In This Review

Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
By Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster, 2017, 336 pp.

This enjoyable and highly readable biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and one of the three winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, is at its best when it gives voice to Sirleaf’s fellow Liberians. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for The New York Times, captures the local patois exceptionally well, with its odd syntax and curious expressions (“to know book” is to be an educated person). The book doubles as a fascinating account of the two murderous civil wars that racked Liberia between 1989 and 2003. Cooper argues that Sirleaf owes her electoral victories in 2005 and 2011 to the women of Liberia, among whom she enjoys enormous popularity. Her success in office has rested on an unusual combination of a good local reputation and excellent contacts in the West, many of which she acquired during a career spent in international banking prior to her entry into politics—a background that came in handy when renegotiating Liberia’s crushing debts after the civil wars. Still, Cooper makes clear that no amount of goodwill or connections can overcome all the challenges of running a dirt-poor, postconflict country with a long history of poor governance.