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Liberian President Details Her Path to Power

April 21, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf details her rise to power and her personal experiences with domestic abuse in her book "This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life." Johnson-Sirleaf talks about her life and her country with Margaret Warner.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the path to power for a unique African leader. Margaret Warner has a book conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: Founded by former American slaves in 1847, the West African nation of Liberia descended into chaos at the end of the 20th century. Successive coups and 14 years of civil war took 250,000 lives and devastated the country’s infrastructure.

Much of the carnage was perpetrated under the regime of strong man Charles Taylor, who was forced into exile in 2003 and is now being tried for war crimes in The Hague.

Today, Liberia is trying to recover under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. A Harvard-educated economist and former World Bank official won a landslide victory in late 2005, becoming Africa’s first elected woman president.

She is in the U.S. promoting her memoir, “This Child Will Be Great.” It chronicles the triumphs, but also the many hardships on her path to the presidency. And she joins me now.

And, Madam President, thanks for being with us.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF, President of Liberia: I’m very glad to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the title of your book comes from a prophecy made by an old man who came to visit your parents just days after you were born, “This child will be great.” Did you grow up feeling that you were born to lead or had a duty to lead?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Absolutely not. You know, I grew up with my siblings under very normal circumstances, had no idea I’d be president or certainly would not be great. In fact, I’m not great as yet.

So that prophecy was something during the times of my difficulties, when, you know, we would just sort of laugh, my siblings and I. You know, greatness? When I was in prison or when I was having difficulty in exile or, you know, four children, trying to manage four children right out of high school, no, I didn’t think it would happen. I think the evolution of my life just led me in this direction.

Drawing on family experiences

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
President of Liberia
My family sort of crossed both worlds....I had grandparents that were indigenous, natives, lived in a rural village, could not read or write, parents who in a way became part of the elitist group because they had the opportunity for education.

MARGARET WARNER: When you rose to prominence in part by speaking out against the abuses of those in power, even people in whose government you were serving, where do you think that came from inside yourself, I mean, when so many others did and do remain silent in those circumstances?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think it must have come from my family experience. You know, like I say, my family sort of crossed both worlds. The cleavage that existed in our society, I had grandparents that were indigenous, natives, lived in a rural village, could not read or write, parents who in a way became part of the elitist group because they had the opportunity for education, a settler family.

And as I look back and, you know, and, year after year, nothing was changing. I mean, my grandmother's village, my own village remain the same. And I guess that just emboldened me to speak out. And, of course, once you get started on that, you take a position, you bear the consequences. It sort of strengthens you to take on the next challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: And how much of it was being a woman?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: That may have helped a bit. For example, being thrown into prison, even though I didn't get any special treatment, but, you know, I think somewhere people always -- and I could always appeal to people on the basis of, you know, think of your mother as you attempt to do this. So that must have had some value.

Years of war leave scars

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
President of Liberia
The loss of hope, you know, truly a failed state as characterized and the despondency that represented the people's own lifestyle. So, I mean, that's the totality of the destruction was just so unbelievable.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the 14 years of civil war, the rule of Charles Taylor, I mean, when you came in, you found a country devastated. What is the lasting legacy of that era of just the brutality that raged during that time?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: It's just a legacy of total destruction, you know, so many deaths and the impoverishment of the people, the disempowerment of the people. I mean, people just lived by their wits, you know? The loss of hope, you know, truly a failed state as characterized and the despondency that represented the people's own lifestyle. So, I mean, that's the totality of the destruction was just so unbelievable.

I mean, I knew part of it because, you know, I had monitored the situation in a way, lived with it and, along with others, you know, advocated a change in it. But still the enormity of the destruction and the challenges were something that -- I really didn't believe it was that much, so...

MARGARET WARNER: And so what has been the hardest part or what is the hardest part of trying to turn that around?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Changing people's attitudes, you know, getting people to know that it's a new day. It's a changed day. And the challenge is still, you know, in certain people, some of their habits, like dependency, dishonesty, you know, violence, those are the things that were inculcated into people over the many years of conflict, getting them.

The younger people and the children, oh, those, they have changed. You know, they're smiling again, and you can see hope in their eyes. But, you know, many of the young adults who were subjected to violence, conscripted into war, you know, still see extortion and violence as a way of life.

And getting them to change will take a while, you know, education and skills training and all of that. But that doesn't happen overnight.

Women govern differently

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
President of Liberia
I've found all the women in the strategic positions that they hold have been so dedicated and committed and honest. I mean, they really go to the task, you know, with all that it takes. They go that extra mile to make sure they perform.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as part of trying to turn it around, you consciously appointed a lot of women to senior ministerial posts, positions in your cabinet. What's been the result? Do women govern differently? Has it made a difference?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I've got to say yes, without a doubt, because I've found all the women in the strategic positions that they hold have been so dedicated and committed and honest. I mean, they really go to the task, you know, with all that it takes. They go that extra mile to make sure they perform.

Whether it's because I happen to be, you know, the woman who's president and they want to make sure that we all participate in what we hope will be the success or whether it's because it's inherent in womanhood, but I do know one thing I can also say, that despite the equal competence and the hard work, women also bring certain sensitivity to the task.

So you find that their dealings with people is much more humane. Their relationship with people, much better, even though they are quite firm, you know, in carrying out their professional tasks.

MARGARET WARNER: When you and I spoke three years ago, I guess it was, and also in your book, you spoke of this cleavage that you spoke of earlier between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians. And you said it had set the stage for all the bloodshed and terror that came in the 20th century.

Has that been transcended in any way? Or is that still a fault line in Liberian society?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: It still lingers, although it's diminished. You know, over time, through marriages, education, and, of course, the war was a common denominator, affected everybody, but it still lingers. And it's something that we still have to deal with.

There's a truth and reconciliation commission that's attempting to get to the roots of all of this disunity. And we hope that, after that, we can confront our history, accept it for what it is, and then begin to unite, and heal the wounds, and move forward as Liberians.

So, you know, it's still there, but I think no Liberian wants war anymore. And so we have a basis, we think, to get a normal identity, to have a rallying cry around just trying to lead normal lives, again, you know, trying to be normal people again.

Inspiration for young Liberians

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
President of Liberia
You can be anything you want to be, as long as you're willing to work hard at it, you're willing to persevere, you're willing to have the courage of your conviction, and to stay the course.

MARGARET WARNER: And what is the message you want this book to convey to young Liberians, girls and boys?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: That you can be anything you want to be, as long as you're willing to work hard at it, you're willing to persevere, you're willing to have the courage of your conviction, and to stay the course, that there will be difficulties in life, but the potential to surmount those difficulties are there. It's just left with you.

MARGARET WARNER: Madam President, thank you for being with us.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you very much, Margaret. I'm so glad to be here.