Copyright The Washington Post
Friday, December 16, 2005; C01
The “Iron Lady” of Liberian politics has a soft voice. She’s taken several calls in this downtown Washington office already, switching from French to several African languages.
The calls come from African officials. She apologizes for having to take them, but she’s the president-elect, and people need to talk to her.
She’s wearing handmade clothing from Liberia, a simple skirt and blouse, a lovely purple scarf circling her neck. Plain black boots. The slightest bit of makeup. She’s from a desperately poor country, and her retinue reflects that: a secretary, a security aide, someone to handle communications. The country has no budget for transition expenses, so she’s paying for much of the trip herself.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf surprised the world by winning the Liberian presidential election last month. In a country where everyday reality feels like the plot of a Graham Greene novel, she made history, becoming the first female president in Africa. Her swearing-in is scheduled for Jan. 16.
Some made threats after the election, principally those who backed her opponent, George Weah, a former international soccer star. But there were a great many who smiled, who danced in the roadways, who yelled after her — “Ellen, Ellen, Ellen.”
“I have a mandate from my people to renew our nation and reorder our social systems,” Sirleaf is saying.
Sirleaf, 67, has come to America to be seen in the flesh. She wrapped up her nine-day visit Thursday, meeting with administration officials, among them Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
She is not at all giddy about her newfound role. The challenges that lie before her, she knows all too well, are grave.
For about 15 years, Liberia has been beset by wars and corruption, which has left the country’s infrastructure in ruins.
“Our peace is very fragile,” Sirleaf says, sitting in the office of Steve Cashin, a onetime business partner. “There are arms throughout our country. There are thousands of people — Weah supporters — who are prone to violence.”
In the past several days Weah has made pronouncements that the elections were unfair, and there have been scattered demonstrations. Sirleaf, who expresses disappointment with the unrest, says she is hopeful that a contingent of 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers will be able to keep the country stable.
She is also trying to reach out to Weah supporters. “Whatever we do has to be buttressed by programs that reach out to them,” she says. “There have to be skills and job training programs. They’ve been exposed to violence and drugs too long. We must contain them — and reconstruct them.”
In the early going of the campaign someone started calling her Iron Lady and it stuck.
Nearly two dozen candidates vied in the first round of elections, leaving Sirleaf and Weah in a runoff. Weah had earned respect among the Liberian populace through years of philanthropy to his countrymen. Many thought he might win, given that Weah is just 39 and more than half of Liberia’s population of 3.2 million is under the age of 35.
In addition, Sirleaf was once a supporter of former president Charles Taylor — who has been indicted by a war crimes tribunal and now lives in exile in Nigeria — and some thought that baggage would hurt her at the polls.
“I haven’t spoken to Charles Taylor in seven years or so,” Sirleaf says, going on to add that Taylor is no longer welcome in Liberia. “We supported Taylor’s movement in the early days when he challenged the military regime” of President Samuel Doe, she says. “Then, when we saw him go off course, we led him into exile.”
Human rights groups have cited Taylor not only for starting a civl war that has claimed more than 150,000 lives, but for recruiting soldiers as young as 10 to fight in it. Taylor, who assumed the country’s presidency in 1997, has also been accused of stealing millions.
The West African country has deep links to America. Black Americans — both free and former slaves — began making pilgrimages to the country in the mid-1800s. Their descendants referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians.
The capital, Monrovia, was named after American president James Monroe, and the country’s currency has long resembled America’s.
In the 1960s, many black Americans ventured to Liberia, believing it a kind of oasis. But its wars have shocked much of the world, and in recent years there have been scenes of U.S. Marines rescuing citizens from Monrovia.
Many credit Sirleaf’s victory to shrewd politicking: Before the runoff, she dispatched buses throughout the country to ferry voters to polling places. Weah’s supporters grew complacent, says Riva Levinson, who was accompanying Sirleaf on her rounds and who served as an adviser to Sirleaf when she ran against Taylor in 1997.
“She’s a very strong lady,” says Elwood Dunn, who served in the administration of Liberian president William Tolbert along with Sirleaf, and who now teaches political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. “She’s always been focused and politically ambitious since the 1970s.”
Dunn does not envy the task ahead of Sirleaf. “She will, without hesitation, walk into a political firestorm,” he says. Her background — including stints with the World Bank and United Nations — will serve her well, he says. “The attentive part of Africa knows her well.”
Liberia has flirted before with bouts of peace, only to have the country plunge into chaos. “There is one big difference this time,” Sirleaf says. “These elections represent the first time Liberians voted in an atmosphere of freedom.”
She credits her victory to a campaign that talked about education, which appealed to the women in the marketplace. “I owe them my victory,” she says. “These were poor women who work in the markets, picking and selling vegetables. And they care about education for their children.”
Sirleaf has four sons (two live in Liberia, two in the United States). Her husband died years ago of natural causes. (She notes that the widespread hyphenation of their last names is incorrect. She doesn’t use a hyphen.)
High on her agenda will be tackling corruption, which has bedeviled many an African nation. “I will submit to a code of conduct, and will make sure that everyone who works for me, in a position of public service, accepts that code,” she says. “Foranyone who violates it, there will be a penalty.”
She is delighted about a tougher rape law recently passed in her country. “I have teenage granddaughters, and when I think of the rapes inside my country, well, it makes me angry,” she says. “We also want to take preventive action. Get the girls off the street into skills training programs. It would reduce their vulnerability.”
She made stops up and down the East Coast during her visit. It left her feeling inspired. “There is a lot of goodwill for Liberia here,” she says. “I think the administration and Congress is prepared to give us support to mount a major economic effort” at reconstruction in the country.
But to highlight the political land mines, a politician by the name of Jewel Howard-Taylor was elected to the Liberian Senate in the recent election. She is the wife of former president Charles Taylor, but political observers do not know the condition of their marriage.
“We hope she’s broken her communications with him,” Sirleaf says of Howard-Taylor. “We think she won the election in her own right. So we say we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Then the Iron Lady took on a more severe tone: “If she continues her links to Taylor and there is negativity, then we will have to make another decision.”
There was another meeting to hop to. Someone helped her with her plain black coat. And the president-elect was gone.
Â© 2005 The Washington Post Company