Illustration by James Ferguson of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
© James Ferguson

Ma Ellen is not happy. Then again she is not exactly angry, either. She looks at me sternly from behind her spectacles with a glint of weary amusement. “You’re meddlin’ now,” she says, in what sounds like a southern American drawl. “I’m meddling? Is that what you said?” I ask, checking that I’ve heard correctly. “Yes,” she says, as though that settles it.

We’re not in the Deep South, though the ornate furnishings, home-cooked food and her rich, lilting accent might suggest otherwise. We’re in Liberia, the west African country founded by emancipated slaves from America. My guest is the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — “Ma Ellen” to many Liberians — the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa when she took over 11 years ago, and, at 77, a dogged survivor of her country’s brutal past.

The subject of my meddling is the coup of 1980, when Samuel Doe, a master sergeant in the army, overthrew the government of William R Tolbert to become Liberia’s first indigenous leader. Since it was first settled by African-Americans in 1822, Liberia had been run by and for Americo-Liberians, the elite that traced its ancestry back to the US. It was rumoured that Doe’s soldiers, venting pent-up anger at years of exploitation, gouged out Tolbert’s right eye and disembowelled him.

Thirteen members of the government were subsequently taken to the beach, where the rough grey waters of the Atlantic pound against the African coast. There, they were summarily shot before jeering crowds. Sirleaf was finance minister at the time and one of only four cabinet members to be spared. My question is: where was she that night? “There’s no big secret. I was at a private home with a friend. People were listening to gunfire and passing the news around.” Did she fear for her life? “I had concerns,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was called in [by Doe] and, in the end, I was protected.” And you served briefly in his administration, I prompt. “Yes, if you say president of the Liberian Bank, that’s correct.”

The events of 1980 were the start of Liberia’s descent into a murderous hell, first under Doe himself and then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, under Charles Taylor, the warlord who overthrew Doe and plunged the country into civil war. During this time, Sirleaf spent long periods abroad, but never abandoned her political ambitions. In 2005 she was finally elected president, in a contest overseen by US peacekeepers brought in to help enforce a ceasefire and re-establish democratic rule.

“We’ve done a lot to restore Liberia’s credibility, Liberia’s reputation, Liberia’s presence,” she says of her presidency, the commas almost audible. Certainly abroad, the Harvard-educated, former United Nations technocrat is seen as a near-miracle-worker who has brought stability to her impoverished, war-ravaged country. Until 2014’s catastrophic Ebola outbreak, the country’s GDP was growing at an average of 8 per cent a year, and in 2011 Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At home, her image is of an “iron lady” who has — literally and figuratively — dodged several bullets on her way to the top.

When I suggest that she is less popular in Liberia than in Washington or London, she points out that she has been elected twice. “History will challenge that. I’m not talking about what you hear from 5 per cent of the population on the radio, in the papers,” she says. “I don’t pay attention to it. I travel around the country. I’m happy I have a good relationship with the people.”

. . .

We’re in the long, private dining room of a restaurant in the Congo Town part of Monrovia, the scrappy capital scythed out of malarial jungle in the 19th century. On a side table are several local specialities including pepper soup with pig’s feet, fufu (cassava flour pounded into a smooth paste), and “check rice”, which is “beautified” with okra. There are dishes with meats, as well as vegetables including “bennie” sesame seeds, “parched in a skillet and pounded”, according to one of Sirleaf’s assistants.

I’m seated next to Sirleaf at the head table, which is laid with a regally red tablecloth and set with ornate gold-coloured underplates. She is dressed in a deep-blue headscarf, a striped jacket of local fabric and a long scarf decorated with the Liberian flag, a derivative of the Stars and Stripes.

Flanking us at the top table are the president’s press secretary and information minister. Perpendicular is a long table with 18 chairs, at which are sat a smattering of aides and officials, also eating. Behind them are photographers and pen-pushers. Rather than an intimate lunch, it feels like we’re being ogled by whispering courtiers.

I concentrate on Sirleaf. She is eating fufu and bitter leaf, a green vegetable commonly served in west Africa. It’s the first time that I’ve seen anyone eat the former, a white sticky paste normally rolled into balls with one’s fingers, with a knife and fork. No one had asked my preference, but I have been served the green-tinged check rice with a spicy curry sauce containing fish and the most succulent of shrimp. While Sirleaf is talking in her deliberate style, I busy myself prising off the translucent orange shells, popping the flesh into my mouth. “I’m glad you like it,” she says when I signal my appreciation. “Those are river shrimps. They’re good.”

We’re still discussing the past. The country had peculiar beginnings, I say of the freed slaves who came to Africa only to impose a form of quasi-slavery of their own. “Very peculiar,” she agrees. “That beginning has shaped some of our values, even today. The ostentatious lifestyle. A lot of socialisation. The Antebellum South.”

On her paternal side, Sirleaf’s grandmother was one of eight wives of a Gola chief. Her maternal grandmother was a market woman married to a German trader. Both women were “totally illiterate”, she says. As was the custom of the time, her mother and father were sent as “wards” to families of the Americo-Liberian elite in Monrovia, the only plausible path out of poverty. Her father grew up to become a “poor man lawyer” and, later, the first indigenous MP in Liberia’s history. Her mother was a teacher and a preacher.

“She had an education, and my father had an education. And so they stressed education,” says Sirleaf. Born in 1938, she was ethnically indigenous, but socially she was considered part of the lighter-skinned ruling elite who once wore top hats and tails to distinguish themselves from the locals.

“If ‘Americo-Liberian’ is defined as having a heritage in America, then definitely I’m not,” she says, taking a sip of water. I had been told she might order a beer, but she has not. Reluctantly, I join her in abstemiousness, no small sacrifice given the punishing humidity.

She was married at 17. “There was just a handsome young man who came [back] from the United States,” she says wistfully, chewing on the algae-coloured bitter leaf. “He had come home and we met at a party. That was it. My mother was a disciplinarian. She believed that when young girls start to go out with young boys, they get married.”

The couple had four boys and moved to America, where Sirleaf began studying accounting. “I worked tables and did other types of things. I got back to school with determination to catch up with my former classmates and become a professional.” Sirleaf and her husband, who turned out to be abusive, eventually divorced: “Of course, it puts strain on a marriage. That was to be expected,” she says, with deliberate understatement.

After a stint in Liberia’s treasury in the early 1970s, she returned to the US, completing a masters at Harvard in public administration. By the end of the decade she was back in Liberia, where she rose to become finance minister, the position she held on the night of Doe’s coup. Five years after those traumatic events, Doe sought to legitimise his repressive administration by holding elections. Sirleaf, who had been working for the World Bank in Washington and Citibank in Nairobi, returned to run for the senate. She was twice thrown in jail, once when she objected to what she said were rigged results, and later after a failed coup attempt against Doe. Released after eight months in July 1986, she headed back to the US.

It was around this time that she made a bad mistake: she helped fund rebel leader Charles Taylor, who unleashed a violent civil conflict in which 250,000 people — one in every 10 Liberians — were killed. Because she had backed him, Sirleaf was banned from politics for 30 years by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although the verdict was never enforced. “I don’t think $10,000 is what financed the war,” she tells me, referring to the size of her donation.

In fact, in 1997 Sirleaf lost a presidential election to Taylor, who ran on the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” — surely one of the most chilling appeals in electoral history. War raged until 2003, when Taylor fled the country. He was eventually convicted at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

. . .

I’ve made quick work of my shrimp and fancy trying the bitter leaf. While the waitress goes off to get some we talk about the 2005 presidential elections, in which Sirleaf defeated the country’s footballing idol George Weah. She took charge of a destroyed country, one virtually bereft of roads and electricity and with an army of unemployed youth. “We’ve done a lot to restore basic services,” she says, adding that she negotiated successfully to write off much of the national debt and to attract investment. The country began to rebuild and to grow quickly, albeit from a desperately low base.

Yet she’s not happy. “We have not changed the mindset. We have not changed attitudes toward honesty, integrity, hard work. Maybe our educational system has failed us,” she says, almost to herself. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ve had too much turmoil. It’s a history of boom, bust,” she says of an economy whose fortunes have been almost entirely dependent on the vagaries of the weather and commodity prices. “Things are moving up. All of a sudden, boom.” Her hand explodes over the table. “Something happens. Whatever it is. Boom. Then we start to climb again. Boom.”

Of late, Liberia has been knocked sideways again, this time by the collapse of rubber and iron ore prices and by the eruption of Ebola, which sent fear around the country as it felled nearly 5,000 victims. “When are we going to have that continuous climb that will produce enough jobs, that will reduce tensions in society?” she laments.

Doesn’t her government bear some responsibility, I ask? After all, stories of corruption are rife. They can’t all be made up. “We hear it and we know it,” she says. “We’ve dismissed a lot of people. People are being prosecuted now.” But has anyone senior gone to jail? “Yes, people have gone to jail. There may not be a minister as yet, but people have been to jail.”

I’m eating the bitter leaf. It’s not what I had expected. Underneath the foliage are lurking dark meats, too strong for my taste. Later I read on the menu that they included cow skin and cow foot. I slurp some water to take the taste away.

“The integrity issue is systemic,” she says. I tell her I was stopped by police, only a few days before, at a makeshift roadblock. “Somebody wanted money from you,” she snorts. “Integrity is a longstanding issue in this country. What contribution does deprivation make to this? What contribution does poverty make to this? What contribution does dependency make to this?”

Isn’t Liberia itself in a permanent state of dependency, I say, pointing to its constant need for donor cash. “We’ve been too dependent for too long on giveaways,” she concedes, adding that the country has been a rubber exporter for decades but has never produced a single tyre. “Our budget should be at a much higher level,” she says of the tiny amount at her government’s disposal.

Suddenly she is pointing menacingly at a young waitress. “Do you pay taxes?” demands the president, eliciting a nervous giggle from the startled girl. “You’re terrifying her,” I say.

“She’s smiling,” says Sirleaf without amusement, as if to say that of course she doesn’t pay taxes. Finally, she releases the waitress from her gaze.

If she’s so down on corruption, I say, why does she not counter accusations of nepotism when it comes to her own sons, one of whom is head of national security, another the interim governor of the central bank and a third the chair of the board of the national oil company — until it went bust? “I will make no apologies for any of them,” she says, after giving me a detailed explanation of why each was suited to the job. “I don’t have a long list of qualified people.”

But doesn’t it look terrible? “I trusted them. They had the skills. And I knew that they shared my values,” she says, unrepentant.

Sirleaf has finished her food and turns down a second helping. The waitress, recovered from her ordeal, brings me sticky fried plantains. I’d like coffee, but none is offered.

Her presidency ends after next year’s election, but is she tempted to stay on? “Our constitution forbids it,” she replies. That’s not been much of an impediment for other African leaders, I say. “Our people wouldn’t take it. And my age wouldn’t allow it,” she replies. “I think we’re ready for succession. We just must try to do it right.”

I end by asking about her autobiography. The title, This Child Will Be Great, doesn’t suggest disappointment with the outcome of her life. “When I was born, this old man went into the room where I was lying on the bed, and he just looked at me and said: ‘Oh, this child will be great,’ ” she says. “And so we all laughed about it and, over the years, with the ups and downs, we used to tease my mother and say: ‘That old man didn’t know what he was talking about.’ ” Then she adds, regretfully, of her mother’s death in the mid-1980s: “She didn’t live long enough to see it come to pass.”

She pauses. “Maybe he was a prophet. Because I’m confident that I’ve done a good job. I know that history will judge me the best president up until this point.” Better than Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, I tease. It’s hardly a high bar. She’s looking at me again with that piercing gaze. It’s hard to tell whether she’s annoyed or amused. Then she smiles at me indulgently. “That’s fair,” she says.

David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor

Illustration by James Ferguson

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