Madame President

The Book of the Week is “Madame President, The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf” by Helene Cooper, published in 2017.

In post-Civil War America, (White) slave owners who had secretly fathered offspring were afraid of further racial strife, so they sent manumitted slaves to Liberia. By the late 1860’s, there were 28 different ethnic groups living there.

Ellen Johnson was born in October 1938 in the country’s capital, Monrovia– ironically, a place that discriminates against dark-skinned people. Her mother was unusually lucky. Her mother’s poverty-stricken parents handed her off to foster care, where her fair skin was received favorably throughout her childhood. Johnson got her mother’s color. Her family predicted she would have a lucky life– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, Johnson had to endure the difficulties females faced in her culture. These included: an arranged marriage (that allowed polygamy for the husband), the expectation that she would bear children; physical abuse, and sex imposed by males against the wills of females of all ages.

Fortunately, Johnson bore four sons and her husband was an attorney. He and she had valuable social connections that allowed them the chance to study in the United States. Childcare was handled by extended relatives.

When Johnson-Sirleaf was thirty years old, she had had enough of the barbaric practices heaped upon Liberian people of her gender. She obtained a divorce. Right up until the courtroom hearing finalizing the split, she was phobic that her ex would retaliate yet again with even worse domestic violence than before. Divorcing was a radical step for a Liberian female. But she was exceptional; in her life, every special advantage she got led to another. Yet, most of her later achievements were done on her own merits– not as a result of marriage to a powerful man.

The Liberian government had one political party, the True Whig Party, whose members used the government as their personal piggy bank. By the early 1970’s, there was a very wide income/asset gap between the government officials and military thugs, and the unfortunate Liberian citizens; there was no middle class. The nation had been drained of its major resources, rubber and iron, which had been exported to foreign countries by profiteers.

Johnson was academically skilled and played well with others politically. She got a job with the Liberian Debt Service Department at Treasury, and then the Ministry of Finance while radical changes were afoot. She studied accounting, and later, public administration at Harvard. However, her public speech could be inflammatory, because she told the truth. She called the system a “kleptocracy– corrupt to the core.” At a later time, she warned that a peasant revolt was in the offing.

In 1971, the new nepotistic “president” of the country was switching benefactors, from the United States to the U.S.S.R. Allegedly, he was going to help the downtrodden and eliminate corruption. Yet he practiced cronyism on a royal scale and angered the civilian Liberian people in numerous other ways.

Read the book to learn how the tide turned eventually through the ugly events that transpired; how, more than once, Johnson was very nearly killed but instead encountered a checkered fate; and how the United States played a major part in her and Liberia’s survival, despite having blood on its hands.