03.31.09

Africa's Powerhouse Prez

In a new memoir, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recounts her remarkable climb to become Africa’s most powerful woman. She talks to Lynn Sherr about how men have failed us—and waiting for Obama’s call.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is an unlikely rock star: a 70-year-old, mixed-race economist, she starts every day in her West African office eager to see which city block will next have enough power to turn on the lights. But Sirleaf generates her own infectious energy. As the first female elected head of state in Africa, she has electrified her country—and her continent—with breathtaking leadership since 2006, aiming to lift Liberia into a new era of prosperity and security after 14 years of brutal civil wars that ended in 2003, having killed 250,000 people and demolished both infrastructure and optimism.

"We will make a difference, I think, in the young people. So that they will come with a different culture, value. And that they will lead truly, the leadership that we want to see."

The challenge has been staggering. As she points out in her new memoir, This Child Will Be Great (HarperCollins), “No one really expected me to become president. … I was a woman in a society that insisted on male leadership. … I was too light-skinned, too educated, … too mature to win...”

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This Child Will Be Great. By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. ()

In a gripping narrative, she also writes about her heritage: three indigenous grandparents and one German grandfather; a checkered childhood that led her to break out of her traditional Liberian upbringing and earn a degree at Harvard; a career in public service; time spent in and out of government; and exile as political tyranny wiped out her homeland. After peace finally returned, she ran for office, and she writes that the women of Liberia urged her on: “‘Men have failed us,’ people said over and over again. ‘Men are too violent, too prone to make war. Women are less corrupt, less likely to be focused on getting fancy cars and fancy homes for themselves.’”

Her 2005 campaign thus inspired the voters—especially the women—and as she confirmed to me recently, her election has brought new hope to the people she serves. “That’s the one thing I can say is the best result of my presidency,” she said. “Hope to Liberian women, hope to Liberian children. And hope to Liberians generally.”

She has also started to rebuild. When I met with her in Monrovia for a series of reports on PBS’ Worldfocus, the city was bustling and the bullet holes were being patched up. And while the elevator to her office was the only one I encountered during two weeks in Liberia, it rode very smoothly.

What has the position of women in Liberia been up to now?

I must say, traditionally, Liberian women have been strong. In our whole history, we have had that but have not had equality and equal opportunity. Like many other African countries, the girls get married off too young. Most times, they have to help their mothers in the farms, their mothers who are not schooled and so have not been able to reach their potential. We have had quite dominant, eminent women that have held high positions in our society. But the majority of those, particularly from the rural areas, have been neglected in terms of schooling.

Why?

It’s because, when there’s not enough income in the family, the boys are seen as the ones who will take care of the family. So the boys get the opportunity to go to school while the girls stay with their mothers and eventually they become young brides. Much, much too early. But that’s changing.

Do you think you can change attitudes?

Tough one, in the Liberian context, because our value system has been so longstanding, and has been transmuted over the years with the introduction of violence and lawlessness and dishonesty. But we will make a difference. We will make a difference, I think, in the young people. So that they will come with a different culture, value. And that they will lead truly, the leadership that we want to see. Maybe a decade from now they will be quite different because the values will have changed. That’s why I want to concentrate on the young children.

And when you talk about the young children, is it just the young girls?

No. Here, we are talking about our youth. Generally. That should be our target population for changing their attitudes and their values. And preparing them for leadership that’s going to be much better than the leadership of today.

One of the women from another West African country referred to you as “the president of us all.” Someone said they wished they could rotate you around all over the different countries.

I think [for] women all over Africa, I represent their expectations, their ambitions. Their challenges. I’m that which symbolizes all that many of them have fought for for so many years. And so, when they say, you know, “You’re our president, you’re there, you’ve got to do it for us,” it’s a responsibility, it’s humbling, I have to say that, but it’s also exciting.

If I were a 45-year-old man living in Liberia, would I be justified in saying, 'She’s not my president—she’s only the president of the women'?

No, you would not be justified. Because I think, those 45-year-old people, even though they are difficult to change, but I think deep in their hearts, they want a changed country. They want to make sure that their children, their sons, their daughters, live in a different environment, you know. And can be the leaders that we all aspire to be, even though our conditioning over the years may have prevented us from being it. But I think deep inside, they too are good people. They want to see their country move in the right direction.

I know you’re not going to answer this, but I’ll ask anyway—will you run for a second term?

You’re right, I won’t answer that. [Laughter] I don’t want to be distracted. I keep telling people, I want to spend 2009 pushing my development agenda. Getting my results. Next year, we’ll deal with the politics.

This is a country that still has very high regard for President George W. Bush.

Yes, we do. President Bush took a very bold stance in the time of our most difficult period that led to the departure of former President [Charles] Taylor. And that provided the opportunity for us to start the processes of peace and rebuilding where we are today. And so he is remembered for that with fondness, and we will continue to remember him in that light. But that in no way takes away from the fact that we still enjoy bipartisan support. And we’ve had great support from the U.S. Congress on a bipartisan level. Even throughout the Bush administration. And we’re hoping, on the basis of that, we will build the same, or better, relationship with the Obama administration.

Have you had any conversations with President Obama?

No, I have not yet. We were waiting for an opportunity when he was doing the telephone rounds and we were on the list to be called and then, I think it was back to Pakistan—or something diverted him. And all the calls were suspended after he made the first five calls. So, we’re still waiting for that opportunity.

Is this a safe country now?

Yes it is. We have armed robberies. We have, you know, preying on young girls. We have the type of crime that is found in many countries today. And that’s because we have too many young people unemployed, who have nothing to do, many of them coming from a culture of violence and extortion. And until we can open up our minds and our agriculture, and provide those jobs for them, we’ll have this problem. We’re in the process of trying to do that. It takes time to get the investment, and the recent global financial crisis is not helping us in any way. But, we’re getting some of it, and we’ll create those jobs in the next year or two. At that time then, we think the crime that we’re faced with today will slowly diminish.

What is your message to the American people?

I would like for the American population to know that we are in the process of change. Our objective is to make Liberia prosperous through the proper use of its own resources. To reduce our dependency on aid. To become self-sufficient based upon our own capacity and our own natural resources. And the message to them is: Please stay with us as a partner. Just for the next few years. Watch the progress, watch the changes. Hold us accountable. And make sure we stay the course, which we intend to do. Because the success, which we hope will come, where Liberia is known as a model, post-conflict success story, the U.S. will be able to take a lot of credit for it, because they’ve been there with us. They’ve been our No. 1 partner. And if they’re motivated and helping us, and we want to say thank you.

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Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.