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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s First Female President
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s First Female President

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 10-06-2019

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born Oct. 29, 1938) is a Liberian politician who served as the twenty-fourth President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa. She was born in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. Founded in the nineteenth century by freed slaves from the United States, Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa. Its society has long been marked by tension between the indigenous people and the descendants of the American settlers. Three of Ellen Johnson’s grandparents were of native Liberian descent; her paternal grandfather was a traditional chief of the Gola people. Her maternal grandfather was a German merchant who left the country during the First World War.

Ellen Johnson’s mother was a teacher, her father an attorney, and the first indigenous Liberian to serve in the country’s legislature, a body long dominated by the descendants of the American settlers. Her parents placed a high value on education, and young Ellen received her secondary education at the prestigious College of West Africa in Monrovia, the nation’s capital from 1948 to 1955. She married James Sirleaf when she was seventeen years old. The couple had four sons together and with four sons born in rapid succession, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf settled into the role of homemaker, while many of her school friends embarked on professional careers. James Sirleaf worked in Liberia’s Department of Agriculture. To augment the family income, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper for an auto repair shop. When her husband was offered the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the United States, the Sirleafs left their children in the care of grandparents and made the trip to America together.

While her husband pursued a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture, Ellen studied accounting at the Madison College of Business. On their return to Liberia, he resumed work in the Agriculture Department while, in 1965, she entered the Treasury Department, later known as the Ministry of Finance. The pressure of two careers placed a strain on the Sirleafs’ marriage. When her husband became violent and abusive, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf filed for divorce. After the dissolution of her marriage, she continued her education in the United States, earning an economics degree from the University of Colorado. In 1971, she completed a master’s in public administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


Johnson Sirleaf served as assistant minister of finance (1972 to 1973) under Pres. William Tolbert and as finance minister (1980 to 1985) in Samuel K. Doe’s military dictatorship. She became known for her personal financial integrity and clashed with both heads of state.

On April 12, 1980, a cadre of non-commissioned officers, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, staged a coup d’état. President Tolbert and twenty-six of his followers were killed on the day of the coup. Ten days later, 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet were executed in public. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and three other ministers were spared, but life in Liberia would soon become dangerous for anyone who opposed Doe and his allies. Johnson Sirleaf served briefly as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), but her situation soon became impossible and she fled the country.

After a tentative truce had been reached in Liberia’s conflict, Johnson Sirleaf ran for president in the 1997 election, representing the Unity Party (UP). She finished second to Charles Taylor and was forced back into exile when his government charged her with treason. By 1999 Liberia’s civil war had resumed. After Taylor went into exile in 2003, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to chair the commission on good governance, which oversaw preparations for democratic elections. In 2005 she again ran for president, vowing to end civil strife and corruption, establish unity, and rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure. Known as the “Iron Lady,” she placed second in the first round of voting, and on Nov. 8, 2005, she won the runoff election, defeating football (soccer) legend George Weah. Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as president of Liberia on Jan. 16, 2006.

With more than 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country and unemployment running at 80 percent, Johnson Sirleaf faced serious challenges. She immediately sought debt amelioration and aid from the international community. By late 2010 Liberia’s entire debt had been erased, and Johnson Sirleaf had secured millions of dollars of foreign investment in the country. In addition, she established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in 2006 to probe corruption and heal ethnic tensions.

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Ironically, in 2009 Johnson Sirleaf was mentioned in one of the TRC’s reports, which recommended that she, along with a number of others, be banned from holding elective office for 30 years for having supported warring factions in the civil war. In Johnson Sirleaf’s case, she had supported Taylor for a time very early in the war. The report’s recommendations were not binding, though, and she was buoyed by a widespread demonstration of both domestic and international support. Efforts toward eradicating corruption which was a significant problem that Johnson Sirleaf had pledged to end, included the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2008.

Despite having previously pledged to serve only one term as president, in 2010 Johnson Sirleaf announced her intent to stand in the October 2011 presidential election, stating that she still had work to do. A month before the election, however, Johnson Sirleaf’s eligibility was challenged in court by a small opposition group that pointed to a provision of the constitution that stated that all presidential candidates were to have resided in Liberia for 10 years prior to an election, a requirement that Johnson Sirleaf and several other candidates did not meet and one that the government had tried but failed to have changed via referendum in August 2011. Six days before the election the Supreme Court dismissed the challenge, noting that the writers of the 1986 constitution could not have foreseen the years of conflict that forced many Liberians to live outside the country. Additional pre election controversy was generated when Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize mere days before the poll. Other candidates complained that the Nobel Committee was interfering with Liberian politics by awarding the prize so close to the election.

More than a dozen candidates stood in the Oct. 11, 2011, election. Johnson Sirleaf was the top vote getter, with more than 43 percent of the vote, followed by Winston Tubman, running with Weah as his vice presidential candidate who garnered about 32 percent. As Johnson Sirleaf did not win more than 50 percent, a runoff election was held on November 8. It did not go as smoothly as the first round of voting, however. Tubman and the Congress for Democratic Change party had raised allegations of voting irregularities in the first round. Although these allegations were widely dismissed as being unsubstantiated, they still cast a pall on the second round of voting, as Tubman announced that he was dropping out of the race and called for voters to boycott the election. Though Johnson Sirleaf was reelected with slightly more than 90 percent of the vote, her victory was clouded by Tubman’s withdrawal and low voter turnout, which was less than half that of the first round.

Although, Johnson Sirleaf’s administration had made efforts to curb corruption, it continued to be a problem during her second term. Complaints of nepotism also hit the administration, with Johnson Sirleaf herself coming under fire in 2012 because some of her children had high-level jobs in government or state-owned enterprises. Economic progress continued during Johnson Sirleaf’s second term until the country was hit with the devastating Ebola virus disease in 2014. Over the course of the next two years, the disease killed more than 4,800 Liberians, crippled the country’s economy, and erased many of the country’s hard-fought gains of the previous postwar decade.

As the country attempted to recover from Ebola, Johnson Sirleaf, constitutionally limited to two terms as president, prepared to step down after the 2017 presidential election. Her running mate of the previous two elections and current vice president of Liberia, Joseph Boakai, became the presidential candidate of her political party, the Unity Party (UP). After the first round of voting, however, she was accused by the UP of having supported another presidential candidate: her previous opponent, George Weah. Although she vigorously denied the accusations, the charges persisted, and in January 2018 the UP expelled her from the party. Later that month, on Jan. 22, she stepped down as president of Liberia, handing power to Weah, who had emerged as the winner of the second round of voting. It was the first transfer of power between democratically elected leaders in Liberia since 1944.

In recognition of Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership of Liberia during the challenging period of transition after the country’s devastating years of conflict and for the positive changes that took place in Liberia under her administration, in February 2018 she was awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The award provided $5 million, disbursed over 10 years, followed by an annual $200,000 stipend for the rest of Johnson Sirleaf’s life. It also brought the possibility of the foundation awarding $200,000 annually over the course of 10 years to charitable causes supported by Johnson Sirleaf.

By executive order, Johnson Sirleaf established a right to free, universal elementary education. She also enforced equal rights for women, rights that were routinely ignored and abused during the chaotic years of civil war. Among other infrastructure projects, her administration built over 800 miles of roads, attracting substantial foreign investment in mining, agriculture, and forestry, as well as offshore oil exploration. A strong ally of the United States, President Johnson Sirleaf addressed a joint session of the United States Congress shortly after her inauguration. Liberia also won support from China for construction of a new national university. President Johnson Sirleaf placed a high importance on African and regional relations as well. She chairs the Mano River Union, fostering peace and economic cooperation among the neighboring nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.

President Johnson Sirleaf set a new precedent for an African president, making good on her promise to retire after serving two full terms. She declined to endorse the nominee of the Unity Party, Vice President Joseph Boakai, and instead threw her support to a former opponent, George Weah, a retired soccer star who enjoyed enormous popularity with the Liberian public. Johnson Sirleaf’s choice, George Weah, won a decisive victory in the 2017 election. Johnson Sirleaf’s former supporters expelled her from the Unity Party, while she prepared Liberia for a peaceful transition of power from one party to another.

In January 2018, Mr. Weah was sworn in as President of Liberia, the country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 73 years. A month later, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In making the award, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation cited Johnson Sirleaf’s “transformative leadership” of a country “devastated and broken by 14 years of civil war.” The prize, endowed by the Sudanese-born British philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, is awarded only to democratically-elected African leaders who leave office at the end of their constitutionally mandated terms.

A grandmother of eight, President Johnson Sirleaf has become a popular symbol of democracy and women’s rights, not only in her own country but throughout Africa and the developing world. In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with women’s rights campaigners Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel Committee credited Johnson Sirleaf’s contribution to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.


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