President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In an exclusive interview during her trip to the U.S., the first woman ever elected head of state in Africa describes her abduction by soldiers during the coup and how she won the election. She also explains the name of her memoir and talks about the future of her country.

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was jailed and forced into exile more than once before becoming the first democratically elected female president of an African state. A former cabinet minister, she's had a distinguished career in banking and economic and financial management. She's also written on financial issues, development and human rights. She holds an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders. In '07, she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and was one of three activists awarded the '11 Nobel Peace Prize.


Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to this program. In 2005 she became the first woman ever elected to head an African nation. Born in Liberia, she came to the U.S. for college, earning degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Harvard.

Following her election she was sworn in as Liberia’s president in January of 2006. Her acclaimed new book is called “This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.” Madame President, what an honor to have you on this program.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

Tavis: We’re delighted to see you. Let me start by asking – there’s a great story behind it so I’ll let you tell it – why this book is called “This Child Will Be Great.”

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, that came from a prophecy by an old man who happened to visit my mother when I was just a few days old. And he came and saw me on the bed and just turned to my mother with this strange look on his face and said, “Oh, Martha, this child will be great.”

Of course, over the years we all took it for big fun. (Laughter) We just thought it was something catching and it goes back to, after all the years of the ups and downs and to be where I am today, maybe there is something to predestination.

Tavis: When you look back on those ups and downs that you speak of now, and you talk about this, again, in the book as well, what do you regard as the down of the down? What was the worst part of this journey to becoming Africa’s first female president?

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, I think my most difficult moment was the day when there was a field coup in the country and I was arrested by soldiers who told me quite clearly that they had come for me to kill me and they were going to bury me alive. And I got taken to a military barracks where anything could have happened to me.

And the experience there, which I’ve recounted in the book, of being put in a prison cell with many men, all alone, and men who later on were taken out – I suppose were killed because they never came back. Also going through the taunting by the many soldiers outside the cell.

And in one case the attempt at rape which was stopped by a good soldier. I think this was one of the real downs of my life, so that particular day, I think, of any time I came close to death, it was probably that day.

Tavis: For those who don’t know much about the coup in Liberia of which you speak now, tell me why you were abducted, number one, and why you survived when others did not in that particular coup.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, I’d already had a very active life in politics. I had left my job in a city bank in Nairobi and gone home to form a political party. Our party was not registered. I’ve spoken here in Philadelphia and made some strong statements against the government.

I went home, I was put under house arrest, and then I was jailed for some time. It took a lot, including a non-binding resolution by the U.S. Congress to get me and many other university students out of jail.

In any case, after that we went on a campaign and we think we won the elections, the party that I had helped to form. I had to run away. (Unintelligible) I was trying to leave the country, my passport was seized. And so I was already, if you may, a high-profile person, an activist person, and so once there was an attempted coup after the elections episode and clearly, those who’d attempted a coup did not like the results of the election or did not accept what were the official results of the elections.

And once the coup failed, naturally they would go for all of us – all of us who had been part of the opposition, all of us who had been activists. So many of us ended up in prison and for many of us for the second, third time.

I was in people’s minds. I’d already been there, I’d already been jailed, I’d already gone before a military tribunal, charged with sedition and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor, which fortunately, because of the Liberian women, the Liberian people, and others around the world who pitched in and made sure that that sentence was not carried out.

So that’s how come I guess once the coup failed it was get them all, who had been part of this dissent and part of this opposition.

Tavis: You talk about this in the text – tell me more about why you think, though, you were spared.

Johnson-Sirleaf: There are a few of us that were spared on the basis that well, we were not perceived to maybe be the major offenders. What offense in the minds of the coup-makers was their offense which they taught mismanagement of the country resources, corruption, oppression of people and all of that.

In my particular case in this event, already having a very strong relationship with institutions in the United States – I was, after all, a vice president of Citicorp when I went home to found the party. And I’d already established myself; I had previously been an officer of the World Bank.

So I had some pretty strong connections that may have constrained people and made them think twice before moving against me. So in that respect you might say I was lucky.

Tavis: Tell me how, from being a kid growing up in Liberia, you end up with a financial background, being educated here in the U.S. How did all that come to be? Why finance and why being educated in the United States?

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, it’s a hard story. I got married at 17 years old and had four kids. And what you may say, just a dreary life of the drudgery of the home and all of that before I had the opportunity with my husband, my children’s father, to go back to college.

In the process, before going back to college, I was doing any kind of work at a garage where I learned an apprenticeship of trying to keep books. And so I think that’s where the whole idea of being attracted to finance started, just working there. For me it was just a means of a livelihood. But I learned bookkeeping, and when I had the opportunity then to go to college I chose to do finance and have stayed on that course, finance and economics, in all of my subsequent training opportunities.

Tavis: How did you find your way to the U.S. to be educated here?

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, we had in our system scholarships, so I actually got a scholarship from the Liberian government, as did my husband. He was going to do his master’s in agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, and so I got a scholarship and went to do accounting, and I went to Madison Business College to finish the course there.

Tavis: And you found your way to Harvard how?

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, after going back home and working and moving up, as always I was very active and I participated in a conference. And at that time there was a Harvard team attached to our ministry of planning, providing economic advice.

When I spoke, I was very critical of the government policy even though I was a junior official in the government, and said if we didn’t turn those policies around the country would face some difficulties. And after the conference I was the subject of discussion by the powers that be, by the cabinet that here I was a little startling who could come and make all these statements about government and criticize government – who did I think I was? (Laughter)

I would be taught a lesson. And Dr. Gustav Papanek, who headed that team from Harvard, got very concerned. And he pulled me aside and said, “Look, you’re headed for trouble so I’m going to do some things to get you out of here and get you to school.”

Tavis: So your punishment for running your mouth was being sent to Harvard.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Isn’t that a great punishment? (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m laughing because one of my favorite movies – and those who know the movie, they’ll get the joke – one of my favorite movies is an Eddie Murphy movie called “Coming to America,” and I love the scene where Arsenio gets punished by being sent where? You know – the Waldorf-Astoria. You all know the movie. (Laughter)

Your punishment is to go to the Waldorf-Astoria. You will confine yourself to the presidential suite, speaking of Africa. So you get punished by being sent to Harvard – what a great punishment.

Johnson-Sirleaf: What a great punishment. (Laughter) I hope many others will be able to get that.

Tavis: Yeah. The great thing about your story is that it is – could be the story of any woman in Africa, given all the travail that you had to go through long before you became president.

As you mentioned, you were married at 17, you’ve been jailed any number of times, you were almost raped. It’s just a remarkable story – a back story of how you end up becoming the first woman to be president of a country in Africa.

You mentioned getting married at 17, and that was not an easy marriage and you courageously talk about that in the book. Here we have the first woman president of a country in Africa who herself had been subjected to domestic violence, who herself has been subjected to that kind of abuse, verbal, in a relationship, and you talk about that in the book. Why did you put that in here?

Johnson-Sirleaf: I agonized over that because in a way, the strength of my husband and children’s father contributed to my strength. And even though he’s dead now, my children are still alive and I also agonized is this something, even though they knew and were a part of it and lived it, is this something they want to carry, that they have to read?

On the other hand, I had to tell it because I have to let other women know that this is something that can happen in your life and you can rise above it, that you can go through it, and also send a message not only to myself as a woman leader but to all women leaders – we must do something about it. We must do more to stop domestic violence, violence against women, which is something that pertains in many African societies, and I think in world societies today.

By telling my story, I tell people that it could happen to any of us, any time. Let’s be conscious of that and don’t think that that one person is the exception. So I wanted to tell it all, I wanted the Liberian people, the young women, to know, and hopefully this brings about some consciousness, even on the part of men, that there is a different way.

That one can raise children, one can grow up, that a wife is not a subject, that a wife is not an object of abuse. And things are changing. I hope this book will contribute to the consolidation of that change that bring gender equality in families and in homes and in nations.

Tavis: What’s amazing about this story – I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but what’s amazing about the story is that for all the trouble and the travail, and there were obviously good times in this marriage as well – to be clear about it, there were good times.

But for all the trouble and all the travail that the marriage brought, when that husband, who is now deceased, as you mentioned earlier, died, one Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf gave the eulogy.

Johnson-Sirleaf: That’s right.

Tavis: Tell me about that.

Johnson-Sirleaf: I did because as you pointed out, there were good times. I got married at 17 to someone who was 22, and there was love in our life and we (unintelligible) a family and we bore four sons and loved those sons dearly and went and shared our lives with them.

And this was someone who provided for his family as much as he could in an environment where resources were scarce. The opportunity to go to school is something that he accepted and he helped to work on it. We both agreed to leave our two children with our mothers and go to school. My youngest child was one year old when I left, but he knew that I needed the opportunity for an education.

It could have been different. He could have said, “No, let me get the education and support the home. You take care of the children,” which is a very, very African-dominated way of doing things.

I think perhaps my own pursuit of a profession after I’d been left behind, my classmates, and that determination to move ahead started the rift and a drift in the family, because I spent a lot of time pursuing my professional life. And eventually that rift widened to the point where the family – the marriage broke up.

Tavis: I would never ask this of a woman or a head of state, especially if she hadn’t raised it in the book, so I think your raising it gives me license to ask about it, but you have chosen not to get remarried after all these years. You talk about that in the book.

I only raise it again now because you talked about the difficulty in the choices you made to advance your professional career. Tell me about why Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has not chosen to get remarried. I assume there were offers along the way, opportunities. (Laughter)

Johnson-Sirleaf: I did not pursue them aggressively. (Laughter)

Tavis: All right, I wasn’t suggesting you were pursuing; I (unintelligible) somebody asked along the way.

Johnson-Sirleaf: But let me just say that by this time I was well on a career path, and in a way you might say I was married to my profession. Every success was the motivation for a bigger success. Every move up on the ladder meant there was one more step that I could achieve, and I didn’t want to be diverted with things that would take away from that.

And then I had my children. I carried my husband’s name because that’s the name that my children have, and I knew that if I also were to begin to get involved in another relationship that would take away from the time I would spend with them. I’d already not spent enough time with them as I tried to get an education. The one thing I could do now for what little spare time I had in the midst of trying to become a successful professional, that would be taken away and I didn’t want them to then have to be in a situation where they had to be in the midst of somebody else who would try to dictate to them or manage them and whatnot, and that could lead to friction between me and my children.

So I just decided that the way to go is to just pursue a professional life, spend time with my children as much as I could, and I think by making that decision (unintelligible). Had I done differently, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

Tavis: There’ve been many people who’ve asked you whether or not you could have accomplished more; whether even with all that you have accomplished you might have accomplished it more and might have accomplished it faster were you a man, and you always say no, absolutely not. Your response is?

Johnson-Sirleaf: My response is I am where I am because I’m a woman who did the things I did.

Tavis: Exactly. (Laughs) You make the point very clearly that you believe that if you were a man you might in fact have accomplished less than you’ve accomplished. That’s the point you make all the time.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Absolutely.

Tavis: What do you mean by that?

Johnson-Sirleaf: As a man, I would have had so many kind of interests, so many things to claim my attention; I would have not been so focused, so concentrated on wanting to be a successful professional.

I would not have been able to speak out in a manner in which I could, because I think men and their camaraderie, want to make sure everybody – the forceful positions I took I think came from the fact that as a woman, I felt I could speak.

Now, there may have been something like, well, maybe I’ll get away with it too. But every time you get away with it, it strengthens your resolve and strengthens your determination to take even stronger positions, to risk it. I think being a woman just helped me in my course on life. I don’t think it would work for every woman. It worked for me.

Tavis: Set the stage for me as to what was going on in Liberia when you ran and how you ended up coming out on top, as a woman. Take me back here.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, when I ran in the 2005 elections, we had many qualified, able candidates, and we had one formidable candidate in the form of the soccer star, George Weah, who had been world football of the year, Africa football of the year.

And we were in a situation with a very young population – 50 percent of our population, 15 years, where this represented to them someone that they could identify with.

And here I was, at this time 60-something, 67 years old, running. And I said, the atmosphere of all these candidates, men, educated, and I also came into all these many years of – people call it political baggage, haven’t been involved in challenging successive governments over time, haven’t gone to prison, haven’t gone into exile several times.

I just had all the stuff that people could use against me. Also the fact that my complexion and in our society there’s still a lingering cleavage between –

Tavis: Not in Africa, too? A color line issue in Africa, too?

Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, let me – no, no, no, but the other way around now. The other way around. In the book I said I used to go to bed at night and pray that I’d wake up Black because I wanted to be Black because I was teased because of my – but that would be used against me.

Tavis: Not being Black enough, in terms of skin tone.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Not being Black enough, that’s right – the complexion issue. And so it was, “Oh, she’s not really an African because she’s got something.” And so of course that has to do with the fact that my maternal grandfather was German, was a German trader, and so this would be used against me and also then I would be called part of the settlers, the returned slaves who went and did not do enough to assimilate into society and allowed this cleavage, this monopolization of power and privilege to continue that lingers with us today.

So all of that (unintelligible) no, it’s not possible for her to win. But then the women have confidence, and the women (unintelligible) our time has come. We had 151 years of male domination and look where we are today – time for change. And that and women all over the continent just rose up and took position.

Eventually, I think some of the young people too came to the conclusion that well, we spend a lot of our time seeking an education, and if we’re going to elect somebody we’d better elect somebody who has an education and who has demonstrated not only a competence professionally but the courage to take risks, the courage to stand up for the things they believe in. And so I was able to get into the second round and then we just mobilized.

Tavis: And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnson-Sirleaf: That’s it.

Tavis: Let me close by asking how your country is doing today. Give me your outlook for Liberia.

Johnson-Sirleaf: I’m very optimistic. I have to be. I think hope has been restored to our people, particularly the young and the children. Things are beginning to function again. We’re getting the economy going, we’re settling the debt issue, rebuilding the roads and the schools and the hospitals.

We’re building a new army which we hope will be professional and well-equipped to protect the nation. We’re trying to – civil society is very vibrant, our media is aggressive. (Laughter)

Tavis: Spoken like a true president – the media is aggressive.

Johnson-Sirleaf: So there’s everything that’s coming, but the challenges remain awesome and I’ll be the first to admit it. We’ve got many young people unemployed because the economy is still trying to attract the private capital investment. We’ve got a capacity issue, and so things don’t get done as quickly as we would like to have them because of the brain drain that have most of our skills here in America. We still have to do more in infrastructure. But it’s beginning to happen.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you went back, speaking of that brain drain. I know the people of your country are glad you came back, and I believe that because you are there others will come back and help make your country as great a country as it can be.

As President Obama just experienced overseas, enjoy the time while you’re away with the media being nice to you. Was I nice to you tonight?

Johnson-Sirleaf: I think you were.

Tavis: Okay.

Johnson-Sirleaf: I think you were.

Tavis: Because that aggressive media is waiting on you when you get back home, so enjoy your two weeks here stateside.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Let me tell you, I’m going to face it even before I get back. I’ll get the different news reports (laughter) and they’ll say, “She’s over there, sitting there with -”

Tavis: With Tavis, just chumming it up.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Yeah, “With Tavis Smiley on a show when she ought to be here, working to respond to our needs.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, as long as they spell our name right. As a matter of fact, we’ll send the tape to Liberia if they want to see the conversation. Her name, of course, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, better known as Madame President, the first woman to be president of an African country, Liberia.

Her new book, a memoir about a wonderful life, is called “This Child Will Be Great.” Indeed she is. Madame President, an honor to have you on the program and enjoy your time here stateside.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Tavis, thank you for having me. It’s been great. You’ve just pulled the punches there with me and just allowed me to be able to tell a little bit of the story. I hope many people will read it.

Tavis: It’s a powerful story, and we didn’t even scratch the surface on what your life really is. But I’m honored to have you here.

Johnson-Sirleaf: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you.

Last modified: October 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm