Taylor, captured Doe. With a video camera recording the proceedings, Johnson drank beer and looked on while his henchmen sliced off the president’s ears. The killing came later. The video is currently sold by peddlers in the capital’s downtown. Johnson’s run for president might be considered a macabre joke, except that in 2005 the people of his home region elected him to the Liberian Senate. “It’s Obama style!” he proclaimed to me this summer, talking about the small contributions that were already accumulating in his presidential-campaign chest. With his round cheeks and whitening beard, Johnson looked something like a Liberian Santa Claus. He assured me that his lack of formal education would be an advantage in governing the country: “Did Abraham Lincoln have a Ph.D.? My support is swelling daily!”
As I watched
Sirleaf rigorously and tirelessly at work in her spare, hushed office, I was often struck by the distance she has put between herself and the violence of her own past: the violence inflicted privately upon her as a wife, the violence threatened against her as a public figure. The office sits on the top floor of a government building in which the electricity staggers now and then and the elevator buttons have long been broken. Given her status, Sirleaf works and lives frugally — a brunch she and I shared at her house one Sunday was made up partly of leftovers set on the table in plastic containers. What she prizes instead of splendor is calm. In the conference rooms adjoining her office, the meetings I watched her run — with angry widows of Taylor-era soldiers demanding benefits; with a quarreling auditor and minister — were muted affairs. She listened with stoic patience to everyone, as though only in this way could she keep disgruntlement from leaking out onto the streets like lighter fluid.
Sirleaf’s mission is, above all, to distance her country as far from violence as she has delivered herself, and her success most likely depends, primarily, on the economy, on her ability to produce signs that decades defined by abject poverty and rampant plundering can be replaced by the hope of simple employment and lawful profit. Without such signs, there is little reason to think that frustration and fatalism won’t combust again in the decades to come.
So in addition to debt relief, some of Sirleaf’s crucial achievements have been the renegotiations of unfavorable contracts with foreign corporations like Arcelor­Mittal, of Luxembourg, the largest steel company in the world, which plans to mine Liberian iron, and with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which has tapped the country’s rubber trees for almost a century. Yet to spend time on Fire­stone’s plantation among its thousands of tappers, who scrape at the trunks with barbed knives and scramble to collect their daily quota of latex in zinc buckets, is to confront how inconceivably far the Liberian economy has to go. If the tappers present enough latex at the weighing stations, they can earn $4.41 a day. It is very desirable job by Liberian standards.
Liberia’s natural resources just aren’t in high-enough demand around the world to spur the economy and generate much public revenue. Firestone is providing the government with $4.7 million this year, Sirleaf estimated. To truly take advantage of its iron, rubber and timber, Liberia would have to manufacture things with them; it would have to export finished products rather than raw materials. And it can’t; the country is all but pre­industrial.
The lone hope for Liberia’s sudden transformation may lie in offshore petroleum. Oil is not iron or rubber. Sirleaf spoke of recent ocean finds — not only off the coast of Ghana, but even closer by, in the waters of Sierra Leone and, in the most nascent way, off Liberia’s own beaches — as signs of arriving transfiguration.
Imagining the boon to her country if, over the next few years, the intimations become bountiful wells, Sirleaf lost hold of the harsh realism that usually keeps her thoughts and words blade-sharp. I asked whether she worried that corruption would devour the benefits that oil could bring to Liberia, as had happened in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Not, she replied, if a major company like Chevron winds up winning the rights to drill — as it did, soon after my visit. She couldn’t possibly have been unaware of Chevron’s dark history along Nigeria’s southern shoreline, but at that moment, while she envisioned the company pumping oil from her coast, such history seemed far from her mind.
While we talked, British Petroleum’s Deep Horizon well was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, and I mentioned to Sirleaf that if such a disaster befell Liberia, her country would command a lot less attention than the United States when it came time to clean up.
“Let’s find it first before we worry about the spilling,” she said, realism and severity returning. “Right now we’re worried about feeding the people and giving them jobs. The environment — we’ll take care of it later.”
If by way
of oil, or if by slower yet still miraculous economic metamorphoses, or if because Liberians are just too weary of war, stability takes root in her country, then one of Sirleaf’s deepest ambitions might be realized: to improve the plight of women, who suffered inordinately throughout the years of fighting. Rape was endemic during the war, and, Sirleaf lamented, it infects the culture now. A new courtroom has been built; it is reserved for trying cases of sexual assault, an attempt to assure women that such crimes will be taken seriously and to dissuade them from settling with rapists informally — sometimes, as happened in a case I followed during a visit several years ago, for as little as $2.
But to step into the Women and Children Protection Unit in the Liberian police department’s headquarters in Monrovia is to sense that even a determined female president may have trouble providing women with much in the way of safety. The dilapidated headquarters is a kind of vertical cave, blearily lighted where it is lighted at all. The place all but advertises the country’s flimsy ability to enforce its laws, yet given her meager budget, Sirleaf said that before she considers renovating the building, she intends to construct living quarters for the police in rural areas, where it is hard to attract recruits and where enforcement is even flimsier than in the capital.
The Women and Children Protection Unit, where rape victims are meant to report their assaults, sits at the end of a hall of cryptlike offices filled with men, some in uniform, some perhaps detectives in plainclothes, some criminals, some just loitering, spilling into the corridor. At the end of this menacing gantlet, in the Protection Unit, a female receptionist and a female sergeant wait at scarred wooden desks. But even here the men leach in; the headquarters is their domain, and it is easy to imagine that women would rather be paid minimally for their suffering than begin the search for justice in this place.
A brighter expression of Sirleaf’s goals lies along one of the capital’s rutted dirt lanes. A Nike Foundation program trains Liberian women in their late teens and early 20s to work in offices or hotels. Sirleaf’s lobbying persuaded the sporting-goods giant to choose Liberia as the pilot nation for the project, which will try to imbue 2,500 women around the country with vocational skills. Proudly, one of the young women led me on a tour through the training stations for the course on hotel hospitality. Wearing vibrant African fabrics, she led me past a hand-scrawled sign — “Mama Ellen Johnson Sirleaf we love you for what you are doing for the young girls of our nation” — and into the facsimile of a guest room where the students practiced making beds; into the bathroom where two girls in masks were practicing the scrubbing of toilets; out to a gazebo arranged as a mock restaurant, with a table fully set and a chalkboard announcing “Chicken Liberian Style” as the day’s special.
“If I can provide my own money, men will not be able to carry on their violence,” one student said hopefully, referring not to rape but to the range of commonplace assaults she and her fellow trainees might typically endure. And the stations were so orderly that it was easy to believe, at least briefly, that all the graduates would soon be employed — menially, in many cases, but gainfully. All sorts of transformations appeared plausible in the mock restaurant with the paper napkins slipped daintily inside the glasses.
And then reality reasserted itself. Where were the Liberian hotels to hire these students? The country has a handful of places that cater to visiting U.N. employees and the few foreign investors looking for resources to be reaped. But Liberian tourism is hardly a growth industry.
“I’m going to show you a beautiful spot,” Sirleaf said to me one afternoon, as if to answer my doubts about the trainees’ prospects, though I hadn’t raised the dispiriting subject. Near the village whose drummer had beat at his torn conga drum, her convoy stopped at a wispy and graceful bridge stretching over a small river. A lush green island lay on the far side of the span, and a pair of ample, alluring houses stood perched over the water, one on either bank. The property belonged to a man she knew, she said. She saw it as the beginning of a future resort. The president of Liberia stood amid the luxuriant calm of that lovely dream.

Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer. He is the author of “In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.”

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