'Vote for Woman': How Africa Got Its First Female President

More than a decade ago, Liberia made history. A new biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recounts how.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of the Republic of Liberia
Vincent Kessler / Reuters

In the fall of 2005, for the first time after a brutal, 14-year civil war that had ended two years before, Liberia held national elections. The November 8 runoff offered voters two choices: George Weah, a famous footballer with little education or government experience, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated international finance expert.

The women of Liberia, who had borne the brunt of the country’s violence, knew who they wanted; it was largely they who, in an enormous showing of political resolve, made Johnson Sirleaf Liberia’s first female president, and the first elected female head of state in Africa.

By then, Johnson Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, already had a long and varied career behind her. She was both of Liberia and of the global elite, having lived and been educated outside the country. She had worked in her country’s government, as finance minister; in the private sector, for Citibank; and in international organizations, for the United Nations and the World Bank.

But as Helene Cooper of The New York Times told me recently, it was “stunning” to see Johnson Sirleaf get elected. Cooper, who is from Liberia, is the author of a new biography of the Liberian president, and she remarked in an interview that, in the country’s male-dominated society, “to get a woman elected president is no small thing.”

And it’s no small thing, Cooper pointed out, that Johnson Sirleaf will step down in January 2018 when her second presidential term ends. “There are going to be elections and she’s going to leave power,” Cooper said. “That’s not something Liberia has ever had.” In the meantime, Johnson Sirleaf has received the Nobel Peace Prize, negotiated $4.7 billion in debt forgiveness for Liberia, and maintained peace in a country that had been riven by conflict. But she’s also been accused of nepotism, and missteps during the Ebola pandemic. Cooper’s book, Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, tells the complicated story of the Liberian president and the women behind her. I spoke with Cooper in advance of its publication. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Diamond: What made you want to examine the life of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

Helene Cooper: I started off very interested in what the Liberian women had accomplished in 2005. I’m from Liberia, so I was paying attention to the election, and I know how patriarchal Liberian society and Africa in general certainly is. So to get a woman elected president is no small thing. After years of civil war, and at a time when everybody in the news here looks at Liberia as sort of backwards, all of a sudden to have my home country leapfrog over everybody and do something like this—I found it stunning. As I started to report the story, I realized that this was sort of two stories in one. It was both about what the Liberian women had done, and [about] this singularly exceptional woman and her life.

Diamond: What insight did you gain into why she became the first female African president?

Cooper: There were a lot of factors to where she ended up, and most important was her own personal ambition and drive. It’s hard for me to get my head around how somebody would think that they’re qualified to lead a country, because normal people don’t go around thinking they can do that. It takes really exceptional people to believe that they and only they are qualified. I asked [her] that so many times, and she never seemed to have that self-doubt that people like you or I would have about whether she could do it. There’s a lot of inherent self-confidence in there, and I think that’s one of those things that is probably present in most leaders and not most people.

Diamond: How does she fit in the pantheon of African leaders?

Cooper: She smokes most of them. But that’s not hard to do, because you look around Africa and you still have all these leaders who stay around for 50-60 years. She’s leaving at the end of this year—there are going to be elections and she’s going to leave power. That’s not something Liberia has ever had. They all die in office or are dragged out in body bags. You look at Cameroon, where you have Paul Biya who’s been there for [about] 30 years. You look at Chad, [where Idriss Deby has held power since 1990], you look at [Robert] Mugabe [in Zimbabwe, in power since the 1980s]. African leaders don’t have a history of going out democratically.

Beyond that, she certainly smokes any of the other Liberian leaders before her. None of that is to say she’s perfect, because there are a lot of issues with Liberia: Corruption is still prevalent throughout the government. She has a blind spot when it comes to her son [Rob, whom she appointed to head the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL)]; there have been nepotism charges, and I think that goes back to a lot of guilt over the fact that she left [her sons] as children to pursue her own education and career, and she’s been making up for it. She doesn’t see what anyone else can see as inappropriate about it when she promotes them. So she’s certainly no Nelson Mandela, but she’s not a Robert Mugabe either. She’s a whole lot better than anybody we’ve had in Liberia before. The country has been war-free for 13 years and that’s a really big deal.

Diamond: How would you describe Liberia’s class dynamics?

Cooper: Liberia was founded by freed slaves, who set up the same kind of antebellum system in Liberia that they had escaped from in the United States, except they were the upper classes and the rest of the Liberian population made up the servant class. And that was a big part of why there was a military coup in 1980 that upended 150 years of two-class rule, and that ended up leading eventually to the civil war. There’s a lot of blood and tears in the whole class system in Liberia. It’s something that’s slowly going away, but it’s not gone completely. That said, you don’t have the strict class lines that I even grew up with in Liberia—it’s much more integrated today. Native Liberians run the government, they’re much better poised to do things that they couldn’t even aspire to back when I was a little girl. I think it’s slowly going away but it’s something that’s going to take decades.

Diamond: What role did they play in Johnson Sirleaf’s life?

Cooper: She’s different because she passes for Congo, without actually being Congo—Congo is the word we use to describe the descendants of the freed slaves. Because her grandfather was a German—there are a lot of racial hang-ups in Liberia, but basically the closer you are to white, the better off you are. So even though her father was a native Liberian, her mother was mixed-race, [and] she was sort of accepted into this Congo elite class. I think that [helped] her when it [came] time to run for president, because she was accepted in Congo society, but at the same time, she could say to native Liberians: “I am one of you.”

Diamond: In the early part of her career, Johnson Sirleaf repeatedly left Liberia. How did that shape her life and her governing style and ability?

Cooper: She chose to leave, to go to [Madison, Wisconsin] for an associate’s degree; she chose to leave to go to Harvard, and when the coup happened [in 1980, when Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and his accomplices murdered then-president William Tolbert. Johnson Sirleaf had been finance minister in Tolbert’s government]. She chose to leave each time. I think that definitely gave her the sheen of global sophistication that made her more acceptable to the outside world. Liberia had been governed by a series of madmen, from Samuel Doe [who held power from 1980 to 1990] to Charles Taylor [president from 1997 to 2003, later convicted of war crimes and imprisoned in the United Kingdom]. When you suddenly have this IMF-World Bank-UN bureaucrat, people heaved a sigh of relief and were far more willing to deal with her. Getting Liberia’s $4.7 billion in debt relieved—she single-handedly did that, something none of her predecessors or any other man who was competing with her could have ever pulled off. That was because the international financial system trusted her. It was all because she had this global sheen. And that sometimes can hurt and help a politician, because within the country, you’re seen as almost too much of an outsider. But when she was elected in 2005 [Liberia] had come through this horrible war and the women of Liberia, in particular, realized that they needed somebody like her.

Diamond: How did Liberia’s civil wars [which she mostly spent in the U.S.] influence her as a leader?

Cooper: I think it made her more determined to avoid war, no matter what the cost, which means that once she became president, she did a lot of political compromising to bring in the former Charles Taylor people—she appointed some of them to the government—to prevent people from becoming so alienated that they feel they have to go to war. She was terrified of that happening, so I think she made a lot of political concessions. A lot of strict purists would say: “Well, why are you doing this?” Her reasoning would be because we don’t want to end up back in the same place again.

Diamond: There are moments in the book when her actions don’t seem to match up with her standards. She bribes a warlord for his vote; she helps Samuel Doe with finances knowing his government is corrupt; her supporters take away people’s ID cards; and she gives one son a job in government. How does Johnson Sirleaf justify this?

Cooper: She will say that she doesn’t have to justify it. When I asked her about Rob—that’s the most controversial of her sons, the one who was head of NOCAL—she said she needed somebody there she could trust. [Another son], Charles, was already appointed [as governor of Liberia’s central bank] before she became president and she wasn’t going to just [remove] him.

She’s the one who told me about [the bribe]. I had no idea this happened. I’m sitting there in an interview with her and she casually mentions it. It’s just one of those things that she didn’t even try to justify. She’s not squeaky clean, and you probably can’t be squeaky clean and survive in the Liberia political environment, and I’m not saying that as an excuse at all.

Diamond: What was the situation in Liberia when Johnson Sirleaf was first elected? What was that race like?

Cooper: It was a mess in Liberia. The war had ended in 2003, but the country had no electricity, there was no running water. And with an entire generation who had seen nothing but war, everybody you meet on the street was a survivor. The percentage of women in Liberia who had been raped was some ridiculous number. You had a nation of survivors and people who had gone through hell, and all of them looking for some kind of savior—particularly the women who were completely fed up with what they thought the men had brought them. African women are the strongest women on the planet; they carry that continent on their backs. During the war, Liberian women were driving the economy. They would be raped, and they would have the children of their rapists in the forest by themselves, and then strap those babies on their [backs] and go back out there [to market] with their oranges on their heads, because they were going to get their children fed. These were [Johnson Sirleaf’s] constituents. It’s not even that she at first reached out to them—they reached out to her. These were the women [who said]: OK, we’ve been through 15 years of civil war and now you’re going to tell me that we are going to give our country to a football player? They were outraged by the idea that the men who they thought had waged war in the country were demanding another chance at [running] it. They were just not having any of it.

Diamond: I was going to ask how, in a country with such widespread violence against women, and such a strong patriarchal background, she ascended to the presidency. You kind of answered it a bit already. It’s the combination of an extraordinary woman and the force of the women on the ground.

Cooper: They could vote. Almost every Liberian woman that lived through the war became a market woman. My sister, who was there, was selling caustic soda soap on the side of the road. Because they have children and they have mouths to feed. It took them until 2005 to realize that that power—that entrepreneurial power—could be translated into political power. Once they realized that the country was going to have democratic elections, [that] they had the right to vote and they could exercise it, they could say: We’re gonna vote for a woman, because a woman is not going to bring war in the country. It’s a very simple rationale, but [there was a] whole “Vote for Woman” slogan, all about, “we’re not going to vote for war, we’re going to vote for woman. Woman isn’t going to take the country back into war.” It’s simple, but it became really, really effective.

Diamond: I’m curious if you saw a parallel between her having to campaign against a football player with very little experience…

Cooper: I’m going to let you finish that question yourself.

Diamond: Well, I’ll just say this: Do you see any similarities between Hillary Clinton and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

Cooper: Yes, I do. Hillary Clinton is a global bureaucrat, isn’t she? She’s the ultimate technocrat. Ellen has a lot of the same rap as Hillary—she’s not necessarily that politically exciting, she’s a technocrat, she’s got a whole lot of experience, she’s done everything. Nobody, even the Hilary-haters out there, can say that the woman isn’t qualified to be president. But the difference was that, in the case of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, she had 80 percent of female vote in Liberia—whereas most of the men voted for a football player, and then they said that the women were being sexist. But anyway, men don’t vote for women, you know? And that’s still very much the case here in the U.S. The majority of men were going to vote for Trump, and Hillary didn’t win. The difference is that Hillary didn’t win a majority of the white female vote. She won the majority of the female vote, but not the white female vote. So I think what we’ve learned is that [for female politicians] you need all the women to vote for you because the men are not going to vote for you.

Diamond: One of Sirleaf's most recent challenges was the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, which she initially seemed to ignore at her country’s peril. What caused that lack of leadership and how did she make up for it?

Cooper: I think she was afraid that [acknowledging it would mean] she was going to lose all her foreign investment. You don’t want to say, “We’ve got this pandemic here,” [you’re] hoping that it’ll go away. But she lost all that foreign investment anyway, because the response was so slow. It was partly denial, because nobody wants to believe that this horrible thing is happening. But then she got to acceptance pretty quickly, which is why Liberia came out of it faster than Guinea or Sierra Leone, even though it was hit harder. And that’s, I think, in large part because of her leadership, not because she was particularly fantastic but because she had created an open atmosphere, with the free press and freedom of speech in Liberia. So you have people losing their shit on the radio, criticizing the government—“Why [are] you guys being so slow about this?” Really demanding answers. Whereas in other countries, people screaming like that—there would be political reprisal.

Diamond: What does the story of Sirleaf as peacemaker teach about the resolution of other conflicts? What made her successful or not in that context?

Cooper: People will criticize her, so I’m not necessarily saying this as an example. But she makes political compromises—she was willing to take the former Charles Taylor people into the government, so she keeps a lid on them screaming and yelling about not having representation. I think that helps. I think the economic growth that Liberia experienced helped. If people feel like their economy is getting better, they’re going to be far less likely to rebel. I think the openness of Liberian society—the fact that you didn’t see political killings and the kind of stuff that we were used to when people complained about the government. Even her strongest critics will praise that and say the freedom that people have—of movement, of speech, of the press—is such that it stops things from simmering until they explode.

Diamond: Her term ends this fall and she’s said she doesn’t plan to run again. What will be her most lasting influence on Liberia?

Cooper: I think it’s the female empowerment, the female political movement. The people who are set to succeed her right now are mostly men, but I think you have Liberian young girls who think there is no reason at all why they cannot be president. And that’s huge—I can’t stress enough how big a deal that is on a continent like Africa.