An uncompromising woman

2010-10-31 09:32

‘Tell them to stop leaning on the fence!” Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and the first woman ­ever to be elected as head of state on the continent of Africa, ordered the leader of her security team.

We were driving along one of the few paved avenues in her ­nation’s capital, Monrovia.

With her convoy rode UN gunmen, part of a peacekeeping force of 10 000 charged with preventing a conflagration in the aftermath of 14 years of horrific ­civil war.

The fighting ended in 2003, but outside the windows of Johnson-Sirleaf’s SUV the skeletons of abandoned buildings and the cries, at once thrilled and desperate, of the onlookers along the president’s route were signs of the country’s position near last on any list of how well the world’s nations are functioning.

Yet Johnson-Sirleaf’s attention narrowed on a bit of black iron railing and a cluster of leaning teenage boys.

The simple, wilting fence – a rare adornment on the avenue’s median and a hint of order in a city still reeling from war’s anarchy – looked close to collapse.

The 71-year-old president’s focus, ­always exacting, grew fierce.

“Tell them to stop,” she repeated in her scratchy voice. She meant for her security man to radio back to someone else in the convoy to scold and scatter the boys.

It seemed she would have rather done the scolding herself. Below her purple, geometrically patterned head wrap of ­African cloth, severe grandmotherly disapproval seized her face.

“They will break that fence!”

Johnson-Sirleaf, who beat a Liberian soccer star, George Weah, to win the presidency in 2005, and who has announced that she will run for a second term next year, is seen as a figure of profound hope for Africa by many in the West and as a saviour by some Liberians, partly because she is so stern, her resolve palpable and her standards high, and partly because she is a woman.

Her rivals in the next election are likely to include Weah again, as well as a former rebel commander named Prince Yormie Johnson, who slaughtered one of the country’s recent presidents.

Johnson-Sirleaf would agree with the assessments of why she should keep running Liberia. She takes pride in working long into every night and in standing above – and, as much as possible, standing up to – the country’s legendary and crippling government corruption.

She credits some of her strength to having survived a violently abusive husband – and she does not hesitate in declaring that women make better leaders.

Women head more than a quarter of her ministries.

“Women are more committed,” Johnson-Sirleaf said as we rode past one of the Monrovia neighbourhoods which has recently regained access to public electricity, after her administration started mending the capital’s electricity grid which had been ravaged in the war.

The rest of the city relies on private generators, with most of the cratered streets pitch black at night. “Women work harder,” she continued.

“And women are more honest; they have less reason to be corrupt. They don’t have so many diversions. Men have more than one wife; they have their concubines.

We have polygamy here, not polyandry.” She laughed quietly at her pointed logic.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s precise, pointed manner has helped make her a darling in the world of international aid; a reason for believing that the rescue of Africa, with all its misrule, remains possible.

Right before she tried to save the keeling fence, she sat in a booth at a Monrovia radio station. She educated listeners about the $4.6 billion (about R32.2 billion) in debt relief her government had just gained through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Her administration won the reprieve by designing and starting to implement an auspicious set of fiscal reforms.

The relief was, she said to me, perhaps the most important achievement of her presidency so far. And certainly her skilled and perpetual soliciting of international support has been a centerpiece of her leadership.

“Dey pour penalty on top,” she explained from the ramshackle radio station as the broadcast reached much of the country of about 3.5 million.

Speaking in Liberia’s patois to make sure she was understood, she lectured on the consequence of the debt that had accumulated over decades and dwarfed the nation’s current $350-million annual budget: “We could no borrow a penny!”

She talked about the more modest loans – with better terms – she will seek and can well hope to get, now that Liberia has been granted this fresh start and vote of confidence.

It was, to an extent, a typical political performance; a president telling her people how wisely she served them.

And I couldn’t help wondering whether the new loans Johnson-Sirleaf anticipated, with their generous deferrals of payment, would result later only in another round of impossible amounts owed, another round of forgiveness sought from the world’s powerful nations, another confirmation of Liberia’s – and Africa’s – mismanagement and dispiriting dependence on international charity.

Yet Johnson-Sirleaf’s no-nonsense tone hushed misgivings.

She has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and a reputation for fiscal vigilance dating back to her rise through Liberia’s financial ministry in the late 1960s and 70s.

By the 1980s her stances against dictatorial repression and official plundering had earned her a prison sentence and years in exile.

“We see her as one of us,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to Liberia, said, describing Johnson-Sirleaf’s appeal to Western diplomats and dispensers of aid.

She stressed the importance of Johnson-Sirleaf having worked, while in exile, as a senior UN official and as a Citicorp vice-president in Nairobi in charge of the bank’s African operation. Johnson-Sirleaf, she said, straddled worlds with agility.

Not all Liberians, though, are so enthusiastic. Bureaucrats high and low continue requiring bribes and siphoning government funds in ways that have long robbed the country of its infrastructure and debilitated the economy.

Over the radio, Johnson-Sirleaf put the emphasis on gradual improvement.

“I beg you I no magician,” she said, letting a plea seep into her lecture: “I can’t just wave a magic wand.”

» Bergner is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.

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