The recently-published book – Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President, is highly informative and insightful.
Authored by the very driven and intellectually engaging K. Riva Levinson, Choosing the Hero is, indeed, a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
The book is a story of two women from different races and backgrounds, whose paths intersect. One is Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s and Africa’s first democratically-elected female president, who cut her teeth through tremendous struggles and sacrifices in a traditionally male-dominated culture, compounded by a brutal and barbaric political system, to fulfill her God-given aspirations.
The other is the author, Ms Riva Levinson, whose Jewish forebears suffered tragically during the Nazi holocaust. Even though she had a poor and difficult childhood, Ms Levinson’s unwavering and goal-getter spirit has enabled her to surmount tremendous odds to become a leading strategist on international policy issues in Washington.
Choosing the Hero makes very interesting reading and is inspiring. A true testament to the power of friendship, the book presents a compelling account of Ms Levinson’s life and career, and how she joined forces with Madam Sirleaf to fight for a cause bigger than either of them.
The book is filled with gripping anecdotes. It describes Ms Levinson’s difficult childhood, the inspiration she drew from her grandmother, and her adventures working in some of the most dangerous places on earth from Mogadishu, Somalia to Baghdad, Iraq.
Nevertheless, it is Ms Levinson’s efforts on behalf of Madam Sirleaf that form the heart of Choosing the Hero. Madam Sirleaf was working at the United Nations when they first met in 1997. Liberia was engulfed in a brutal civil war that eventually cost the lives of an estimated 250,000 people and left the country almost completely destroyed.
Due to her strong advocacy for democratic governance and the rule of law in Liberia, Madam Sirleaf had earlier been imprisoned, threatened with death, and forced into exile several times. But she was determined to return to Liberia and run for the presidency against some powerful warlords, notwithstanding the fact that tremendous odds were stacked against her.
As Ms Levinson recounts in the book, getting the United States Government to adopt policies that would lead to an end to Liberia’s civil war and also to regard Madam Sirleaf as a viable candidate at the time was a very tall order. Because of her gender and geo-political considerations, Madam Sireaf was not seen in Washington as a candidate with a fighting chance against powerful warlords, who, already entrenched and threatening continued violence if not elected, were expected to take over Liberia’s leadership out of a false sense that this would bring peace to the country.
Ms Levinson chronicles her behind-the-scenes lobbying for Madam Sirleaf in Washington, as well as her on-the-ground efforts supporting the presidential campaign in Liberia. It took three tries for Madam Sirleaf to finally win the presidency in 2005.
The author provides moving accounts of the disappointments and frustrations that compounded over the years as Madam Sirleaf failed to win the presidency. Each failure at the presidency increased general doubts that she could ever succeed, and that perception negatively impacted her in terms of the moral and financial support required to continue to mount an effective political operation.
Even as many would give up on Madam Sirleaf, thinking that her luck had run out as a presidential prospect, Ms Levinson remained unwavering in her support and adoration of the “Iron Lady,” as Madam Sirleaf was popularly known. She was convinced that Madam Sirleaf was the type of leader Africa needed for transformation.
As President Sirleaf reveals in the book’s Foreword, ”Of all of my friends and staff, my constituents and supporters in Liberia and around the world, even my own family, few believed in me like Riva did.”
Ms Levinson also recounts the feeling of triumph and euphoria as Liberia and Africa experienced a watershed development manifested by the election of Madam Sirleaf in 2005 as the first democratically elected woman president on the continent. The global community, especially the United States, overwhelmingly embraced Madam Sirleaf’s presidency as the dawn of a new day for democracy, peace and progress, as well as a milestone towards gender equality in Liberia and Africa as a whole.
Ms Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International, a Washington-based communications and government relations firm which champions Liberia’s cause in the U.S. Through her long-time relationship with President Sirleaf, she has played a commendable role in further deepening Liberia-U.S. relationship during the tenure of President Sirleaf.
During a visit to the United States on May 31, 2016, President Sirleaf served as special featured guest at a well-attended book signing event during which she praised Ms Levinson as someone who is reliable, hardworking, and committed. The president added that the book is a reflection of her relationship with Ms Levinson, who has stood by her for decades, from years of struggle to bring about an era of democracy in Liberia to this period of Liberia’s reconstruction under her leadership.
In the Foreword, President Sirleaf says, “I would not have selected the title – Choosing the Hero for Riva’s book. I might have settled on something such as The Advocate or The Secret Weapon. Because that is how I see Riva, through the prism of my own struggle: a fierce fighter for me and for the Liberian people, a partner and friend now for nearly two decades.”
Also speaking at the signing ceremony, Ms Levinson said the opportunity to have worked with President Sirleaf over the years has profoundly impacted her life and has given her a purpose in life. Ms Levinson, a strategist on international issues, who has managed projects of consequence in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, said she has been most impacted by her relationship with President Sirleaf and her support for Liberia’s post-conflict transformation.
Giving a primary reason for publishing the book, Ms Levinson said, “I wanted the world (to) know Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, like I do … to know her humanity.” By shoring up Madam Sirleaf, Ms Levinson has clearly demonstrated that she too is a committed fighter for the common good of humanity.
Choosing the Hero also shines spotlight on how Washington can work. As the author writes, “History can be made in different ways – not only by the generals or elected officials, but sometimes by the efforts of anonymous people who work, plan, scheme, manipulate, even horse-trade behind the scenes in order to achieve our goals.”
In her remarks at the book signing ceremony, Ms Levinson said, “I wanted to demystify Washington, D.C., to draw back the curtain and show how things really get done. To demonstrate the importance of America’s leadership in the world and what can happen when we really do get it right, and to shout out those who I credit for much of Liberia’s post-conflict success – Select members of Congress and their staffs.”
The book contains 191 pages of attention-grabbing accounts, including very significant historical developments, such as President Sirleaf’s 2006 address to the Joint Session of the United States Congress – the fourth African leader, after visionary African leaders including late Liberian President William R. Tolbert and South African President Nelson Mandela – to be given the honor. The book begins with the President’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway in 2011, another major crowning moment of global importance.
The book’s Epilogue deals with the Ebola epidemic that worst affected Liberia and two other West African countries beginning in 2014, which the author describes as “the darkest challenge yet.” Liberia was able to beat back this existential threat, thanks to the resilience of the government and people of Liberia, and the strong support of the international community, friends and partners.
Choosing the Hero is for anyone interested in political history and international affairs, the inside story of the rise of President Sirleaf, and a sense of how Washington works. With riveting accounts that keep you glued from one page to another, the book makes very compelling reading and is highly recommended.
The book is also a reflection of the tremendous amount of goodwill in the U.S. towards Liberia. The challenge is how Liberians would take advantage of the opportunities, especially during the tenure of Madam President, who is so universally respected, adored and revered in the United States. The challenge remains as to how we, Liberians, would be able to adequately harness the abundance of goodwill for Liberia that many Americans, such as Riva Levinson, have for the country’s progress.
Gabriel I H Williams is Minister Counselor for Press and Public Affairs, Embassy of Liberia, Washington, D.C., USA. A career journalist, he is author of the book, Liberia, the Heart of Darkness (www.google.com). He is currently completing another book on the progress and challenges in post-war Liberia, and how poverty and ignorance undermine global peace and security