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A Woman Without Compromise – The New York Times

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“We consider her one of our own,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to Liberia, describing Sirleaf’s appeal to Western diplomats and aid givers. Thomas-Greenfield, an African American who came to Liberia as a doctoral student studying rice production in the late 1970s, and who then heard of Sirleaf, stressed the importance of the fact that Sirleaf worked, during his exile, as a senior UN official. and as vice president of Citicorp in Nairobi in charge of the bank’s African operations. Sirleaf, she says, straddles the worlds with agility. The president is able to speak to Liberian voters in ways that disarm mistrust of her “book” learning; she managed to work with old political enemies now in the Liberian legislature; and the ambassador said, “She speaks our language.” We know, with her, that good governance and corruption are taken seriously. She is extremely popular. We know our money is well spent. And then there’s the fact that she’s a woman — the first. We don’t want to see it fail.

Thomas-Greenfield described Sirleaf’s lobbying style: “I wouldn’t call her charismatic. It’s more that she’s very serious, very focused. Down to the smallest detail. It was easy to imagine, given Sirleaf’s focus on the fence amidst all that’s wrong after a war that sparked widespread rapes and the conscription of child soldiers, possibly as young as 7. , some of them forced to kill their own parents. “She’s bringing this country out of darkness into light,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

However, not all Liberians are so enthusiastic. Many recognize Sirleaf’s privileged status among international benefactors – and Liberians tend to be keenly aware of the importance of foreign benevolence. But Sirleaf has been in office for four years now, and there is a level of impatience with his leadership that I did not hear on my last trip to Liberia a year ago. She may still be loved by some as ‘Mama Ellen’ and she is likely to win another term, but many Liberians are unhappy to continue to rely on vigilante packs to protect them, as the police – whose starting salary is just over $4.50 a day – are inefficient and relentlessly corrupt and the courts too slow to count. The ups and downs of bureaucrats continue to demand bribes and siphon off public funds in a way that has long deprived the country of its infrastructure and weakened the economy. “We can’t root it out, not yet,” Sirleaf told me, clenching her fists in frustration at the country’s deep corruption. She spoke of being torn between firing every offending civil servant and keeping enough ministers and staff in their desks that the government can continue to function no matter how compromised it is. And meanwhile, unemployment in the country, whose population moved heavily to Monrovia during the war, stands at 85% by some estimates. Instilling faith that Liberia’s economic wasteland can be redeemed, however gradually, may be the only way to ensure lasting peace, especially with UN troops expected to begin withdrawing after elections this year. next. On the radio, Sirleaf has emphasized progressively. “Please, I’m no magician,” she said, letting a plea seep into her lecture. “I can’t just wave a magic wand.”

The president has a fair, reddish-brown complexion; skin that serves as a particular reminder of one cause of his country’s implosion. Liberia was founded – as a coastal colony in 1822 and as Africa’s first republic in 1847 – by free black Americans, and the settler class that developed did everything possible to reproduce the society American from which she had moved away. The men wore top hats and tailcoats; women, bonnets and bustles. The republic designed its flag after the stars and stripes of the United States, named its capital after US President James Monroe, and subjugated the tribes within its borders in a way that sometimes resembled to pure and simple slavery.

It wasn’t until 1980 that Liberia had its first indigenous leader, Samuel Doe, an army sergeant whose coup can be understood as a wave of long-suppressed rage. He disembowelled the president, then executed 13 government ministers in front of a crowd of hundreds on the beach in Monrovia. Today, the divide between the peoples Liberians call “indigenous” and those called “American-Liberians” continues to plague the nation. And Sirleaf, whose complexion is fairer than any Liberian, has frequently and emphatically pointed out that her color is misleading, that she in fact has no Americo-Liberian blood, that she does not belong to the racial elite whose historical greed and oppression is pointed to by some as the root of Liberia’s brutal collapse.

Sirleaf’s complexion and her privileged childhood make for a complicated story. She is the granddaughter, on her father’s side, of a prominent rural chief and one of his eight wives, and on her mother’s side, of a German merchant and tradesman who was soon banished of Liberia, along with all Germans, as Liberia proclaimed its loyalty to the United States at the outbreak of World War I. It’s German lineage that lightens Sirleaf’s skin, but the access to education and power that elevated her youth stems from a Liberian tradition known as the ward system.

Since the early years of the republic, the poor have often sent their sons and daughters to live with the better-off, to serve them in exchange for the promise of schooling and the hope of other opportunities. In this way, the native children cleaned the houses and cooked the meals for the settler class. They belonged, more or less, to their custodial families, like something between slaves and adopted children; they were usually given the surname of their caretakers. Over the generations, tradition has not eradicated distinctions of blood and status – the schooling provided may be meager and the chances of advancement minimal – but it has blurred the boundaries. And in Sirleaf’s case, it eliminated them. Sent from his remote village in Monrovia as a ward, his father was treated relatively well, according to Sirleaf, because his father, as a chief, had made the acquaintance of the president of the nation. His father apprenticed with a barrister, then practiced as a lawyer and, before a stroke crippled him in his 40s, he became the first indigenous man elected to the Liberian House of Representatives. Sirleaf’s mother, after a cruel stint with her first settler family, was claimed by another caretaker and raised generously – in part because of her nearly white skin.