The 'Remarkable Life' Of Liberia's 'Iron Lady' Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, is the first democratically elected woman leader in Africa. Since taking office in 2006, Johnson Sirleaf has fought to reconstruct the state and rescue Liberia's failing economy.

The 'Remarkable Life' Of Liberia's 'Iron Lady'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When a new president was inaugurated in Liberia three years ago, the ceremony was attended by First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That's because Liberia's new leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the first woman ever elected an African head of state, and because her election represents a new hope for peace in the West African nation after years of civil war and economic devastation.

Hundreds of thousands died in the factional strife that gripped Liberia for more than a dozen years. Much of the chaos is blamed on Charles Taylor, the former warlord known for drug-addicted child soldiers and gruesome atrocities.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Harvard-educated economist who spent much of her life in United States working for private banks, the World Bank and the United Nations, but she spent enough time in Liberia and criticized its governments often enough to land in prison more than once.

She beat a crowded field of candidates to win the presidency of Liberia in 2005. She's written a new memoir, called "This Child Will Be Great."

Well, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you were inaugurated as president in early 2006, the country had had many, many years of war. Describe the condition of the country as you found it.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): We inherited a devastated country after what you might call two decades of economic freefall, 14 years of civil conflict that resulted in the death of a quarter of a million people, with one million additional people displaced, many of whom resided in refugee camps in neighboring countries and other countries abroad, infrastructure ruined, all institutions dysfunctional, civil servants, army hadn't been paid for years, foreign missions, in fact, under sanctions by the U.N. for the misuse of resources to fuel the war, a people with hopelessness, a people destitute, a people impoverished as a result of all of this.

We were classified as a failed state. Nothing was working - lights, water, basic infrastructure, basic services for the people just did not exist.

DAVIES: No electricity in the capital of Monrovia, right? Dark after nightfall, unless you had a private generator?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That's correct. The capital city and the rest of the country was dark, except, as you say, those who had private generations. So it was really a sad situation and something that, wow, the needs were so vast, the things that we addressed so enormous, where do we start?

DAVIES: You know, Liberia has a unique history in Africa, you know, established in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States, and, you know, over the years its population nourished by emigres from the United States.

And you write in your book how there grew up this interesting social division within the country of a settler-class people from the States who tended to be the social and political elite, called Congo people at times. Tell us about your own ethnic background in this context.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let me say that I don't form part of what is called the settler groups or the Americo-Liberians or the Congos, as they are called.

My background is essentially indigenous, although there's one-fourth part of me that comes from a German background, as my maternal grandfather was a German trader in one of our rural counties who took a native wife.

But, you know, the rest of me and the rest of my family basically come from those who represent what was called the native population. However, let me quickly say that there was a system in our country that persists even today where poor families living in rural areas gave their children to families of the settlers to enable them to get an education, and both of my parents benefitted from that.

My father, who was the son of a Gola chief, you know, was given to one family. My mother was given to another family. So they were educated and, in a way, they became, over time, part of the elite class.

DAVIES: You have this fascinating course of your life where you spent a lot of time in the United States and in other countries, working for private banks, for the World Bank, for the United Nations and then at various times were in Liberia, either working in the government or criticizing the government and getting into trouble for it.

And you were in prison several times, and I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about one of them, and this was the time in 1985 when the then-President Samuel Doe, I guess there had been a coup attempt, and he had, in reaction, had come down hard on all of his internal critics. How were you arrested?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, at the time when the coup failed and the announcement came that President Doe was back in charge, all of us who had sort of been on the streets swiftly went back into our homes.

I was in my mother's house when a group of soldiers came and surrounded the house and, you know, and were shooting into the air. I feared that they would enter the house and perhaps shoot and my mother could get killed. So I simply went outside and said you're looking for me.

And they knew they were looking for me and said yes, and come with us, and that, I hope, saved my mother. And so I got into the Jeep with them, and they wanted me to take them to one of our other party leaders.

I knew if I had done that, and they had taken the both of us to the executive mansion where President Doe was, that something bad could've happened. So I said I didn't know where he was and pointed them into the other direction.

We went. And as we were going, another group of soldiers came in another jeep, and they said I was their rightful prisoner because they came from the military barracks where I was to be taken and jailed, and so I got into their jeep.

And along the way, you know, they were taunting and acts of terror, you know, taking a match and striking it and putting it close to my hair and saying we're going to burn your hair off. And so I would plead with them and say, you know, would you - what if somebody were doing this to your mother, you know, or your sister?

And I think I got to their conscience, and we went, and there was - as we drove along, at one point they went off the road and to a place where they said that was the place I was to be buried alive.

And again, I went into the same stance of saying you can't do this, you know. Just think again of your mother. And once again, they turned around and said okay, we won't kill you today. We'll kill you tomorrow.

DAVIES: And then where were you taken?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I was taken to the barracks. It was called the Shufflin(ph) military barracks. The barracks are still there today. As a matter of fact, those barracks are where our new army is now being trained with U.S. support, a brand new army.

The little two-room shed where they took me is still there today, although it's been improved. But I take people there from time to time so they can see where I went into prison.

In any case, I was taken there, and there were about a dozen men in the jail cell that was there. They put me in the cell with them, and you know, taunting me and taunting them and calling them rebels and calling me rebel, too.

And they took the men out and left me alone in the cell. There was shooting in the background sometime later. The men never came back, and I remained in that cell and went through some very difficult experience.

DAVIES: This wasn't the first time you were arrested, but I believe you said this is the one time that you really feared for your life. What was different about this one?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, here I was, going to - in a military camp, you know, all by myself in a cell surrounded by soldiers, many of whom, you know, were on drink and drugs. And it's coming after the end of a coup attempt against their leader, their commander-in-chief, and I'm taken as one of those, you know, who are being accused of being part of the rebellion.

You know, just getting into the prison cell, I think, was itself a major achievement, and it was the one time when I knew where I was, anything could've happened because things happened to others. And why I escaped, like I say, maybe prayers, God, luck.

DAVIES: Eventually, you were released and made your way out of the country, back to the States, where you really could've had a comfortable life. I mean, you, you know, you were - you had an established professional background in finance and international economic matters.

Did you ever think maybe you would just say goodbye to Liberia and live inside the Beltway in Washington as a, you know, as a well-regarded African expert?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: No. I've always felt that I was part of the processes of change. I represented, like many others, an agent of change, and I wasn't about to run away from it.

So even though circumstances dictated from time to time that I leave the scene, go into exile or go into a professional life, I always knew within myself that I was going to go back.

DAVIES: Our guest is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is the president of Liberia, and she has a new memoir called "This Child Will Be Great." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She has just written a new memoir called "This Child Will Be Great."

You know, in 1989, you were living abroad - that is to say, not in Liberia. And Samuel Doe was the president, and his regime was characterized by corruption and the suppression of all internal opposition. And then in - a rebel military leader arises in the countryside, leading rebel forces opposed to him, by this man Charles Taylor.

Did you know who he was at the time? Tell us about Charles Taylor.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, I knew who he was because he was a part of the Liberian student movement, Liberian leaders here in the United States that had also challenged the Tolbert administration, of which I was part, had also demonstrated in times when President Tolbert and his delegation, of which I was a part, came to the United Nations.

So - and he was one of those in the student leadership here that was invited to Liberia to come and discuss and dialogue with what was going on in the country, to face what may have been considered the realities that they were unaware of.

And so I knew him in that sense, but it was the first time I met him, or once he returned to Liberia with that leadership group. That was sometime in 1979.

He then was in the country when the coup took place in April, 1980, and he was appointed a member of the new government in charge of public services, general services. And I must say, at that time, I was in exile here, and there were many of us - given what was going on with the Doe administration and the repression and our own inability to move it toward more democracy and free elections.

So many of the things that Mr. Taylor and his people represented were endorsed and supported by many of us, even though we were not part of their group, as such.

But all the right things were being said about change, but the whole thing ended up getting very ugly because it was very clear several months into - after the invasion of the country that there was no intent on the part of Mr. Taylor to be a part of change, but it was just a quest for power, and the nation has paid a price for that.

DAVIES: Early on, in July of 1990, you made it clear that you would not be able to support Charles Taylor and his rebel movement, but, of course, fighting escalated in the country and went on for many, many years.

Tell our listeners what made Charles Taylor's methods and role unique. What as the impact he had on Liberia?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Oh, it was a very, very major impact because it was very clear that the main motive of Mr. Taylor was to take power, and anybody who he felt stood in the way of that would be eliminated, and people close to us were. You know, the head of our political party, Jackson Doe, who had won the 1985 elections, according to our results, and whom we thought would be protected was, in fact, killed.

The same applied to so many who Mr. Taylor may have felt was a threat to him. And so once he took power, it was clear that the singular objective was to amass wealth, and he also - you know, he also had territorial ambition.

It seemed like he - that's why the war went into Sierra Leone, that he wanted to have, to own the resources not only of Liberia but the resources of the sub-region and was willing to advocate and promote rebellion anywhere that would give him that kind of power.

And so our own country was devastated. People were impoverished. Institutions became dysfunctional. I mean, dictatorship - I mean, he was a clear dictator with no conscience. Many people died.

DAVIES: And what about his use of children in war?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, that's very known, again, in all the reports that have been made. I mean, young children were turned into killers. They were put on drugs. They were put on drink, and, you know, they were taught to kill. The - what they call the small boys' brigade, these young children deprived of an education.

Today, we have young people in our society, 20 years old, teenagers who've never been to school, never had the opportunity because they were fighting and because most people left the country into refugee camps or displaced.

The schools all closed down, and so, I mean, it has taken a whole generation away from us and, you know, the - and made the rebuilding of our (unintelligible) so difficult in just the 10 years or 12 years or so that Mr. Taylor ruled.

DAVIES: And, of course, he intervened in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, backed a group there that was known for hacking the limbs off of their opponents.

And, you know, I wonder, as you looked at this country - which, you know, before 1980, had not seen this kind of violence, and you saw so many factions engaged in this brutality. I wonder, what did you make of that kind of savagery taking over the country that you had known for so long? How did you explain it?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I can't explain it. It's a savagery to which I'm not accustomed, not many Liberians. What took place outside of Liberia is very sad. Until today, it pains us.

DAVIES: Charles Taylor was eventually driven from power. The other West African nations intervened, and there were a series of peace initiatives, and then in 2005, elections were held, and you emerged victorious.

So you arrive in 2006 and have to unite a country which has been fractionalized for so long, and you had a real issue on your hands in bringing some peace and reconciliation to a country that had been torn by armed factions for so long.

Charles Taylor - I mean, the despot who had ruled the country and inflicted such misery - was, I believe, in asylum in Nigeria. Is that right?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That's correct.

DAVIES: Tell us what you decided to do about those who demanded that Charles Taylor be brought to account for his crimes and then the issue in general of people wanting retribution for atrocities which had been committed in the years of war.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let's put it this way. Charles Taylor was indicted not by a court in Liberia, but by a United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone. And that court had been wanting to make sure that indictment was carried out and that Mr. Taylor would face trial for that.

So the fact that he was in asylum in Nigeria, and Nigeria had said that they would keep him there until there was a new government - but at the same time, we were very clear that we had to respect the decision of the United Nations. And so we worked with Nigeria to make sure that their own condition were met, but at the same time, the international conditions were met.

DAVIES: So he's now on trial in the International Court in The Hague. Is that right?

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That's correct. He was taken from the Sierra Leone court to The Hague.

DAVIES: I wanted to ask one question about the country and its connection to its history. You know, other African countries fought against colonialism or apartheid, and that in some ways kind of defined their natural character.

Liberia didn't. I mean, it was independent since the 1840s, and I wonder how you think that may have affected Liberia's development and Liberians' sense of their national character.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: It's something that we're grappling with, and I tried to deal with this in the book by saying that because we never had this common cause that bind us, because we lacked a national identity -you know, the fusion between the settler class and the indigenous class, the failure to get the assimilation that would have made the nation one and that our own experience has maybe undermined our ability to have moved ahead as a unified people with a common cause, I think that still is an issue that we have to deal with today.

Who are we? We are Africans. There's no doubt. We're part of the African scene. But our history is still so tied to our relationship with America, and much of our values, tradition, have been transmuted by those who, you know, who return, we're still - we're finding the way to bring all of this together in a way that helps our nation not only to find itself but to reach its potential and to make all of its people know who they are.

DAVIES: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I want to wish you the best of luck in continuing to bring peace and development to Liberia, and thanks so much for speaking with us.

Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you.

DAVIES: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia. Her new memoir is called "This Child Will Be Great." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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