Krissah Thompson is a features writer for the Washington Post.
Helene Cooper’s “Madame President” is more than the life story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who broke political and cultural barriers in becoming the first woman to be elected president of an African nation. It is the expansive and penetrating narrative of a country, Liberia, that sweeps across continents and time.
This comprehensive book reaches back to 1820, when the first of many shiploads of mixed-race freed slaves and blacks settled in Liberia as part of a scheme by the American Colonization Society. It delves into the country’s fraught politics and violent history. It moves swiftly through decades, eventually addressing the Ebola crisis that became the nadir of Sirleaf’s two terms in office.
The story begins hopefully, with Sirleaf’s birth in 1938, at a time of relative peace. Her childhood was marked by a prophecy, proclaimed to her in Liberian English: “Ma, de pekin wa’na easy oh.” The phrase, a mix of pidgin, Creole, British and American slang, means “This child will be great.” Sirleaf took it as a calling, and step by step the book shows how she prepared for a life in leadership.
Her dreams were audacious, as Cooper points out. Women had a specific and limited place in Liberian society — they sold market wares, birthed babies and tended family farms. Sirleaf did not shake off those expectations right away. She married at age 17 and had four sons in quick succession.
Yet when faced with the universal maternal choice of children or career, Sirleaf juggled both. She left for America with her husband, leaving her kids behind, to pursue her education. Back home, two years later, associate’s degree in accounting in hand, she took a job as head of the debt service division in Liberia’s Treasury Department.
Eventually, she left her husband, who was abusive, and endured further separation from her sons as she moved through her career and pursued higher education, including earning a master’s of public administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Back home, she worked her way up and became her nation’s finance minister.
In 1980, when the president she worked for was killed in a military coup, Sirleaf’s life was spared, though she was placed under a brief house arrest before leaving the nation to work in international finance.
Five years later Sirleaf returned home and ran for the Senate. After the campaign, she was again arrested, this time for criticizing the military government. She was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor in a prison camp but was released after nine long months following mounting international pressure. That time in jail turned Sirleaf “from a bureaucrat to a global hero,” Cooper writes.
Sirleaf again left the country for America and later took a job as director of African development programs at the United Nations — but not before witnessing more atrocities back home. Liberia is “a country of almost impossible social, religious and political complexity,” Cooper observes. The bloody civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s, during Sirleaf’s exile, had roots in the tribal delineations etched into the nation back in 1820, when the American Colonization Society ships touched Liberia’s shore.
Women were victims in the war — their children forced to fight as boy soldiers, their daughters raped, their livelihoods threatened. During the long years of unrest, an estimated 75 percent of the nation’s women would be sexually assaulted.
Sirleaf, whom Cooper interviewed extensively and refers to as Ellen throughout the book, became their champion. Her experiences — seeing women brutalized, watching madmen rule her homeland — led her to seek power. When she ran for president, the rallying cry in the streets was “Ellen: She’s our man!” At rallies, “Vote for woman!” was shouted.
There was another nickname that stuck: Iron Lady. In part it referred to Sirleaf “having survived imprisonment, multiple brushes with death, and the vagaries of working with and against Liberia’s various strongmen,” Cooper writes. But it also alluded to her physical strength. Sirleaf “never got tired,” Cooper notes. As she campaigned for office, she vowed to visit all of Liberia’s 15 counties, driving all night on roads that were often unpaved and full of potholes. “Where there were no roads, she took canoes — sometimes paddling herself — to cross a river to visit a village.”
The women who sold wares at Liberia’s many roadside markets to support their families campaigned hard for Sirleaf and did not rely only on her résumé to persuade others to support her. Some young men were too macho to vote for a woman. Sirleaf’s supporters went to bars and called out: “You want beer? Just gimme your voter ID card, and I will buy you beer.” Duped into handing over their voter cards for free beer, the men were unable to vote against Sirleaf.
After Sirleaf won the 2005 election, defeating a soccer star named George Weah, she used her status and connections to deal with a $4.7 billion foreign debt load. She managed the government as a technocrat and with the help of her international friends got Liberia’s debt forgiven. Cooper expertly dissects the tangled financial situation, pointing out that its resolution was vital to the country’s very existence. Sirleaf’s second campaign was a bit easier, though she faced charges of nepotism for appointing relatives to powerful government jobs. In 2011, she was one of a trio of women who won a Nobel Peace Prize; four days later she was reelected president.
Cooper, a New York Times Pentagon correspondent who was born in Liberia and won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Ebola crisis there, writes vividly and with authority. In the book’s closing chapters she captures the poignant — and sometimes difficult to read — tales of mothers dying because they had cared for their sick children, and adult children contracting Ebola as they cared for their mothers.
Cooper has an understandable admiration for her subject, who, now in the 12th year of her presidency, has overseen a time of peace. She has a special appreciation for Liberian culture (“anyone with a single taste bud knows [jollof rice] is best made by a Liberian cook who knows what she’s doing”) and a bone-deep understanding of the importance of the woman known as “Madame President” or “Ma Ellen.”
Cooper immigrated to America at age 13, as a refugee, after the 1980 coup that caused the small country to spiral out of control. The opportunity to chronicle Sirleaf’s presidency returned Cooper to her birthplace, and her book is impressive for both its detail and the insight it provides into a historic figure. Throughout, she offers an unflinching look at the reserved Sirleaf’s personal life and presidency, which comes to an end this year, while also telling of Liberia’s pain and pride.
By Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $27