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Madame President: How Africa Elected Its First Female President

Helene Cooper, author of "Madame President" talks about her new book in which she tells the story of Africa's first female head of state.
Helene Cooper joins \"1947: The Meet the Press Podcast\"
Helene Cooper joins "1947: The Meet the Press Podcast" Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York, New York (Matt Rivera / NBC News)Matt Rivera / NBC News / Matt Rivera / NBC News

The story of the first democratically elected female president in African history is similar to Hillary Clinton’s quest to be the United State’s first woman president – except, of course, for the outcome.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected president of Liberia in 2005, was almost overqualified to lead the West African nation. She was a former finance minister, boasts a degree from Harvard and held posts at the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. In stark contrast, her primary opponent was an athlete without any government experience.

“She had so many global contacts – she was beloved by the West,” says Helene Cooper, author of the new book, ‘Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”

Cooper, New York Times Pentagon correspondent and frequent guest on Meet the Press, spoke with Chuck Todd about her new book for “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast.”

Growing up, the idea of a woman leader in her country seemed out of the question for Sirleaf. Liberia had spent much of the 1980s and ‘90s engulfed in a brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands were killed, and the abuses were cruel and inhumane.

“Women were for raping. They were not for killing,” Cooper said. “That’s how things were done in Liberia.”

Women in Liberia wanted a female president, Cooper explains, “because only a woman is going to push that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen again.”

And Sirleaf was the perfect vehicle for victory: “The women decided they were going to beat the men at their own dirty game,” Cooper says. “They found a global bureaucrat, highly educated, who had no qualms whatsoever at playing dirty.”

After making the decision to add her name to the ballot, Sirleaf’s allies got to work registering women voters in Liberia. She was one of two women in a field of 22 candidates. Sirleaf’s chief opponent was George Weah, a well-known soccer star.

“The women couldn’t believe that they were talking about putting the country in the hands of a football player,” Cooper says.

To ensure her victory, Sirleaf’s allies played dirty. They bought the voter ID cards from men, preventing them from voting in the final rounds of the election. On the day of the vote, with some polling places crowded by hours-long lines, women who were pregnant or nursing were allowed to step to the front of the line. Some women helped speed the process by sharing babies back and forth, making it look like they were pregnant so they could vote more quickly.

Since taking office in 2006, Sirleaf has cracked down on government corruption by firing shady political operatives, established a system to prosecute sexual assault cases, and worked to decrease the nation’s $4.7 billion foreign debt – a dilemma over which the national nearly lost its status as a member of the IMF.

In Cooper’s words, Sirleaf “has a lot of battles to fight.”

Bucking Liberian tradition, she’s a huge champion of freedom of speech. “Her harshest critics will tell you they’re stunned they haven’t been thrown in jail,” Cooper says.

Like nearly all public servants, she’s not without her faults: “She’s hugely pragmatic – almost overly so,” Cooper says. “She’s almost sometimes too much a global bureaucrat when sometimes you need a little bit more fire.”

That said, Cooper insists electing and reelecting Sirleaf in 2011 was the “best thing Liberians ever did.” Sirleaf has said she will not run for a third term this year.