Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 353pp.
"I have been one of the lucky ones," writes Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (b. 1938), Africa's first woman president, in the very last sentence of her remarkable memoir. And not only her native Liberia, but the entire world, is all the better because of her. But as Sirleaf demonstrates in her autobiography, there was far more than luck to her improbable triumph over personal and political obstacles that included an abusive husband, imprisonment, house arrest, exile, and one of the longest and most violent descents into political anarchy on the continent.
Like most of Africa, slavery and colonialism left a bitter and complex legacy in Liberia. The elite "settler" class of Americo-Liberians ruled the country from a position of power and privilege that they had no intention of relinquishing, even though it bred a broad and deep hostility among sixteen indigenous and dirt poor ethno-linguistic groups. After the caretaker presidency of William Tubman (d. 1971), William Tolbert took office and continued the "kleptocracy" of corruption, patronage and nepotism. Then, in 1980, an illiterate thug named Samuel Doe staged a coup by murdering Tubman in bed, brutalizing his body, and publicly murdering thirteen of his cabinet members (Sirleaf was one of four ministers who was spared). Doe's ten long years ended when Prince Johnson (now a senator) tortured, mutilated, and murdered Doe, then distributed a videotape of the grisly deeds throughout the country. But Charles Taylor, not Prince Johnson, followed Doe, winning an election on his slogan, "You kill my Ma, You kill my Pa, I will vote for you." Taylor's psychopathic reign of terror lasted fourteen years and ended when he resigned in 2003; today he's imprisoned and on trial in the Hague.
When Sirleaf was inaugurated on January 16, 2006, she inherited a failed state that the Economist magazine identified as the single worst place in the world to live in 2003. Life expectancy at birth is 39 years, literacy for women is 40%, and unemployment swelled to 80%. Twenty-five years of civil wars slaughtered over 200,000 citizens and displaced another one million out of a population of 3 million. The economy and infrastructure (water, electricity, garbage collection, etc.) are in shambles. But in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia also has one of the hardest working, smartest, and honest presidents in all of Africa. Thanks to her, the future of Liberia is brighter than it's ever been.