Last fall, I traveled to Liberia to better understand domestic and international efforts to revitalize its justice sector and reduce impunity for sexual and gender-based violence. I wish that I had been able to read Helene Cooper’s new book, Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, before going. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Liberia. It’s also an important study for students of all regions interested in the challenges women face in public life or the manner in which societies grapple with severe and protracted crises.
Liberia was founded in the early 1800s by the American Colonization Society, a group comprised of abolitionists as well as slave owners. It’s a country the size of Tennessee, a place where today only two percent of people have access to the electric grid and at least 65 percent live on just $1.25 a day. Beginning with a coup in 1989, the country was mired in decades of civil war and armed violence, which killed over 200,000 people, displaced one third of the country’s population, and exposed women and girls to widespread rape and abuse.
To say that Liberia emerged from conflict in 2003 in no way captures the brutality of what occurred and the vigilant, creative efforts of women to end the war. Cooper’s book, on the other hand, conveys what happened in daily, gritty terms. It chronicles not just Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s story, but the history of modern Liberia. It explains the stratification of Liberia’s society based on skin color; the horror, brutality and insanity of war (imagine men on violent rampages while dressed in wedding dresses or nothing but combat boots); the widespread corruption; the chaos wrought upon the country and its people due to conflict, poor governance, impunity and then, of course, Ebola. It also reflects the sheer determination of Liberians, as they faced war, violence, poverty and disease and just kept going.
For me, there were several compelling narratives. First, the story of President Sirleaf herself. In a country where women have limited options, she succeeded due to early predictions about her future; her courage, determination and smarts; her ability to straddle the hierarchy of Liberian society; and, her ability to move easily in the elite global financial community. She overcame challenges common to many women: Marriage at a young age to a husband who was abusive and demeaning in public as well as private. Criticism of how she raised her family. Blatant sexism in public life. Although Sirleaf has flaws, and has been criticized for nepotism and for not doing enough to modernize her country, this book gives the reader a chance to make his or her own determination about Sirleaf’s accomplishments, decisions and legacy.
Second, the book sets out the complex relationship between Sirleaf and the Liberian market women who were the backbone of her 2005 campaign. The book recounts these women’s determination to elect her president, and, along the way, some amazing stories of how they mobilized votes for Sirleaf. (As the saying goes, don’t try this at home.) These market women, who sustained Liberia through its deadly wars while struggling to feed their families and make a living were her earliest supporters – and became a thorn in her side once she was elected and tried to govern. As she attempted to clear illegal market stalls set up all over Monrovia’s overcrowded streets, the women refused to budge, despite their clear affection for Sirleaf. In addition, while she and Leymah Gbowee, of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, celebrated their shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, that relationship soured. Months later, Gbowee left the country and gave several interviews criticizing Sirleaf for nepotism and not doing enough to fight corruption. Bottom line, in politics, alliances don’t last forever.
Third, the book closes with the Ebola crisis. Sirleaf’s initial responses were rocky but she gets her footing, and uses relationships forged over a lifetime to help bring resources and attention to aid in the battle. As the Liberian people grapple with the deadly impact of the disease, we read about the country pulling together, working hard and coming out of the Ebola crisis earlier than Sierra Leone and Guinea. Yet, as Cooper reported in the New York Times, not without personal cost to some who performed the task of cremating bodies of Ebola victims. When I disembarked in Liberia, a large sign that read “Ebola Is Real” was posted at the airport. While in the country, I saw that Liberians’ ability to overcome the challenges of the outbreak was real as well. Cooper’s book is, in part, a story of that personal and national triumph.
These are remarkable stories -- of a woman and of a country, intertwined. They help us understand not just one woman’s journey, but a country’s struggle, and lessons for a way forward. Run, do not walk to your nearest bookstore. (Or, if you must, buy it online.)