You opposed the regime of Samuel Doe for so long. What finally became of President Doe?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: During the time when Mr. Taylor was invading the country — and then you had a splinter group with his group, and you had a Prince Johnson faction, and they were all assaulting the capital, so to speak — each one wanted to take power. They were able to persuade Doe to leave his mansion, where he had been holed up for quite some time, and to come out, and he was taken captive by the Prince Johnson group, one of the warlords, and he was killed. Well, he was tortured. It was a terrible, terrible thing. I saw the video of it and it’s really dehumanized. The way he was killed was really — as bad as he was, nobody deserves that.
They filmed it deliberately to instill apprehension?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I guess to send a message to everybody else. But these people were… it’s difficult for me to explain their thinking and their motivation, frankly.
They mutilated him, didn’t they?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yeah.
You were, at first, supportive of Taylor, is that right?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh yes. Many Liberians, we had been mounting a campaign against Doe for years, without any success. When Taylor started, his was supposed to be a movement, and all the right things about fighting against dictatorship and bringing back justice and equity into the society. So it wasn’t until several months into his campaign, into his movement, that we realized that his motives were selfish, and that he was there to take power and to enrich himself. As a matter of fact, some of our colleagues from the ’85 elections who went back into his area for safety and for protection ended up being killed. That’s when we started to distance from him.
And after that you campaigned for his removal?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh yeah. Sure. From the time we began to distance from him, we mounted a campaign against him. We had a huge campaign to get him out of power.
That took great courage, I would think, on your part, knowing what he is capable of.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Well, we had to do it. I had already invested a lot of my life in challenging. I had challenged the Doe regime. To a certain extent I even challenged the Tolbert regime, which I was a part of. So taking on Taylor was like carrying on an unfinished business. The unfinished business was really to be able to get the dictators out of the country. To get into a system where people had a choice. To start the process of reconstruction and renewal — a process that is just starting now, but with a legacy that is very, very difficult. With violence implanted into the value system, and lawlessness being a part, it’s difficult, but it’s a process that we had to embark on. And even though making that transition is difficult, and going to be difficult, but it’s the only way to move the country on to the right track, the track that we’re beginning to move along.
Could you tell us about building the Unity Party?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: We organized — there was a party already there from ’85 — it was a part of what we called the Grand Coalition. At that time I was a member of another party that we formed called the Liberian Action Party. I was part of that. So when I came back to run on the Unity Party ticket — this was in the 1997 elections, when Charles Taylor was making a bid following a small cessation of the war — we then built a party around me and my candidacy, and had a very strong showing, we thought. Didn’t have as much money as he, and didn’t have access to the media or to the kinds of resources that enabled us to travel around the country, so Mr. Taylor declared himself the winner.
He declared himself the winner?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The official results gave him a large percentage, with me as a distant second. But after that, we began to build a party. Of course, I had to leave again. I had to go into exile. I came back and was back and forth several times, based upon when I thought it was safe to come, and when I felt it was unsafe to be there and had to quickly run out. But this time I settled right in Abidjan, where I could keep my finger on the political pulse, and use the proximity of being close to home to begin to do advocacy among the African leaders to point out that the situation in the country was not good, that we were headed for disaster. Mounted, along with others, an international effort to bring pressure on Taylor. And finally, of course, we all ended up in Accra for the peace talks. And once I came back then, of course, we mobilized the party to prepare ourselves for the 2005 elections.
Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia eventually disintegrated. How did he finally relinquish power?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: As you know, Taylor was taken out of the country by the West African leaders. He went into exile in Nigeria for some time, and subsequently, he was under an indictment by the UN Special Court for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and ultimately the Nigerians turned him over to the United Nations, which took him to the Netherlands. He’s on trial in The Hague right now.
What do you think will happen?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea. We watched the proceedings of the trial and the different testimonies that are going on. How the judges will finally come out, I really don’t know. I just hope he doesn’t come back to Liberia, that’s all.
In 2005 you became a presidential candidate yourself. What prompted you to become a candidate for president yourself?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I was a candidate in ’97. I didn’t win. I felt I’d earned the stripes and I could compete as effectively as anybody else. I’d gone through all the trials and tribulations of political life and also had enough, I believe, international exposure, professionalism. And also, I didn’t think there was anybody who could be as competitive, given my experience, background in some things. I thought I was a formidable candidate, and I proved to be right.
Could you tell us about your opponent, George Weah?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Mr. Weah was an icon in sports. He was a sports hero. He had won the football of the year for Europe, for Africa several times. He was the idol of the young people, and our nation is very young. So he really was a very, very strong candidate. Nobody figured we could beat him, because he was strong, and like I say, he’s revered by the young people. But we figured we could find where the weaknesses were, and the weaknesses were that he didn’t have an education. He hadn’t really done enough schooling, and we played on that, on the basis that most of our market women sit in the sun and rain to send their children to school to get an education, and certainly they wanted something better for people to aspire to. And the people underestimated the power of women. You know, grassroots women who mobilized because they felt for the first time a woman was competitive enough, with the courage and the competence and the background to do so, and they mobilized. Now Mr. Weah was a very strong candidate, no doubt. In the first round he came out ahead of everybody, but clearly he didn’t have a clean win.
What would he have had to do to win? Have a clear majority?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: He would have had to have 50 percent plus one. That’s what our constitution requires: 50 percent plus one. So he didn’t, and the constitution says that if you don’t get 50 percent plus one then the two persons with the highest number of votes go into a runoff. I was second under him, so we both went into a runoff. But we had great strategy in our runoff. We ran a door-to-door campaign and the women rose to the challenge.
Perhaps the women of America could learn something from your experience. What about men? Didn’t you need the votes of men as well to get to 50 plus one?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: No doubt. And some of the young people too, even though, like I said, he was the idol of the young. But that was mainly the street kids, the uneducated, because the university students felt differently, and many of them rallied to us. The university students felt that an education did matter, and to be able to run a country you had to have a certain level of knowledge. So we were able to get them to be a part of our campaign.
Given the two civil wars that had transpired, all the violence and the economic freefall over 25 years, this would seem to be the most difficult job in the world. Yet you obviously wanted it very much.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Simply because I do believe in the potential of our country, and I felt if anyone else had the fortitude and the capability and the international contact to be able to make it work, that I could. I still believe in that, and I think the progress we’ve made in these two years does support that view.
What were your first priorities for healing the wounds of your country, both economically and socially?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: To really have an inclusive government, first of all. You know, I could have taken the winner-take-all position, and I’m still criticized by my own party today because of that. But if you look into my cabinet, you’ll see people who were presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates, leading people in the other opposition parties and whatnot. I was the first one to send a signal that no matter who won, that the country needed the participation and the support of everybody. Some of the other things that will enable us to achieve our objective, we’re still making small progress. Not enough, like jobs for the young people, education for the young people that were affected, thousands and thousands of them. We did complete what is called a DDR — or Demobilization Disarmament Reintegration program — of over 100,000 of them. But still, getting them into school, getting them skills, getting them jobs, is still an ongoing process and still a challenge.
What is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: That’s just ensuring that the resources that come from our mines are properly accounted for, properly used, with the public being fully informed on what those resources are and where those resources are applied, show the proper budgetary process and whatnot. And the process is monitored by a civil society group to make sure that the checks and balances — the information comes from the government institutions concerned, but that information has to flow to this group that comprises civil society people. We also asked the companies involved to participate, so that they can give the information directly to the watchdog group, and we willingly joined it, because it helps us to make our commitment to accountability and transparency. We also, even though they say “extractive industries,” which are mainly the mines — we have iron ore, and gold and diamond — but we also added forestry, by our own voluntary action, because forestry had been a source of the misuse of resources in the past, and became part of what fueled the regional war through using those resources for arms.
How do you address the problems of young people in your country who have experienced all this war and violence? How do you change attitudes and get rid of lawlessness as a way of life?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think it’s a combination of many things. For one thing, we have to give these kids some skills. We have to give them back their dignity. Dignity means they should be able to earn a livelihood without having to resort to stealing or begging or extortion. I grant you that for many of them who are hardcore, very difficult to even get them to be willing to go to school and to obtain a skill, because they are the only way they are used to. But if we can get the critical mass of them to begin to get a job, and it’s starting to happen, and begin to go to school and to appreciate the fact that you can go very far. Right now, you’re in a changed environment where knowledge and skills is what gets you what you want, there’s not going to be many opportunities. On the other hand, we also have to have penalties so that if you commit criminal acts rather than using the opportunity to earn, there’s a penalty to be had. So we also use that. Counseling is necessary. We still have a challenge there to change the mindset of those who knew no other way. Like I say, that’s still a challenge for us. We’re still trying to work on that.
We have some similar issues in our inner cities, of course, where there’s so much despair, and there’s been so much violence, and there’s inadequate education. Since assuming the presidency, you’ve also dealt with the issue of rape.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. Even before my administration started, the Association of Female Lawyers — given that incidences of rape are so high in our country — had already got legislation passed. It was already a criminal offense, but now it’s a crime against humanity, as recognized by the United Nations. But also they made the penalty life imprisonment by this new law. So what I did was ensure that we try to enforce the law, and also start a program of education with the families. We still have problems with that. Enforcing the law in a judicial system that is weak and that is still very male-dominated is difficult.
Why? Do you think the judges are sympathetic to the perpetrators?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: They don’t think the penalty equals the crime, unfortunately. Also, it’s a bailable offense, and because our correctional system has a lot of weaknesses, human rights groups help them apply for habeas corpus every time and they get out. So one of the things I’m committed to do is also to amend that law to make it a non-bailable offense. That would keep them in prison until such time as they have gone to trial. More importantly, we have to work with the families for disclosure, and preventing poor families from keeping silent, because small amounts of money are offered to them to buy their silence. The kids are young. That’s very disturbing, talking about three-year-olds up to ten-year-olds. Very, very sad.
There’s still a stigma attached to a rape victim. Even when they’re older, sometimes it’s difficult to come forward.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: To the victim? Absolutely. There’s no doubt. In addition to the physical harm, the stigma is there, and that helps to bring the silence on the part of the family.
What about women’s rights violations in Liberia, generally speaking?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There’s not too much of that in Liberia. There are some social barriers, and much of those social barriers, even today, are being removed. Women’s rights violations? Domestically there can be a lot of that, but by law, women have full rights. There are times when they may not know of their rights, particularly the illiterate. The uneducated may not be aware, and we need to do more to educate them and sensitize them to their rights. But the rights are there by law.
What about the issue of human rights violations today?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There’s a lot of that too. Sometimes security forces were accustomed to excesses, mob action too. People take the law into their own hands because they don’t have as much confidence in the judicial system, so we have a lot of that.
What do you mean by mob action?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh yeah. For example, if a thief is caught and they feel that the thief, as experience shows, may get away or bribe his way out. Mob actions, sometimes they are very violent, have even killed if they feel that their rights have been infringed upon by policemen or security people. Mob action will sometimes go unchallenged. They’ve also destroyed police stations when they felt that justice was not done. We have to instill in them that one crime does not deserve another. There’s a rule of law that they all have to subscribe to. But again, it comes from the violence that has been put into the value system: you solve every problem through violence and may the stronger one prevail.
What is the situation with HIV-AIDS in your country?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: It’s been on an increase recently. We are just completing a census, so I can’t tell. The number I’ve heard is somewhere like five percent, six percent. I’m not sure whether that’s the right number because they have varied, but we know that there’s been increasing cases, particularly among the young population and young girls and we’re trying to combat that with the support of the Global Fund. There’s an HIV-AIDS program that gives the retroviral treatment to people, and of course there are sensitization programs to encourage prevention. But it is a problem, and it’s something that we have to continue to monitor. We’ve established an AIDS commission. I chair that commission, to bring full attention to that.
What has been the effect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: They’re still at work. I think they’ve done a lot through testimony to get a lot of information. It’s also opened up old wounds, because in those testimonies lots of people have been accused. But it’s still part of the cleansing process so it’s ongoing. They’re trying to complete their testimonies and that report is due in by the end of the year. The mandate enables them to make recommendations that would lead to justice in those cases where wide-scale amnesty does not determine the best course of action. The mandate also could call for some form of reparations for communities that have been affected. So we wait for them. I think it was a necessary process. It has caused some problems in our society, like I said, through testimonies that accuse people — some people holding high elective offices and all of that — but it’s a process that needed to be done and we’ll see what comes when the report is made.
Is the process complicated by having some of the people who formerly opposed you serving in your government?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yeah, but some of the people we’re talking about have elected positions and there’s nothing we can do about that. They were allowed to run; our election laws did not prohibit them from running. They ran, whether they ran on a platform of fear or whether they ran on a platform of promise — it’s probably both — but they won. And many of them are sitting in the legislature. They’re there. We have to deal with them. We have to work with them.
How do you go about rebuilding an infrastructure that was so devastated?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You make an assessment of where we are. That’s what we’ve done. You set your infrastructure targets, and we started what we call our “150-Day Action Plan” that brought back lights into the capital city for the first time in 14 years, and brought some water into the homes for the first time. Now we’ve laid out a full action plan on our poverty reduction strategy, where we’ve identified how many roads we will build, and how many schools we’re going to build or renovate, and how many clinics, and we’ve got them time-bound. That’s what we work with. Also, our partners on this, and we’ve been getting good support from the United States, from the European Commission, from many of the bilaterals, the Scandinavian countries that have — if there’s any constraint, it’s sometimes implementation is slower than we would want it, because we’ve got to follow all the process and procedures of all the many donors that support us. I always call it “the long road between commitment and cash.” But we’re traveling that road, and we’re beginning to see the roads are being repaired right now. So many schools are being reopened, and clinics. We hope to expand electricity some more within the next few months, and more water. We’re talking about rural electricity, so in another couple of years I think we will have restored many of the facilities that were destroyed during the war.
You made a commencement address recently at Dartmouth College here in the United States. What was your message to the graduating students?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, that had to do with leadership. That’s where I encourage and pointed to the example of one or two people that I considered high-profile examples of courage and leadership. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of them. Rosa Parks is another.
What are the most important qualities for leadership? What would you tell a young person who is interested in going into public service?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Example. First of all, you have to set the example. And that example has to show in integrity, courage, ability to make decisions, competence. And then, inspiration and motivation. You’ve got to be able to carry people with you, and to set your goals very clearly, and to have them agree with those and to motivate them to achieve the goals that have been set. Listening. Being able to respect other’s views and take those into account. And sometimes, as leaders, we’re also guilty with not giving due recognition. That motivates people by telling them when they’ve done a good job sometimes, and I’m guilty of that too. Sometimes we see the faults so often, and then not see the contribution.
Over the years, while you’ve continued to show such strong leadership, was there a moment when you really felt it was all over? Was there a time when you wouldn’t be able to do what you wanted to do, or wouldn’t even be able to survive?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I’ve never reached the point of hopelessness where I felt I wouldn’t survive. I’ve reached many points of disappointments. After the 1997 elections, for example, after all the effort we made and the results that were announced. “It’s an impossible task. We’re dealing with a warlord who has immense power, who has the support.” The first thing one gets is, “Forget it. Give it up. Go back into international professional life.” It took a little bit of resolve and reflection to say, “You can’t give up. You’ve got to stay the course and suffer the consequences, the indignities and the difficulties.” But I think that was a low point, right after those elections when everything just seemed like an exercise in futility.
Where do you suppose your capacity for leadership comes from? Was it instilled in you by your parents?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think it comes from childhood. It comes from my parents, from the experiences that they had. My father, in a way, was a leader, since he was one of the first native persons in our legislature.
What was his role?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: He was a lawyer, but he was also, like I said, the first one to represent the indigenous population in our legislature. That set him up as a leader, and so he moved around in that circle. My mother was a teacher, but that also enabled her to exhibit some leadership by bringing all the — so many of the children in the neighborhood remember her and the role she played. She subsequently became a pastor, and that put her in a leadership position in the church. So I suppose it’s that upbringing that maybe set me on that path.
Did you have siblings?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. Three siblings. One is with me here. A sister and two brothers. A brother died earlier.
I gather that education was very important in your family?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Very important, coming from the background they did. As I said, they came from essentially indigenous families but were brought up by settler families. And the main reason for their own parents giving them up to other families was to ensure that they had an education, recognizing that in our environment in those days, without an education — since you did not come from elitist background — you wouldn’t go very far. So in our family hard work and education were the two things that were stressed.
Your grandparents came from different parts of the world. Where were they from?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: My maternal grandfather came from Germany, and he was one of the many German traders that penetrated the West African coast and did business in one of our rural areas. But during World War II when the allies were fighting Germany, Liberia, being so close to the United States, with the emancipated slaves having founded the country, we identified with the Allied forces, and also declared war on Germany and expelled all of the Germans who were in the country. So my grandfather left the country when my mother was at a very, very early age.
Just him, not his wife?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: No, not his wife, just him. His wife was my grandmother, my mother’s mother. He left the country and left her with my grandmother, who was an illiterate market woman, a native woman, and they never heard from him again. We never pursued that heritage. My mother’s mother, as I said, was a native marketeer, and both of my father’s parents were indigenous.
Wasn’t your grandfather on your father’s side also a leader?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, he was a chief. He was a Gola chief. So absolutely, that really set him apart. So the leadership factor comes from a long history. It’s part of the heritage.
The Gola people have been in Liberia for a long time, haven’t they?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, they were one of the original tribes that settled there sometime early in the continent’s history. They were some of the first that came down and settled in that area.
Were you a serious student when you were growing up?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, I was. I wasn’t a valedictorian or anything like that, but serious enough to have made every class and to have been one of the outspoken ones in our graduation, our high school graduation. It didn’t work out that way, but (I was) one recognized as one of those that would go far in terms of a profession. It ended up that way, but it didn’t start that way since I got married right after high school and had four children before going back to college.
It sounds like you weren’t thinking much about a career when you got out of high school.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: No, I wasn’t. I quickly settled into marriage life which — as a high school education — that didn’t mean very much in terms of a profession. And with four children born successively almost every year, I became a housewife very fast. It took a while, and perhaps driven by seeing some of my high school classmates leave the country and go and pursue a college education and all becoming professionals, that really drove me to go back to college at some point, and that started a whole new career.
What did your husband do?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: He was an agriculturalist. As a matter of fact, he had come back from the University of Wisconsin, where he’d done work in agriculture, and that’s how we got married. And then, after our fourth son was born, it was the year we both went back. That’s when I went back to college, and he went back to do graduate work, again at the University of Wisconsin.
Did you bring the whole family to the United States?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: No, no, no. Fortunately we have, in Africa, the extended family system. There’s no way we both could have gone to school in the U.S. with four young children. So two got left with my mother and two with his mother. That’s how we were able to go back to school.
That’s quite a sacrifice to make for education, isn’t it?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: It is. It is quite a sacrifice, because you leave your children at an early age and you miss the time, those early days of their childhood. It’s a sacrifice that so many of us in the underdeveloped countries have to make if you want to pursue a profession. In our case, you can always come back and try to make it up. I’m glad that our family was able to make up and to see them all go through college, and now married and in professional life.
They’ve given you grandchildren as well, haven’t they?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The grandchildren are moving up. They’re beginning to complete high school and getting to college. They’re on the way!
Did you enjoy reading books when you were a kid?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. That was part of our upbringing in those days. Unfortunately, today, most of the children, it is too difficult to get them to read these days because they’re all hooked on television, DVDs and all those things. But in our days, all you had other than sports and other types of entertainment, was to read.
Do any books stand in your memory as being especially wonderful experiences?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You mean way back then, when a child? Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and all those things that kids read all over the world. Yeah.
All books in English?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. English is the official language in Liberia.
Were there teachers that were important to you as you came up through high school?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, very much so. Some of the teachers that taught us in high school were really missionaries, from the Methodist church. Many of them had left the United States and were serving in the school. One or two of them are still alive today. There’s been some contact recently to try to re-establish contact with them. But I do remember — Robert Griffin is the name — so many others.
It must be fulfilling for your teachers to see their student become president of the country.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think so. The one I mentioned that has re-established contact, as a matter of fact, did write a note to congratulate and to say, “How pleased I am. We didn’t know, in those years when we were helping you to get an education, that you would reach where you are today.” I guess some credit must go to them too. They must have moved us in the right direction.
How did you decide to study accounting? Had you enjoyed math?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Not particularly. In school I thought I would be an English teacher like my mother, but then after I got married I had to work. We had to support four children. So I got a job in a small garage, an automobile outfit — automobile spare parts and repair shop — and I happen to have been assigned to someone who was an accountant, as his helper. So I picked up a little bit of bookkeeping there, and I suppose that’s what set me on that track.
You turned out to be pretty good at it, after all.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Well, yes. It’s the one sort of after-school occupation that I had, and I was able to pick it up quite readily. So when I went to college I just pursued it. I already had some rudimentary knowledge about it, having been exposed to it through work, so it was easy to just continue on that path. And since then I just remained in the financial and economic field.
It’s a long way from helping an accountant at an auto repair shop to working with the World Bank.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yeah. It’s a stretch. But in between, I picked up a lot of things. To get to the World Bank, I had already left the shop. That was a long time ago. I had gone and finished college, I had come back from college. I was working in the Treasury Department, what we now call the Ministry of Finance, and had actually worked with people who exposed me to things other than accounting, but things that had to do with economics and management and all of that. That really prepared me to go back to graduate school, and in graduate school I did economics. That’s how come I did my graduate work at Harvard.
So you worked as an assistant minister of finance before Harvard?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I was a special assistant to the Minister of Finance in ’69 and then went off to graduate work at the Economics Institute of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then to Harvard, where I completed my master’s. Then I came back as a deputy minister, didn’t I? No, it wasn’t Assistant Minister before. When I went off I had been Assistant Minister, you’re correct. Sometimes I get those dates mixed up.
I can well imagine. So once again you had to leave the kids in Liberia when you went off to graduate school?
By this time I was divorced and trying to get back to school. Having to work after coming back from undergraduate school put a good strain on the family and ultimately there were domestic problems, domestic violence. I had already had a divorce before I went into graduate work.
How old were your kids at that point?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh they were what, born between ’57 and ’61. That would make them what, 15? Somewhere between 10 and 15 years old.
Did they stay with their grandparents again?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: They stayed, yeah.
So are you saying that your ex-husband actually became violent at times?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yeah, there was domestic violence.
Was there any problem getting a divorce at that time in Liberia?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: No. He didn’t protest. Had there been a protest maybe there could have been some problems.
By turning to a master’s in public administration at Harvard, it sounds like you already were starting to think about being an administrator, being a leader of an organization.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Well, I already was. By the time I got there I had already, in a way, established my leadership in the Ministry where I worked. The opportunity to get a scholarship to go into graduate work was on the basis of having already established, with performance, that I was on the way up and that the potential there was good. So yeah, I had already earned that.
We’ve read that you are alternately referred to as “the Iron Lady,” and sometimes as “Ma,” as the mother of your people. Do you identify with one of these or the other?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think in our environment you have to be both. On the one hand, you have to be strong enough to take the hard decisions that classify you — characterize you — as an Iron Lady. Meaning, in the midst of what may be formidable forces, you have to make the right decision and stand by it with the course it takes. But then we’re also in a society of many young people, children. Children who had lost all hope, and just a few years ago you saw nothing but despair in their eyes. You want to be able to reach out to them with the sensitivity of a mother and grandmother. So in that environment you have — and I’m so glad that one of the things I always said was — to make the children smile again. Whereas before, if they saw a presidential convoy approaching, they would all run helter-skelter, because they didn’t know what would happen to their parents. Security agents coming to look for… but today, if the siren sounds, they all gather on the streets, and most times I get down off the… so the “Ma” comes from that. It’s a nice name for a grandmother.
Is there any evidence of Al Qaeda activity in Liberia?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I don’t know if Al Qaeda is in Liberia, frankly. We’ve heard rumors in the past, during the Taylor era, when he was doing dealings with a lot of shady characters that he had. But to say that we know of Al Qaeda being in Liberia today, I don’t think so. I haven’t had any evidence of that at all, and I’m always in touch with the U.S. Ambassador and all who have intelligence. If that were ever brought to us we would rule it out very quickly. I doubt it.
What are you most proud of so far? I know you have a long way to go in your career.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The progress we’ve made at home. For example, our debt issue. We inherited a 3.7 billion debt for our population and our export earnings. Today a majority of that debt has been cancelled and we’ve completed our first program with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). And also the restoration of hope. Today, you know, our image of being a pariah state, a failed state, has turned around completely. Whereas people — Liberians — were afraid to carry a Liberian passport, because you’d be seen as this nation of death and destruction. Today, Liberians are very proud to carry their passport because everybody sees Liberia as beginning to be uplifted and beginning to become a possible model of success, a post-conflict success story. I’m very proud of that turnaround in our image.
Thank you very much, Madam President. It was a real privilege to talk with you.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Thank you.
It’s not every day a president invites you into their bedroom. But then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, is not your typical president. A woman for one thing, the first ever elected to lead an African nation, she’s also had several previous lives: freedom fighter, banker, UN bureaucrat, rebel, farmer, grandmother-in-chief. Would I like to go inside her room? Hell, yes!
We went to school in the city, and spent the vacations here in my father’s village. We crossed two different worlds
We are in the poetically named village of Julejuah (pronounced Jool-ay-joo-ah), where Johnson Sirleaf’s family – the descendants of a local Gola chief – still live, and where she has built a small farmhouse as a weekend retreat. An uncooperative key gives way and we are suddenly inside her “quarters”, a supremely modest room, with its small double bed, plain wooden dressers – one with a neat stack of baseball caps on top – and a light alcove that serves as a wardrobe, a dozen regal African cloth outfits queuing up on a single rail. “This is where I grew up,” she gestures towards the view of the impossibly lush farm from a large window opposite her bed.
As we continue our tour of her house she points towards a gash in the distance, where the luminous green bush makes way for a rush of wild, fresh water. “I learned to swim in that river,” she says. “We went to school in the city, and spent the vacations here in my father’s village. We grew up in a way where we crossed two different worlds.” She laughs as if I’ve underestimated her and she’s relishing putting me right.
Johnson Sirleaf’s life story is remarkable. Her father was the first African legislator in a republic founded by “Americo-Liberians” – the descendants of freed American blacks – who established Liberia in principle as an act of emancipation, but in reality consolidated power for themselves at the expense of the indigenous population.
This gave her parents, who were African, with roots in local ethnic groups, access to the Americo-Liberian elite, whom local people still refer to as “Congo People” since the slave trade is linked in the local imagination with the Congo River.
Johnson Sirleaf went to school with Congo People, but she was also close to her grandmother, whom she describes in her autobiography This Child Will Be Great – a reference to a prophecy uttered by a local wise man at her birth – as a very influential figure in her life.
As a child, I got into fights. To make me look strong, my grand-mother cut me with a razor, then rubbed charcoal in
I ask more about her grandmother. We are sitting on a covered veranda now and are intermittently interrupted by the ferocious drumming of rain, in this, one of the wettest climates on Earth. The president springs off her chair and comes over to me with an energy that belies her 78 years. “Look at this,” she says, rolling up a thick denim sleeve to reveal a little constellation of short, black lines, arranged symmetrically just above her wrist. “As a child, I was always getting into fights. My grandmother said this would make me strong. She took a razor and cut me here, then she rubbed charcoal in.”
Did it work, I ask. She laughs: “I still got beat!” No one, however, questions Johnson Sirleaf’s resilience. By the time she was in her early 20s she had given birth to four sons, leaving them with extended family while she travelled to the US to obtain her degree. She went on to serve as Liberia’s finance minister, surviving two periods in jail for the positions she took in the increasingly perilous political environment of the 1980s. And then, like so many Liberians during the country’s long descent into 14 years of bloody civil war, she went into exile, taking senior positions in Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in America.
The brutal chaos of that era – which Liberians simply call “the crisis” – is well known. Less a war, as observers described it, and more an apocalyptic explosion of depravity and violence, it left a quarter of a million dead, displaced five times that number and saw a generation of children drugged and turned into killers themselves. An estimated 70% of women were raped. It was into this mire that Johnson Sirleaf stepped in 2005, to try to lift a nation off its knees.
“My calling was first of all to ensure there was peace in the country, because we could easily have gone back to war,” she says. “In the midst of the country there were still warlords, there were many child soldiers who had never gone to school – they were part of the social setting – compromises had to be made.”
We could easily have gone back to war. There were still warlords, there were child soldiers who had never gone to school
Peace has, under 12 years of Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership, prevailed. But the compromises she speaks of have dampened other aspects of her legacy. She has been plagued by allegations of nepotism, not least the position of two of her sons in senior public roles. “My sons?” she cries when I put the complaint to her. “Ask Trump!”
“One of my sons was already there, I just didn’t move him,” she continues unapologetically, referring to Charles Sirleaf, who was reappointed deputy governor of Liberia’s central bank this year. “The other one was put in a strategic role.” She means Robert Sirleaf, whom she appointed chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia, until he resigned under pressure a year later. “[Robert] knew the players. He brought the big American companies in.”
Johnson Sirleaf, like many in Liberia, had hoped oil exploration might provide a much needed cash injection into an economy which remains near the very bottom of the human development index, with an estimated 1.3 million living in “extreme poverty”. But oil has not yet materialised, and many Liberians feel disappointed about what her government has achieved.
“We could have gone further,” she admits, “but we have faced shocks. There was the shock of 2013, the declining prices of our two main exports – iron ore and rubber.” And, she adds, “there was Ebola.”
Of the 10,000 people killed by the Ebola virus in west Africa between 2014 and 2015, half were in Liberia. It was, says Johnson Sirleaf, the lowest point of her presidency “when I went and saw dead people just lying there in front of the hospital.” She is uncharacteristically grim: “As the president you are supposed to be the protector of the nation. It was a terrible disease.”
Did she act quickly enough, when the first cases of Ebola were reported? “We didn’t know it!” Johnson Sirleaf exclaims, throwing up her hands in a gesture of exasperation. “It was a strange disease to us all. We acted as fast as we could.”
Rape offenders will get to the family, offer them money, offer them education for their children
If Johnson Sirleaf’s government was slow to react at first, a WHO prediction in 2014 that a million people could die from Ebola woke them up. “That prediction was something of a lightning rod for us,” she says. Did WHO do her a favour with such a sensational figure, I ask. She stares at me, and blinks: “Yeah.”
This is not the first time I’ve met Johnson Sirleaf. In 2002, when I worked for the NGO whose board she chaired and the civil war was reaching its bloody climax, I helped her hatch a plan to get cash to the nation’s journalists as they were being targeted by rebel soldiers.
This was no small feat in a nation with, in those days, no power and not a single functioning bank. In a conference room in Ghana, where important Liberians in exile were camped out in protracted peace talks, we schemed away during breaks in negotiations, and I – a fascinated 22-year-old – watched her negotiate and bargain for her vision of Liberia’s future peace.
Johnson Sirleaf is, I think, a hustler, one steeped in the politics of African power. Her deal-making skills and international finance experience help explain how in 2010 she managed to secure $4.6 bn worth of debt relief for Liberia, in spite of the fact that its credit was so appalling it ordinarily would not have qualified.
But her moral track record is more complicated. Johnson Sirleaf was a thorn in the side of corrupt and nepotistic governments, a position which landed her in jail twice. But in the 1980s she donated $10,000 to support Charles Taylor – the rebel leader who is now serving a 50-year sentence in the UK for war crimes – in what she now freely admits was an error of judgment. She later gave $10,000 to Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who now enjoys a seat in Liberia’s senate, and whose atrocities include torturing and killing the former president, Samuel Doe, while draining a Budweiser, in a sick piece of early reality TV that has wound up on YouTube.
Johnson Sirleaf invites me to join her for lunch, and we eat fufu – a pounded cassava dumpling served with salty fish soup, and a side of sesame seeds and okra that you grind into a paste before adding to your bowl. It’s delicious and filling, classic west African fare.
When I offer a definition of feminism which sees men and women as equal, she says 'I live that'
After the president has finished her modest portion – I’ve somehow been persuaded to follow mine up with a second course of brown rice and corned beef and baked chicken drumsticks – she moves to her favourite armchair to watch CNN. After an extended segment on the news of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault mistrial, she switches to Al Jazeera in annoyance. “They should leave that man alone,” she mutters, in defence of Cosby, under her breath.
This strikes me as an uncomfortable position for a woman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in championing women’s rights, and as our interview progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not the only opinion that sits uneasily with her activism. She tells me she is unhappy that a new biography, Madame President, written by Liberian-born journalist Helene Cooper, reveals intimate details of the domestic violence she suffered in her early 20s at the hands of her then husband.
Surely sharing her own experience inspired other survivors of domestic violence to speak up, I suggest. “There’s a side to that,” she says. “But no.”
She then tells me she does not see herself as a feminist. “I don’t think we need extremism. We have had too much.” When I offer a definition of feminism which sees men and women as equal, she says “I live that”, still insisting she does not identify with “feminism”.