Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ohio University Press has a series of "Short Histories of Africa". I recently decided to pick up most of the collection for potential use as reading materials for classes. This post covers "Ellen Johnson Sirleaf" (2016), by Pamela Scully. One of the rants that often appear in my classes and in assignment feedback comments relate to attention to detail. Small mistakes and sloppy work put the entire effort into question (Yes, everyone makes mistakes, including in published works). On the first page of the Introduction this book opens with one: "three women from Africa, two of them relatively unknown activists at the time. The committee presented the award to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (president of Liberia), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), and Tawakkol Karman (Yemen)". Yemen is not in Africa. The author of this book is a Professor African Studies at Emory University. Tawakkol was born and raised in Yemen, studied in Yemen, and holds Yemeni (and Turkish) citizenship. She was the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. As the author is also a professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, these details should matter. I had to read these lines several times to make sure I was not missing something. I looked at three book reviews (none mentioned this point). This does not start off the book well. As I say in class, that makes this entire work questionable (other reviews have offered more Liberia-specific critiques). Of this series, this is not one I would use. Some notes:

"Christianity was a marker of civilized status and upward mobility in the Monrovia in which Sirleaf grew up. Discrimination against Muslims, who were not allowed to hold government posts, contributed to the movement of young people to Christianity. During this era, most Muslims in Monrovia were uneducated. Conversion to Christianity and education happened at the same time in schools. Although Christianity was an essential ingredient for being part of the Americo-Liberian or "civilized" community, it was membership in particular churches that was crucial." (p. 26)

"After working with the World Bank, she concluded that although foreign investment and development monies came with all sorts of restrictions and created difficult relationships between governments and funders, such investments were crucial, and that the lack of capacity in many countries of the Global South meant that countries had to depend on the expertise of people from the Global North. As we will see, this conviction became central to her decisions in her first term as president of Liberia. Sirleaf's orientation toward neoliberalism with its emphasis on governance and investment rather than social justice and transformation was one of the reasons for her success in mobilizing support for Liberia." (p. 39) 

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Emperor Haile Selassie

Ohio University Press has a series of "Short Histories of Africa". I recently decided to pick up most of the collection for potential use as reading materials for classes. This post covers "Emperor Haile Selassie" (2014) by Bereket Habte Selassie. Books usually take more than a year to write, get reviewed, go into publication, and then hit the shelves (usually longer). It is probably fair to say that this book, given what happened from 2012 onward in Ethiopia, would be written differently today. I have only found a couple of reviews of the book, and welcome input form others on the author's portrayal of this history. The author, being an insider in the Emperor's administration, has unique insight into events and the individual, which the vast majority do not have access to. The author is critical, so the above comment is not suggesting it is a book of praise. A few notes:

"his declared ambition of gradually introducing democracy and a regime based on the rule of law was denied by the constitution's codifying the power and dignity of the emperor, sanctioned by his anointing as well as by tradition. All in all, in the judgment of all close observers and based on the emperor's words and acts, Haile Selassie remained an absolute monarch with absolute power." (p. 76)

"It is ironic that in annexing Eritrea the emperor flouted the very international law and morality to which he had appealed when his own country was invaded." (p. 83)

"The emperor's survival strategy included distrust of even his closest kinsmen, on the basis of the Machiavellian dictum "If I take care of my close friends, I can take care of my enemies." (The emperor was an avid reader of Machiavelli; Workneh told this writer that the emperor lent him an Amharic translation of The Prince.)" (p. 95)

"Was Haile Selassie a progressive modernizer who shaped Ethiopia's destiny? The answer to this question is undoubtedly in the positive. Did his pursuit of power reflect a commitment to a higher purpose, such as modernization and centralization of the Ethiopian state? This too must be answered in the positive, despite some opposed views that contend that his use of power was purely for selfish ends that went against the interests of the nation." (p. 123)

"The consensus is that the denial of democracy is the central issue on which the emperor finally stumbled. Democracy was one of the exciting promises of his earlier work, and in refusing to grant more power to the central institutions of the state, including the cabinet and the parliament, he certainly chose personal power over national interest." (p. 124) 

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