In an animated interview with The Atlantic, ‘On What Americans Get Wrong About Africa’, the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observes, “I don’t think stereotypes are problematic because they are false, I think that’s too simple. I think stereotypes are problematic because they are incomplete, so it is important constantly to question them.”
It’s doubtful that Adichie would expect the plethora of positive media coverage surrounding Africa’s first female elected head of state to be problematic, but the publicity for a new biography of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is proving otherwise.
I note up front that I am yet to read Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, many more people are likely to read the reviews and coverage of it in outlets like The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Public Radio International, which I have followed. It may be that the book explores more nuanced points, but the impact of this media coverage, which is what I confine myself to discussing here, is significant and will likely reach more people than the book itself.
Cooper is on record as paying homage to the “almost impossible social, religious, and political complexity” of Liberia in the book, but this does not come through in either her own publicity for the work or the media coverage of it, which contains a number of falsehoods and revels in images of Liberia as a land torn apart by violence, hitherto exclusively dominated by violent, greedy men.
While Sirleaf has not been a bad president in the context of the challenges she has faced, the overwhelmingly positive coverage of her is framed against the single story of a history of Liberian failure. The celebration of Sirleaf (Cooper says “she certainly smokes any of the other Liberian leaders before her”) in comparison to her many predecessors draws on a perspective that decisively emphasizes a narrative of abominable Liberian governance. This story is not false, but not quite complete either.
Unlike a number of other recent biographies of Sirleaf, this one hails from a native-born Liberian. Helene Cooper is a decorated New York Times journalist who moved to the US as a child in 1980 after the government of the True Whig Party, with which her family was closely associated, was overthrown. Her last book examined her childhood in Liberia. A favorable review of it in The Bush Chicken was entitled “An Honest Depiction of the Privilege of Liberia’s ‘Congo’ People.”
Unfortunately, the broader media publicity around the release of this biography is representative of what Adichie described in her 2009 Ted Talk as ‘the danger of a single story.’ Strictly speaking, Sirleaf, the only elected African female head of state, is a single story. However, the point in celebrating this story is to ensure that it does not stay so. This necessitates a layered story that explores how Sirleaf got to where she is. Madame President may accomplish this. If so, it is regrettable that the publicity around its release, and Sirleaf in general, does not.
This single story has taken shape with a stream of books on Sirleaf. The president herself laid the groundwork for this narrative in 2009 by publishing her memoirs halfway through her first term in office, confidently titled, This Child Will Be Great. The plaudits continued with her lobbyist, K. Riva Levinson, writing about their relationship in Choosing the Hero.
The single story of Sirleaf’s dramatic success as a result of her singular work ethic and persistent determination in the face of significant odds draws on its juxtaposition to the larger single story of Liberia, a story in which freed slaves repatriated from the US and the Caribbean in the 19th century inexplicably replicated the horrors of the slave-holding societies they had come from. Another narrative, in which Liberia struggled to maintain its tenuous existence on a continent which had been almost completely colonized by European powers who believed blacks were not capable of self-rule, is rarely heard.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Cooper notes that she was motivated to tell the story because Sirleaf’s election as Africa’s first female president ‘leapfrogged’ her home country over much of the rest of the world, giving Liberians something to be proud of after years of being looked upon as “backwards.” While Sirleaf’s rise is exceptional and should be chronicled, this success did not come in a vacuum. However, the media coverage, including Cooper’s own comments, focus on a single story that dwells on a picture of chaos in Liberian society. This is a story in which Western interference, if it is mentioned at all, is usually confined to the actions of the American Colonization Society nearly two centuries ago.
In a broader story, a reform-minded President William Tolbert, recognized and rewarded talent. He named Sirleaf minister of finance in 1979, shortly before he would be assassinated in a coup d’etat. Despite allegations of corruption and nepotism (allegations which have similarly dogged Sirleaf), Tolbert made significant efforts to diversify his government. His minister of agriculture was Florence Chenoweth, the first female to hold that position in Africa. Sirleaf later tapped her for the same position several decades later. In 1978, Tolbert selected Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman as the first female president of the University of Liberia, making her the first female president of any African university. The ministers of health and post were also women, as was the ambassador to France.
The first female mayor of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was appointed in 1970 and a Liberian, Angie Brooks, made history the same year as the first African female president of the United Nations General Assembly. Stretching back to the early 20th century, Madame Suakoko was a noted Kpelle chief. Nonetheless, Liberia certainly was, and remains, a patriarchal society. The stories of the sexual exploits of former male presidents like William Tubman, Charles Taylor, and even Tolbert, a Baptist minister, are legion.
However, the single story of a Liberia where “women had a specific and limited place,” as Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post writes in her review of Madame President, is also dangerous. Gender inequalities are a reality in most countries, not only Liberia. Forgetting other Liberian women who escaped their place is at the essence of Adichie’s warning about stereotypes. Sirleaf deserves recognition; she has greatly advanced the space for women, but she is not Liberia’s only hero, female or otherwise, which is the impression the single story contributes to and which reduces the ability of her accomplishments to inspire others.
Among Western journalists writing this story, Cooper, whose family suffered greatly amid Liberia’s turmoil, would seem to be among those best placed to situate Sirleaf’s journey in a broader context, to avoid the reification of the stereotypes that plague Western views of Africa. A perspective that is inclusive of the accomplishments of other notable Liberian female pioneers, highlighting the foundation on which Sirleaf draws in order to demonstrate the importance and relevance of her achievements to others would help get beyond the single story.
Sadly, the single story is one that Cooper seems to promulgate, and not only by omission. On the impending conclusion of Sirleaf’s constitutional mandate, Cooper notes that “she’s leaving at the end of the year [her term actually ends in January 2018] – there are going to be elections and she’s going to leave power. That’s not something Liberia has ever had. They [presidents] all die in office or are dragged out in body bags.” Cooper subsequently repeated this claim at an event in Washington, DC.
These statements are untrue. Coming from an individual like Cooper, thoroughly grounded in the history of the traditional Americo-Liberian ruling class, they are incredible. In her first book on Liberia, she notes that she is related to one of these presidents, Hilary Johnson, the first Liberian president born in Africa, who served an eight-year term at the end of the 19th century and then peacefully retired.
When Liberia celebrated 100 years of independence in 1947, no president had held office for longer than 14 years, a trend that put Liberia roughly on par with the United States. Transitions were primarily internal to one political party, the True Whig Party, which was dominated by Americo-Liberians, but elite domination of politics is not unusual worldwide. With the exception of a coup in 1871, for most of its first century of existence, transfers of executive power in Liberia did not happen with leaders dying in office or being dragged out in body bags after overstaying their mandates.
Sirleaf is Liberia’s 24th president. The first president to die in office after serving a consecutive period of more than five years was the 19th, William Tubman, in 1971. It is unclear why Cooper’s pursuit of the single story goes to the extent of denying the existence of her own relative, Hilary Johnson.
More fundamentally, this single story veers toward portraying men as the enemies of women. There seems to be little recognition that men were also victims of the conflict. In The Atlantic, Cooper is asked “how, in a country with such widespread violence against women, and such a strong patriarchal background, she [Sirleaf] ascended to the presidency.” Cooper doesn’t opt for a nuanced reply and notes that after more than a decade of war, women simply decided they had had enough; they blamed men for the conflict and wanted a female leader.
Unlike Cooper, I am not Liberian. I have not been personally impacted by the war as she, and most Liberians have been. But surely it must be a single story to imply that men were not also fed up with 14 years of war. The single story that equates men with war is also dangerous for Liberia’s reconciliation prospects. In her Ted Talk, Adichie warns that the way to create a single story is to “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
It may not be explicit in this coverage, but the implication in this story is that women are innately suited to rectify the problems of Liberia. In previous interviews, however, Sirleaf herself has explicitly articulated the position women are better suited to political leadership and “have less (sic) reasons to be corrupt.” Accusations of corruption against prominent female appointees of Sirleaf, such as the minister of commerce, the director of the National Port Authority, and the director of the Liberia Airport Authority indicate this may not be the appropriate single story. This story also implies that virtually all Liberian women are Sirleaf supporters. Some of the most prominent women in Liberia, such as Leymah Gbowee, Sirleaf’s co-Nobel laureate, and Senator Jewel Howard Taylor (Charles’ former spouse), are no allies of Sirleaf. Likewise, some of Sirleaf’s closest supporters have been men.
If Sirleaf’s legacy is framed vis-à-vis the denigration of Liberian men and the mass glorification of the innate wisdom of women, it may not ultimately be a positive one for Liberia.
Another story also shows that the chief justice of the Liberian Supreme Court and the president pro-tempore of the Liberian Senate during the administration of Charles Taylor were women. One of the most controversial figures in Liberian history is Matilda Newport, a 19th century folk hero who allegedly helped preserve Americo-Liberian domination of Liberia through her military actions.
Men may have been the driving force behind most of Liberia’s violence, but like women, most men were victims of the war as well. However, the single story is not concerned with the realities that most men experienced, with the women who held senior positions during the Taylor administration, or the prominent women who oppose Sirleaf. Rather, in the single story, as told by Cooper, it is only due to Sirleaf becoming president “that women in Liberia now believe that they can be a political force.”
Responding to a question on class dynamics in The Atlantic, Cooper says “there are a lot of racial hang-ups in Liberia, but basically the closer you are to white, the better off you are.” Unlike Cooper, as a white male, I can’t speak on this from first-hand experience. But generally speaking, her assessment is not unique to Liberia. It also draws on a single story that marginalizes Liberian history.
With the election of E. J. Roye in 1869, the True Whig Party wrested political power from the Republican Party, which was dominated by the light skinned urban Americo-Liberian elite. One of the co-founders of the TWP was Edward Blyden, a pan-African luminary who expended significant energy in order to reverse discrimination against darker skinned blacks in Liberia and abroad. Even during the heyday of the TWP, dark-skinned families like the Tubmans were able to reach the peak of Liberian society. Comments like Cooper’s help obscure the heroics of individuals like Blyden and the depth of Liberia’s social complexity that she alludes to.
Admittedly, it is difficult to fully capture the nuances of historical complexity in an interview (and this one has been edited). Perhaps the media has played a role in restricting Cooper’s scope. At a Fellowship with the Wilson Center in 2013, Cooper appears to have worked on a similar, but broader theme: “Madame President: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Girls on the Bus.” Maybe this broader picture still comes across in the book; if so, it is unfortunate that Cooper is not at pains to convey it elsewhere, except to portray women as in uniform opposition to men, with mother’s slyly stealing their sons’ voter ID cards.
Perhaps most troublingly, Cooper appears to be quite eager to bolster Sirleaf by playing up the depravity of Liberia’s recent history to the extent of repeating and disseminating incorrect information.
In a piece in the New York Times that is adapted from the book, she writes that “more than 70 percent of Liberian women were raped during the war years.” Meanwhile, a fact-checking piece in the Washington Post last year debunked a similar claim and warned against the consequences of distorting facts to gain public attention. Unfortunately, the damage seems to have been done – the recent Washington Post review of Madame President references this very figure!
In a radio interview promoting the book, Cooper falsely states that “all of the other cabinet members of Liberia were executed on the beach by firing squad except for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf” following the 1980 coup that toppled Tolbert. While the coup was quite violent, it did not so thoroughly annihilate Tolbert’s government. In fact, some of Tolbert’s ministers retained their positions in the new government, and Sirleaf initially worked with the tainted government as well.
It is perplexing, although quite telling, that Cooper does not recall D. Elwood Dunn, a surviving member of the cabinet who subsequently went on to a career as one of Liberia’s most prominent academics. In her first book on Liberia, Cooper notes that her relatives were among those executed on the beach. It is curious that as a journalist reporting on Liberia, Cooper fails to recall that Johnny McClain, who served as Liberia’s Minister of Information during Sirleaf’s first term was also a surviving member of the Tolbert cabinet. However, this revision fits with the single story – McClain resigned the post, blaming Sirleaf’s government for failing to support his ministry.
In The Atlantic interview, she notes that “Liberia had been governed by a series of madmen, from Samuel Doe to Charles Taylor.” While the definition of ‘a series’ is debatable, Liberia had no elected leaders between the two. In the period between Doe’s death in 1990 and Taylor’s election in 1997, Liberia was governed by a series of appointed interim leaders.
These individuals were respected technocrats such as Amos Sawyer, a former professor at the University of Indiana who now chairs Liberia’s Governance Commission. Another was Ruth Perry, a senator in the 1980s who was actually Liberia’s first female head of state and passed away without much international attention earlier this year.
Elsewhere in the interview, Cooper transitions from decrying Taylor as a ‘madman’ to praising Sirleaf’s decision to bring his supporters into her government in order “to prevent people from becoming so alienated that they would go to war.” Perhaps aspects of Liberia’s recent history do indicate that it is possible for disgruntled political actors to easily, and unilaterally wage war. But there were also overlooked regional dynamics at play that enabled the war; the armed opposition to Taylor was supported by Guinea, which received US military assistance, and scholars have pointed to the US role in removing several Liberian presidents.
While security considerations are varied, it seems unlikely that individuals like Taylor’s technocratic ministers of foreign affairs and finance, Monie Captan and Nathaniel Barnes respectively, who have served Sirleaf as chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Account and ambassador to the UN respectively, were brought in to avoid a return to war. It is more likely that these individuals were appointed because they were also seen to have the “global sheen” which Cooper appears to attribute to Sirleaf alone in The Atlantic interview.
For most of the duration of her presidency, UN blue helmets ensured Liberia’s security, and it is questionable that their mandate would have been overtly tested. Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post notes that Sirleaf’s 2011 re-election “was a bit easier,” yet Sirleaf was backed in the run-off by a former warlord, Senator Prince Johnson. Johnson is best known for presiding over the execution of Liberian President Samuel Doe in 1990; Sirleaf made no effort to promptly reject the endorsement.
Cooper admits that Sirleaf is “not squeaky clean” and that “you probably can’t be squeaky clean and survive in the Liberia[n] political environment.” In comparison to most of her predecessors, Sirleaf is a major improvement. Yet she operates in a global environment where the rhetoric of democracy and law and order is far more deeply ingrained than it has been for much of Africa’s pre-Cold War history. Cooper cites the long-serving leaders of Cameroon, Chad, and Zimbabwe as emblematic of poor governance in Africa. Yet the continent is changing; due to Liberia’s lengthy presidential terms, Sirleaf is actually one of the longest-serving heads of state in west Africa.
While Sirleaf may be one of Liberia’s best presidents, the standard that she should be measured against has risen dramatically in recent years. Many of her more controversial actions, such as a 2015 Christmas clean-up campaign that rendered many families homeless, scarcely received any attention outside of Liberia. While the book may possibly be more nuanced, Cooper explicitly sanitizes controversial aspects of Sirleaf’s rule in The Atlantic interview, noting that political killings are non-existent and that even her strongest critics praise her respect for a free press. The reality, however, is that the Liberian press has asked if Sirleaf’s government was behind the mysterious death of several whistle-blowers and if it unfairly shuttered media houses aligned to the opposition.
The celebration of Sirleaf draws on a Western tendency to privilege those who fit a familiar profile, which a Harvard-educated World Bank technocrat certainly does. However, in a more nuanced story, the same could also be said of Charles Taylor, who received a degree in economics from Bentley University – perhaps that is why Sirleaf initially supported him, or maybe it explains his mysterious escape from a US prison.
Celebrations of Sirleaf that contribute to this single story extend far beyond the coverage of this latest biography – she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, just days before she stood for re-election. This gesture was a sharp rebuke to the voice of Liberia’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission which suggested that she be banned from political office for 30 years for her role in the civil war; a suggestion which led to several of its commissioners receiving death threats.
In an intriguingly positive review of the book that marks a departure from his normal writing style, Rodney Sieh, the editor of Front Page Africa, who was controversially imprisoned in 2013 in an incident that drew some of the greatest scrutiny of Sirleaf, praises Cooper for her “grasp of her homeland which very few international authors have been able to capture.”
Unfortunately, if the publicity around the book is a reliable indicator, one would be hard pressed to expect a biography that does anything but draw on the tried and true single story that paints Liberia as a land torn by violence, where accountability is a luxury, and in which there is little to celebrate except the novelty of its female chief executive. Fortunately, there are other stories, stories in which children do not have to become an extraordinary president in order to be a great hero.
Featured photo by Paul Morigi/Brookings Institute