The mixed legacy of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

(Financial Times) – In 1985, then a Citibank executive in her mid-forties, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the vice-presidency against the incumbent military government of Samuel Doe. The decision earned her two spells in a fetid prison cell.

One night she was penned in with 15 terrified men, all of whom were later machine-gunned to death in the courtyard outside. A guard then announced that he was going to rape her, though he was thwarted when a soldier from her father’s village intervened. That did not stop the gang rape shortly afterwards of a 19-year-old girl, subsequently thrown naked into Ms Sirleaf’s cell.

“She was bleeding and her eyes were wild with fear,” writes Helene Cooper of the girl in her biography of Ms Sirleaf, Madame President. “In the corner, the two-rocked back and forth, clutching each other.”

It would be another 20 years, punctuated by years of a horrific civil war, in which women were the principal victims, before Ms Sirleaf finally became Africa’s first elected female leader. In her inauguration speech she referred to that incident and to the routine brutalisation of women in Liberia before, during and after the civil war.

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