‘This Child Will be Great’ – Some reflections

Wow. What a book! What a woman! What a life! I just finished reading Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s autobiography, ‘This Child Will be Great. Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President’ (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009).

The book amazes, the book fascinates. The book not only tells the story of a remarkable woman, it also provides a very valuable insider’s look into the history of Liberia since 1980. I am sure that this book will become a standard work in the already long list of literature on Liberia. In my opinion, this book is a must read for everybody familar with Liberia, who loves Liberia and who believes in Liberia.

What makes me so enthousiastic about President Sirleaf’s book? What impressed me the most in her work? What shocked me most? Does her autobiography throw new light on Liberia’s contemporary history? And, aren’t there any questions left, or new questions, after reading her memoir? These are logical questions and I will try to briefly answer them.

Before doing this, I would like to draw your attention to some very interesting reviews of Sirleaf’s memoir which were recently published: Shelby Grossman on her Liberia blog, Ruthie Ackerman on Forbes.com, another book review in the Economist, and not to forget Emmanuel’s numerous postings on President Sirleaf on his blog ‘Liberia and Friends Journal’, Dr Abdoulaye Dukuly on The Liberian Journal, Lynn Sherr‘s review and interview with President Sirleaf, Carl Hartman‘s review for the Associated Press, to name just them. Highly recommended!

Now my questions. The first question – ‘What makes me so enthousiastic about President Sirleaf’s book?’ – is the fact that everything she describes is so reckognizable. This is not to say that the book contains no news – far from that. But having lived in Liberia for a number of years in a very crucial period of this country’s history (described in Chapter 4, ‘The Tolbert Years’) – including the 1979 Rice Riot – and having witnessed the April 12 coup (Chapter 5, ‘The 1980 Coup’) many events she relates are very familiar. So are the key actors. It makes it a very easy to read book, at least for me and despite the at times horrific events she describes.

The second question is more difficult to answer ( ‘What impressed me most?’). I am equally impressed by her competence, international network, courage, tenacity. When she was Minister of Finance in President William Tolbert’s government (in the late 1970s) she had the reputation of being one of the smartest cabinet members. Her working experience has resulted in a vast network of key-actors – on the African continent as well as worldwide – former or sitting African presidents (Nyerere, Mandela, Museveni, Kagame, Obasanjo, Compaoré), Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, George Soros, a.s.o.. Her vast experience in international organizations (World Bank, UN) and international business (Citibank, Equator Bank) now is a major asset of her presidency.

Equally impressive is her courage and the hardship she endured in jail (Chapter 8, ‘The Attempted Coup’and Chapter 9, ‘Escape’). She survived Doe’s prisons where thousands of Liberians perished. After the rigged 1985 elections, she refused to call Samuel Doe President, and addressed him as ‘General Doe’, which would infuriate him. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is no ‘yes-person’ (“say yes to the right people”).

What also impressed me was her frank criticism of the French government, for its role in the preparation (or prevention) and aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, as well as Kofi Annan’s failing in this respect (Chapter 12, ‘UNDP and Rwanda’). Also former American President Jimmy Carter’s is being criticized for his role in the 1997 elections in Liberia (Chapter 13, ‘War Some More / 1997 Elections’). It takes courage to state this as boldly as she does, in particular because now she is President of an African country that desperately needs as many international friends as it can get – and the funds that go with it.

Then, what shocked me most (among the many shocking events described) was the physical abuse by her then husband: ‘He pulled out his gun (…..) and struck me on the head with the butt of it.’ (page 39). A large part of Chapter 2, ‘Childhood Ends’ tells the story of her marriage and what went wrong. This experience must have contributed greatly to her actual view and position on domestic violence, rape, and the empowerment of women.

Then, the next question: What is the value added of this book? Does this autobiography throw new light on Liberia’s contemporary history?
As for the first question, I am sure there are many more strong African women, but it is extremely instructive to get an in-depth view of the life of one of them who, moreover, now is 70-years old and the first elected female African President. She faces challenges and tasks which she will not be able to finish, as she admits on page 312, but that does not seem to discourage her. How many people would act the same at her age, in her place, and with her experience?

With her memoir, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made an important contribution to the writing of Liberia’s contemporary history. Her autobiography puts the spotlight on her character, childhood, professional life, political activities, hardships, achievements, all in the context of Liberia’s recent history, it is difficult to say that no one else could have done it equally impressive and interesting. Here lies a challenge for historians: to write about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the story of her life from a different, less personal point of view.

This automatically leads me to my last question. Does her memoir raise any questions which she leaves unanswered?

I think the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. But that shouldn’t surprise us. First of all, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has proved to be a smart politician, and we cannot expect her to tell all secrets she knows. After all, she has to politically survive for at least another three years, the second half of her presidential term. Moreover, if she would have presented a complete picture then we would not have had a 334 page memoir (including her Inaugural Speech as Liberia’s 23rd President) but maybe 800 or 1,000 pages.

One of the main questions which remain unanswered concerns her exact relations with former President Charles Taylor. She gives some insight in her book, where she tells about their first contacts and their subsequent meetings, her initial support for Taylor’s fight to topple the government of Samuel Doe, her meeting with him in the Liberian bush in the early 1990s, and their later disagreement and dislike. What is clear from her book is that she knew Taylor and (at least in a certain period) had access to him. What explained this? Did this have anything to do with their common Americo-Liberian background or the shared tribal roots? Charles Taylor was the son of an A.L. father and a Gola mother, Sirleaf’s ancestors on her father’s side were Gola too. I do not want to play the tribal card, I am just curious.

What is crystal clear from her book, however, is that she wants Taylor in prison, condemned, she obviously does not want him to come back to Liberia, West Africa. She has no doubt about him being guilty for the atrocities committed in Liberia as well as in Sierra Leone. In this respect, today is an important day.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone resumes today, and the court’s decison will be given whether Taylor will be acquitted (see my April 14 and earlier postings on the SCSL). If the SCSL would acquit Taylor, President Sirleaf has a (big) problem. In case Taylor will not be acquitted, it cannot be ruled out that President Sirleaf will be asked to come to the SCSL in The Hague, to testify…

To end with, I have a (small) question which intrigues me. On page 268 of her memoir, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf writes: ‘On November 23, 2005, the National Elections Commission declared me the twenty-third president of Liberia.’ .
I also have stated on my website that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Liberia’s 23d president. However, there exists some confusion about the numerical ranking of Liberian Presidents. According to two eminent Liberian historians, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn and Dr. William E. Allen, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th President of Liberia.

Who is right? Readers are cordially invited to react to this historical enigma and to give their view(s).

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