Chris Blattman

This child is great?


Hillary Clinton visited Ma Ellen in Liberia this week (above photo from Scarlett Lion). President Ellen has had her troubles these past weeks, and so the visit (and assurance of US support) is a sure boon. We can count on a reelection campaign to begin any time now.

It so happens I spent the past week reading not just Ellen’s autobiography, but Ben Franklin’s too. My expectations of the former were low. This is no reflection on Ellen, it’s just that the self-told tale of a sitting politician (especially one running for election) is seldom worth the reading. Even Obama’s most recent book was an audacious bore.


Readers of the blog also know I’ve been critical of her first years in power. So it was a suprise to me most of all how much I liked the book.

First, I’m astounded at the brevity. Many politicians (ahem, Bill Clinton) basically print us their daily diary. Ellen’s tale moves at a fast pace. Sometimes too fast. I would have liked more on the backroom politics during Liberia’s many wars (but one must not reveal too many transgressions while in office). I would have enjoyed a franker account of her years in the World Bank and UNDP (but–more importantly–one must not piss of one’s biggest donors, must one?). That book may come after her tenure as President.

I’m also surprised how little time she spends settling scores. Many a politician’s book becomes a “here’s my side of the story” affair, delving into petty disputes and minutae. There’s some of that, of course, but it doesn’t weigh the book down. And some of them I loved, not least the (unexpected) flaying of Jimmy Carter for his political love affair with Charles Taylor.

Critical as I am of her policies, the book gave me some appreciation for the woman and her decisions. I would have liked to see more progress on institutional change in her first term, especially a devolution of (supreme) Presidential power. Then again, the short-term fixes she did accomplish–home runs on debt relief and road-building, plus advances in education–might let her tackle the deeper reforms in a second term. One must appease the impoverished populace, after all. In short, the book taught me a little more about politics.

Either way, she’s undoubtedly the best wo(man) for the job. As you might gather from the title (“This Child Will Be Great”), Ellen shares my opinion. Indeed, one would not count modesty among her many virtues.

Then again, modesty may be a peculiarly Western obsession. I’ve seldom encountered it among my African colleagues. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if modesty there is considered rather a vice. Ben Franklin reminds me that, whether in America or Liberia, such vanity may have its purpose:

Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.

The book, bound to be of interest beyond the Liberiaphiles, is here. See her Daily Show performance here.

One Response

  1. I liked the book as well. It was a quick read. I found most interesting how Sirleaf capitalized on her indigenous ancestry and Americo-Liberian upbringing when campaigning in 1997 and 2005, whenever one or the other was more convenient.

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