Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Africa’s first democratically-elected female president, Liberia’s “Iron Lady,” a grandmother, and a Harvard-educated economist) is Liberia’s best hope in decades. She has been through hell and she went back to try to make it a better place.
The protests of her opponent, soccer-star George Weah, carry ugly echos of the warlords that preceded him. Back off, Weah, for the sake of Liberia and for your family and friends!
Here’s a great op-ed piece from the NYT….
In Liberia, stories about near-death run-ins with the deranged gun-toting maniacs who have run the country into the ground for the last quarter-century are a dime a dozen. Even the president-elect has one.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s story goes like this: In 1985, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, then 47 and a leader of a political party that opposed the strongman Samuel Doe, was arrested during a roundup of Mr. Doe’s political opponents after an attempted coup. About six soldiers came at night to her house, hauled her to the army barracks in Schieffelin, outside Monrovia, and threw her into a cell with 15 men.
Just past midnight, the soldiers returned to the cell with a rope, which they used to tie together the hands of all the prisoners, except one. When they ran out of rope they relieved Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf of her shoelaces, and used them to tie the last man to the group. As she stood, shaking, in a corner, the soldiers led the 15 prisoners outside. The rat-a-tat of the machine guns sounded, as the men were executed.
Twenty years later, the one prisoner in that cell who was not executed that night is about to become president, the first woman ever elected president of an African country. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf won 59.4 percent of the vote in the runoff election held last month, beating a former soccer player, George Weah.
But Mr. Weah – echoing the very behavior and mistakes of the old-guard leadership he has criticized – is still refusing to accept the results. He claims the November elections were fraudulent, and has fired up the jobless young men who make up his base to take to Monrovia’s already torn-up streets to protest. Last week, he told his disgruntled followers that “revolution is a noble cause.”
“It is our right to seek justice, and we will use all means to obtain that,” he said. His supporters subsequently clashed with police and United Nations peacekeepers with their usual chanting of “No Weah, No Peace.”
This is all the same rhetoric used by Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, and all of Africa’s various strongmen, militants and warlords who, if there were any real justice, would be run off the continent. This is the rhetoric that stirred up Liberia’s never-ending civil wars, that helped incite the bloodbath in neighboring Sierra Leone, that led to so many pointless deaths in Ivory Coast.
The result of this useless carnage is clearly visible on the streets of Monrovia, where empty buildings, damaged beyond recognition by artillery shelling, shelter squatters with nowhere else to live. The country has not had electricity since 1991. There is no running water. There are few schools, no factories, nothing to provide any kind of hope to the youths who spend both their days and nights on the streets.
Can a 67-year-old grandmother fix all this? Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, who came to New York and Washington last week for a victory lap, argues that she can, in part because she is a 67-year-old grandmother. Forget about her Harvard education or her experience as a World Bank economist, or the fact that she is the darling of the Western donor groups that Liberia desperately needs. That will all help, but it’s gravy. What really will distinguish her is that she will bring to this psychologically and socially broken place the simple, clear and rational thinking of a straightforward African woman.
Take, for example, her views on rape. In Liberia, as in so many other places in Africa, there has been no real law on the books that stipulates punishment for rape. So the sexual predators, who see rape as their only means to exert power over vulnerable women, are not prosecuted. A few months ago, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and a handful of female lawyers in Liberia asked the legislature to prescribe sentences for rapists. “Do you know the farthest the legislature would go is seven years?” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said, disgustedly.
Still, in West Africa, where girls of 9 are often the prey of men in their 50’s, seven years is something. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s first test of this came a few weeks ago, when reports surfaced that a Nigerian soldier who was part of the international peacekeeping mission in Liberia was suspected of raping a 9-year-old girl. An enraged Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf was quickly on the phone to the head of the peacekeeping operation.
“Don’t let him leave Liberia,” she ordered. “If he leaves Liberia and goes back to Nigeria, they’ll free him.”
Then she went on the radio with a warning to all: “I’ve got grand-daughters that age,” she recalls saying. “Those who engage in rape better know that from now on, we’re going to prosecute.”
Prosecution for men who rape 9-year-old girls should be pretty basic, but not so in places where endless war has broken down social constraints, and a population becomes so demoralized that the thread of humanity is stretched to the breaking point. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, who is supposed to be inaugurated on Jan. 16, says she plans to dig deep into her past, to that night 20 years ago, to try to keep that thread intact.
On that night, after the 15 men were killed, one of those soldiers entered her cell and tried to rape her. He was stopped by another soldier, who told her, “I will sleep on the floor here in your cell tonight so no one hurts you.”
Africa’s first female president is ready to repay the favor, writ large.