A celebratory biography of Africa’s first female president and 2011 Nobel Prize winner.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, Cooper (The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, 2008, etc.) traces the improbable career of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (b. 1938), a woman of spectacular political achievement. Drawing heavily on Sirleaf’s autobiography and interviews with her and her supporters, Cooper creates an admiring portrait that would have benefited from some distance, wider research, and more probing examination. Sirleaf perpetuated the legend that she was destined for greatness from birth, and after graduating from high school, she looked for ways to fulfill that prophecy. When reversed family fortunes precluded her going to Europe or America “to acquire finishing,” at 17, she married a Western-educated 24-year-old who seemed “suave and sophisticated.” After the births of four sons within the next few years, she felt frustrated about her future in sexist, desperately impoverished Liberia. When her husband went to Wisconsin for graduate study, she decided to go, too, to earn a business degree. Within a decade, she had left her abusive spouse, taken a position at Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and then an assignment as a loan officer at the World Bank, where “she began to build her international contacts with the Western leaders who controlled the purse strings for developing countries.” She proved herself adept at networking in financial circles, becoming a vice president at Citibank before moving to Equator Bank. With an invaluable financial career behind her, she entered politics. Cooper details the horrifying atrocities (dismemberments, rapes, mass executions) perpetrated by ruthless tyrants, the last of whom, Charles Taylor, Sirleaf initially backed. The author also reveals the support of these regimes by a succession of American administrations. Sirleaf won the presidency in 2005, inciting a violent backlash against women, including ritualistic killings. She was re-elected in 2011 despite charges of nepotism and corruption, which Cooper allows Sirleaf to defend.
A brisk chronicle of a strong-willed, tireless, and determined leader.