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Liberians love their Iron Lady, for now

The woman who would heal the nation has no illusions and few tears.

January 25, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, LIBERIA — Liberians call her "da woma," in their soft patois where the word endings seem to die in the steamy West African heat.

"Da woma', she tra' her bes'," they tell you earnestly, if you inquire about the state of affairs in a country shredded by a 14-year civil war. "She tra'." She's trying.

One hip-hop song played on Monrovia radio these days just calls her Ma.

At times, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state, seems like a mild, smiling, grandmotherly figure. Diminutive and bespectacled, she travels about the country wearing jeans and a baseball cap. She can't resist hurrying over to speak to small children who catch her eye.

Yet the 68-year-old president also is a feisty, ambitious economist trying to turn around one of the most damaged and traumatized countries on Earth, with a ferociousness that has earned her another nickname: the Iron Lady. Friends say she's so strong she didn't even cry out during childbirth.

"Ellie, she don't cry," said Gibson Jerue, publisher of the independent newspaper Public Agenda, who once fled Liberia fearing for his life after he wrote an article headlined "Charles Taylor's Days Are Numbered," on the warlord who was then Liberia's president.

Today, nearly 3 1/2 years after the war ended with Taylor's exile and a year after Johnson-Sirleaf took office, the most visible progress in this grimy, bullet-pocked capital is a few wan strings of fairy lights draped on dilapidated street awnings.

After years without electricity, some shops have thrown up a yard or two of the lights, which look more like an afterthought than a celebration. Still, as the winking bulbs struggle against Liberia's velvety darkness, their glow exudes sweet optimism.

Johnson-Sirleaf is under no illusions: A few more months or a year without bringing jobs and her people's love and admiration will themselves blink out. But for now she offers hope of a new beginning to a nation torn by war's atrocities, many of them committed by doped-up children who fought in drag and believed magic could protect them from the bullets.

When she changes into colorful Liberian costume for official functions, Johnson-Sirleaf seems to blossom like a tropical flower. Her raspy, charismatic voice rises powerfully as she addresses the crowds.

She is divorced with four sons and six grandchildren, and comes from a pious family. As a student, her only ambition was to be a schoolteacher like her mother. Both her grandmothers, one of whom had a market stall, were illiterate.

She played soccer with the boys, a rarity in those days. She was a lethal volleyball player, leaping up and whacking the ball two-handed across court, a shot that almost never failed.

After studying in the United States, she returned home to become finance minister under President William Tolbert in the early 1970s. After she was jailed by the regime of Samuel Doe in 1985 and was charged with treason under Taylor in 1997, she went into exile. She worked for the World Bank, Citibank, the International Monetary Fund and other organizations.

High standards

Johnson-Sirleaf has a fierce sense of probity: As finance minister, she was livid when close friend Clavenda Bright-Parker, who had a pharmacy business, told her that she had paid a $25 bribe to the ministry to speed up a check that was slow in coming.

"She got so upset with me," recalled Bright-Parker, still a friend and supporter. "She said I should know better than that -- I am ruining her ministry. She has a standard she wants to maintain. She said, 'I should send your name in.' "

Johnson-Sirleaf has known for more than two decades, since elections in 1985, that the presidency could be hers. That year she was elected a senator.

"Once I got into my real first election, then of course the die was cast," she said. "At that point I knew that my popularity could take me to the presidency."

She withstood pressure from Doe to get out of politics before the elections and to not serve as senator.

"At that time, I became a folk hero for doing those things," she said in a recent interview in her Monrovia office.

After a coup attempt against Doe later that year, there were arrests and reprisal killings. A group of drunken soldiers seized her in what was to become her worst ordeal.

"I was taken to the military prison," she said. "In fact, as we were going, they told me they were going to take me to the beach and bury me alive. They started in that direction, changed their minds, put me through tortures, put matches to my hair. They said, 'We're going to burn your hair off,' but didn't do it. They would come as close as possible. It clearly was just meant to terrorize me.

"That particular night in prison, anything could have happened."

At one point, all the men in the cell with her were taken out, and she heard gunshots. She waited in terror, convinced the soldiers would come to shoot her next. Then a soldier came to open her cell with what seemed a clear intent to rape her.

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