Ellen Johnson Sirleaf : Africa’s first female democratically elected head of state
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician and economist who became the first woman in Africa to be democratically elected as the head of state.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, Liberia, on October 29, 1938. Sirleaf was of mixed Gola and German heritage. Her father was the first indigenous Liberian to sit in the national legislature. After schooling, Sirleaf attended the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She was married to Johnson Sirleaf at the age of 17. The couple later got divorced.
In 1961, Sirleaf went to the United States to study economics and business administration. In 1971, she obtained her Master’s degree from Harvard University. After her higher studies, Sirleaf entered the government service in Liberia.
In the 1972-73 period, Sirleaf served as the assistant minister of finance under Pres. William Tolbert. During the military dictatorship of Samuel K. Doe in the 1980-85 period, she was the finance minister. Sirleaf was known for her financial integrity. Because of this, she clashed with both heads of state, and she had to face severe repercussions. During Doe’s regime, Sirleaf was imprisoned twice and narrowly avoided execution.
In the 1985 national election, she openly criticised the military government and campaigned for a seat in the Senate. This led to her arrest, and she got a 10-year prison sentence. However, she was released shortly, and the government allowed her to leave the country.
Sirleaf spent her two years of exile in Kenya and the United States. During this time, Liberia collapsed into a civil war. Sirleaf spending her exile, rose to prominence as an influential economist for the World Bank, Citibank and other major international financial institutions. From 1992-1997, Sirleaf held the position of the director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme.
When the civil war was temporarily halted in Liberia, Sirleaf ran for the presidential post in the 1997 elections. She only finished second to Charles Taylor. His government charged Sirleaf with treason, and she had to go back into exile. In 1999, the civil war in Liberia resumed. When Taylor went into exile in 2003, Sirleaf returned to Liberia as the chairperson of the Commission on Good Governance. This commission oversaw the preparations for a democratic election.
In 2005, Sirleaf ran again for president. During the campaign, she vowed to end civil strife and corruption, establish unity and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. In the first round of voting, she was in the second position. However, on November 8, 2005, she won the runoff election. She defeated George Weah, a soccer legend. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the president of Liberia on January 16, 2006.
Sirleaf had to face severe challenges during her tenure. She immediately sought financial help from the international community. By 2010, she could wipe out the country’s entire debt, and she had secured millions of foreign investments in the country.
In 2006, Sirleaf set up Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) to probe corruption and heal ethnic tension. She also established the Anti-Corruption Commission to prevent corruption. Even though she did her best to end corruption, it was also an issue in her second tenure.
In 2011, Sirleaf won the Nobel Prize for Peace along with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmān for their efforts to further women’s rights. However, the timing of the award created controversy in Liberia as she was awarded the prize just days before the national election. Even though there were many controversies surrounding Sirleaf, she won the elections. Constitutionally limited to two terms as president, Sirleaf stepped down in 2017.
In recognition of Sirleaf’s leadership, she was awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in 2018. The award provided $5 million disbursed over ten years. It was also followed by an annual stipend of $200,000 for the rest of Sirleaf’s life. It also brought the possibility of the foundation awarding $200,000 annually over 10 years to charitable causes supported by Johnson Sirleaf.