The making of Africa’s first female President – Book review


Liberia is a word that derives from the latin word ‘liber’ meaning ‘free’ but this is ironical when juxtaposed with the real story of the people of Liberia for whom true freedom proved to be elusive since the country gained independence in 1847. In her sensational memoir ‘This child will be great’ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reveals the struggles of the people of Liberia who believed that someday, ‘big brother’ America would come to their rescue, an expectation that has remained in the realm of a dream over a century and half after the country’s existence. Within few days of the author’s birth, a visitor who came to pay his respects to her mother proclaimed “This child will be great, this child will lead”. By the end of the memoir, any reader can safely conclude that this ‘prophecy’ was fulfilled but in between; an interesting account is given of a woman with perhaps, an overdose of courage against the backdrop of the complex web of events that characterized Liberia.

Life for the author began on a relatively comfortable note. Her father was a lawyer and being brought up by middle-class parents meant that neither Ellen nor her siblings needed to live with elite families as wards; a common practice at the time. However, things changed when her father suffered a stroke in his early forties from which he never recovered leaving her mother to bear the heavy burden of fending for Ellen and her three siblings. Unable to find the much needed opportunities to advance her education after high school, the author watched her peers progress in their educational pursuits and professional career while she decided to get married at 17 and tried to build a home raising four boys. From her childhood accidental fall into a pit toilet to her abusive marriage, separation and divorce; struggling to make a living out of low end jobs, it was difficult to see where the greatness proclaimed would come from. But there came a point in her life when she became dissatisfied with the state of affairs and made up her mind to get a better deal out of life.

Armed with this determination, Ellen decided to pursue her dream of being educated and getting herself on the path to professional freedom. A combination of hard work and residual favours from her late father’s connections earned her a scholarship to study in the United States. She attended Madison Business College Wisconsin and did a pre-graduate course at Economics Institute in Boulder Colorado. Thereafter, she attended Harvard University this time on her merit having delivered a remarkable speech at the Harvard Institute of International Development (HIID).Having gained some insight into the dismal state of the Liberian economy and the intricacies that underpinned it, from her time at  the Treasury Department, Ellen was convinced that things could not go on the way they had been else the country would be the worse for it. As it turned out, the once docile masses became restless, more expectant and dissatisfied with the leadership. By 1979, the ‘rice riots’ proved that Liberians were no longer willing to accept oppression and were ready to fight for their lives at whatever cost.

After the demise of William Tubman, the ‘benevolent dictator’ who ruled for 27 years, William Tolbert who had served as his deputy for 20 years took over office but his tenure was terminated in a bloody coup masterminded by Samuel Doe when he was brutally murdered in 1980. This was the beginning of a new era of conflict that festered in the country for decades. Ellen herself saw this coming and warned of the impending calamity years before it occurred. In the midst of the anarchy that engulfed Liberia from 1980 to 1994, Ellen did not grow weary of stating not just the truth but the obvious need for better governance to the chagrin of the brutal dictators that had gained a hold on the governance of the country. She was thrown into prison, almost got raped while in jail, put under house arrest and had to embark on exile at crucial points when that appeared to be the only way to save her life. In all of this, Ellen was dogged and persistent.

Eventually, the long awaited opportunity came when ‘fragile peace’ was restored to the country, paving the way for a new democratic era. Charles Taylor who ousted Doe was indicted for war crimes in Sierra-Leone leading to his flight from the country to seek asylum/exile in Nigeria to evade arrest and trial. So when the coast was clear for democratically elected President, Ellen thought it would be a good time to usher the battered country out of the woods and so presented herself as a candidate in a rigorous and highly competitive election process. But she needed to correct the impression that she was Americo-Liberian, descendant of the first American-born founders of the country and so belonged to the elite class that had ruled the country for much of its existence.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has brilliantly condensed the story of Liberia in just 353 pages. She did this with such dexterity you’ll hardly realise its history till you’re done. I was personally struck by how much similarity Nigeria, my home country shared with Liberia. There seemed to be an endless list of them some of which are slave related history, ethnicity and the fight for dominance, relegation of women in society, sit-tight syndrome, kindred spirit, corruption on a grande scale by rulers, coups and counter-coups, and the strong influence of religion and belief in ‘juju’. Some of these are changing around the continent for instance women are gaining more respect, opportunities and consideration in societal affairs.

This child will be great is the story of many African countries, a story of West-Africa and Liberia in particular and comes in highly recommended for those from the region.

Book Title: This child will be great

Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers

Genre: Non-fiction

No of chapters: 20

No of pages: 353

If you have read this book please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Special thanks to Rainbow Book Club Port-Harcourt, Nigeria for the gracious gift of a complimentary copy of this remarkable book. It was the selected book for the month of June, 2014 as part of activities to mark the reign of Port-Harcourt as the World Book Capital for the year 2014.

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