Liberia President Says She's Driven By Her Faith

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In the second and final installment of a Tell Me More conversation with Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the head-of-state discusses her newly released memoir, This Child Will Be Great. In the book, Sirleaf writes about obstacles she overcame to become one of the world's most influential women.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with TELL ME MORE's very own poet laureate, Gayle Danley. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we continue our conversation with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, about her new memoir, "This Child Will Be Great." Yesterday we brought you the first part of that conversation, when we spoke about overcoming many odds, including an abusive first marriage, to become not only Liberia's first woman president but the first female elected leader on the African continent. But her struggles were not just personal. Johnson Sirleaf was at the center of some of the most dramatic events in Liberia's recent past.

In 1980, then-President William Tolbert was ousted and executed by forces loyal to Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Thirteen of Tolbert's cabinet ministers were publicly executed. Johnson Sirleaf, who had served as the country's Minister Of Finance, was one of only four ministers to survive the bloodletting. I asked her to describe what that time was like for her and I also asked her why she thinks she survived when so many others did not.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): I can only say that perhaps in the perception of, of the coup-makers, some of us were not as great offenders as others. It may also just be luck. I was also, you know, an activist, and positions I took were taken more in line with the progressives and maybe that, that also got known by, by some of those who, who were part of coup-making. I can't tell you that I know the reason. I just know that the four of us tried in certain ways to, to serve, to correct a bad situation.

MARTIN: There are those who - and this was not the only time you would survive circumstances that killed many of your peers, many of your colleagues who were also trying to work for the, the betterment of the country - you describe it in an interesting way. You never say, well, you know, this really made me want to work harder, but what you say is, I was not afraid; I should have been afraid, but I wasn't afraid. Why do you think that is?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: My whole determination, I kept looking back at my family, I kept looking back at my grandmothers, I kept looking back at the fact that nothing had changed in their lives and there had to be a better way there. Our country deserved more, our people deserved more. And so there is something within me that just drove me on, and maybe - maybe it was also my belief that I would survive if - and that I was doing the right thing, I could persevere and I could pursue it.

MARTIN: You said several times in the book that you just, you just couldn't help yourself. If you felt there was a need to speak about something, you would speak about it, even though you knew there would be consequences. And there was a point during Doe's 10-year reign when you gave a speech overseas, where you talked about the mismanagement of the country, you talked about the fact that though Doe had come in promising to a reformer and end the corruption of the past, all he really did was perpetuate it.

And you said in the speech, I look at the many idiots in whose hands our nation's fate and progress have been placed, and I simply shake at the unnecessary and tremendous cost which we pay under the disguise of righting the wrongs of the past. And you really did pay a price for that when you went back to Liberia. You were immediately summoned for an audience, before Doe, who just screamed at you. I was just wondering all these years later, do you still think you did the right thing, calling him an idiot?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I don't know if I can, you know, answer that in truthfulness. Sometimes I ask myself, did I have to go that far? Did I have to say that? Perhaps if I hadn't I would not have been in the situation where I was put under house arrest and subsequently jailed and subsequently charged with sedition and went before a military tribunal. I have just over the years spoken from the heart and said things that I believe, you know, sometimes to my own folly, as was that case.

MARTIN: You wrote that, you know, he was screaming at you, and not just alone, of course, surrounded by his generals and mukity-muks, as is the custom, right, with people who are bullies. And you said, I remained calm, I never panicked; looking back, I think perhaps that sense of steadiness I managed to project also served as a kind of deterrent to those raw and angry men. Through all my dealings with general Doe, I think he always wondered why I never cowered before him. It was almost as if I could see the question spinning inside his mind. What does she have behind her that makes her so brave? What is the answer to that question, Madame President?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: My faith. My faith in myself, my faith in God. I think that has been the strength, and I think it's the upbringing and the values instilled in me, you know, by my mother, because she was strong herself. All the time I went to prison, she didn't break down.

She came and she stood there, counseled and prayed, and she would go away without a tear. I guess some of that strength just passed on in birth and in the experiences of life. I can attribute it to nothing else but that.

MARTIN: Was there ever a point at which you wanted to walk away? I mean had your own profession. You had a career as an international banker. You could've gone to any of the international organizations or private institutions, lived very well. Was there ever a point at which you just wanted to walk away?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: No. I mean walk away from Liberia forever? No. There were times when I did, when I was forced to walk away and go and engage myself in other activities, as the many times I left and went to international or professional life. But that was always for me an interim, always a period of waiting until conditions allowed me to go back. So I always knew that my life would be in Liberia and ultimately one or two things would happen. Either one: I would die there, or two, I would succeed there. I thank God it's the latter.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. We're talking about her memoir, "This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President."

There is just one thing I want to talk about before we move to the Taylor years, but during the Doe era you express dismay that the Doe government was continually propped up by the international monetary organizations as well as by bilateral aid from the United States during the Reagan administration. The logic then seemed to be because Doe was nominally anti-communist, that the fact that he was authoritarian was of no interest.

I wanted to ask you about this. There's a debate right now about aid in general, particularly to developing countries where there isn't a strong tradition of civil society, and there's an argument right now that says that aid is really doing more harm than good. What is your take on that?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let me say that we all believe that the large sums of money that were poured into the country in the Doe era without giving the support for building the institutions that would've led to more democracy, more accountability, but rather given on the basis of trying to preserve a political, you know, relationship, that one we think was wrong. But there have been cases where aid has indeed made a difference, where that aid is used not only to respond to priorities established by the people but used in such a manner that it builds institutions, it helps to promote civil society, that it builds the infrastructure that empower people to do things for themselves.

So I - the debate is on, yes. There have been cases where aid has reinforced dependency, but equally so, aid has enabled many nations to be able to achieve the kinds of reform, particularly in Africa that we see today.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you briefly about Charles Taylor. It's still a very sensitive issue after Doe, who took power in a bloody coup, lost his life the same way, by Charles Taylor's forces. You had an opportunity to meet Taylor before all of that started, before he began his very erratic and bloody reign of the country.

Did you - do I have it right that you actually saw some potential in him at the beginning?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Let me say that there were things that he was said to represent, the utterances that he had made, what things that we endorsed and we agreed - I mean things like change, you know, time to move the country forward, time to break down all the cleavages of the past and - and he had a charisma that attracted not only Liberian people but you may say many of the people he met throughout the world, particularly African leaders. It's a pity that he did not use those skills for the goodness of the country, but he just - he just never rose to be a statesmen and remain a rebel at heart.

MARTIN: Why is that though? You saw this several times over the course of your earlier years in politics, before you became president. You saw several times leaders who claimed to be about correcting the inequities and distortions of the past, who claimed to be on the side of the people, who talked all the right things about making the necessary adjustments that you saw were necessary to put the country on a firmer and more fair footing, but never did it, and in fact became ever more bloodthirsty and greedy than the people that they replaced.

Why is that? Do you think that's human nature? Do you think - why is that?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I think it boils down to greed. Is this something that one is born with? I don't think so. I think it develops in one, maybe in early life. But by and large, greed is at the bottom of all of those leaders who have not met the expectations of their people and who have said things that they did not really believe in and could not deliver on.

MARTIN: Why do you think you're not tempted?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: My life story, my upbringing. I mean, we were never one that wanted any ostentatious lifestyle. I mean, I've always lived moderately. That's how my mother lived, always content to have the basics, always content with hard work, honesty, humility. That's how I grew up. It's a part of me. It can't be taken from me.

MARTIN: Some people believe that that is one reason there ought to be more of an effort to bring women into public life and that women are, for whatever reason, less tempted by the accoutrement and the trappings of power and power for its own sake. Do you think that's true?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I endorse that 100 percent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you think that what you have can be taught, or do you think it's a gift that you've been given?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I really hope it can be taught. I hope that my own life story, as will be read by many of our young people, that they will be inspired, that this will also give them the kind of motivation and help to build their own character to be able to seek what they want and to be able to take the consequences.

And I do believe that one can build this courage if you're motivated. And if the experiences of others can help to strengthen your resolve, that is more than just a gift, that it can be acquired.

MARTIN: When you look back over all the things that you've accomplished, what are you proudest of?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Of being able to go through all of it and come out to the place where I have an opportunity to become a role model for the many young girls in Liberia, in Africa, who need the opportunity to reach their potential.

I'm proud that today, you can go into a rural village in Liberia, and a little girl, now in school, can stand up and say I can be president. And it's happening all the time in our society.

I'm proud that I've been able to give her that hope and gave her that reassurance that her society will enable her to be what she wants to be.

MARTIN: The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was kind enough to join us from NPR West. Her memoir: "This Child Will Be Great." Madam president, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you, Michel. It was good talking to you.

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