To this day, she is not sure why they spared her, but since she was jailed in a coup uprising in 1980 and later watched Liberia shattered in a bloody 14-year civil war, Mrs. Sirleaf has turned to mothers and women for popular support and to rebuild a country that essentially failed.
Women hold six of the top positions in her cabinet of 22 — the Foreign, Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Sports and Gender ministries. Mrs. Sirleaf is assertive about why they rose in the government of the first woman democratically elected to lead an African state.
“Women have stronger commitment. They work harder. They’re honest, and the experience justifies it,” Mrs. Sirleaf, 71, said in an interview in the Foreign Ministry building where she maintains her office. “In every time and every place I’ve worked, wherever there has been a scandal, wherever there has been indication of impropriety, it’s always been men.”
As Mrs. Sirleaf prepares to run for re-election next year, she is not free from controversy. While the United Nations peacekeeping force in Liberia is winding down, she faces pressure from the nation’s truth and reconciliation commission, which urged that she and dozens of others be banned for 30 years from holding public office for their roles in the war. She has conceded that she gave $10,000 while abroad in the late 1980s to a rebel group led by Charles Taylor, then a warlord, but for humanitarian services.
In Liberia, she contends, men are more tempted by corruption. “In an African context, men have too much of an extended family. They have too many obligations outside their families and homes, so the demands on them are harder and more intense.”
At the outset of her election campaign in 2005, Mrs. Sirleaf took on corruption as “Public Enemy Number One.” She has since had to confront cold reality in a nation of 3.5 million people who struggle with an 85 percent unemployment rate, where 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old.
Mrs. Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, established a structure for combating graft with an anti-corruption commission and a code of conduct for public servants. The rules ended up snaring two government ministers, including her close relative, A.B. Johnson, who resigned last month as internal affairs minister in a scandal over spending of a community development fund.
She said she was personally betrayed by those former ministers but that Liberia was still overcoming the corruption of values through war and survival.
People sought “public positions because they could engage in extortion for small services rendered,” she said. “What we have done is to expose it.”
Mrs. Sirleaf says she is running for re-election to achieve ambitions that stalled with the global economic crisis. “I want to be sure I leave a legacy behind and I made a difference,” she said.