Africa’s first elected female president has made giant steps in ridding her country of warlords, rape and child soldiers, but much remains to be done
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 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.
Power to the people: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addresses supporters after she was released from prison in 1986. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA
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.
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.
Bad old days: rebel child soldiers in the civil war, 1992. Photograph: Patrick Robert/Getty Images
“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.”
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.”
Eyes on the prize: winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Photograph: Goff Photos
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.”
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.
‘This is where I grew up’. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the Liberian countryside. Photograph: Monique Jaques for the Observer
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.
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”.
Personal appeal: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hears a woman’s appeal at her farm. Photograph: Monique Jaques for the Observer
On the other hand, she has been dynamic and honest about the problems facing Liberian women. “A difficulty that we haven’t been able to solve is rape of young girls, sometimes very young children.” On assuming the presidency, Johnson Sirleaf moved quickly to make all forms of rape a criminal offence – remarkably, for the first time in Liberia. “That created another problem for us because of the weakness of our justice system,” she explains. “We had a lot of pre-trial detainees, so prisons are filled with people charged with rape. On the other hand, poverty has led to a lot of compromises in rape cases, where the offender will get to the family, offer them money, offer them education for their children, and they compromise.”
Johnson Sirleaf’s directness can be disarming. She shows me around her farm, and we inspect the chillies, little fiery bursts of red in a tidy greenhouse, and rice – “very hard work” – she says, as farm workers approach asking for help, or extra money. One woman presents a listless looking four-year-old boy, his stomach scarred from surgery, explaining that two years ago he drank from a bottle of caustic soda she’d been using to make soap.
Johnson Sirleaf – the American accent I had become used to now swiftly obliterated by thick, Liberian English – gives the woman a sharp dressing-down: “You should take better care of your children!” Horrified by this child’s injuries, and a little alarmed by her response, I ask the president what she is going to do, noticing her aides taking down the woman’s details. “I’m going to help her, of course,” she says. “It’s what I do.”