Inspiring Thursday: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Of course, I am the first democratically elected woman president in Africa, and that raises a lot of expectations. Because I represent the aspirations of women all over Africa, I must succeed for them. I must keep the door open for women’s participation in politics at the highest level. That is both humbling and exciting.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Liberian politician and economist who was president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was the first woman to be elected head of state of an African country. Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for her efforts to further women’s rights and for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
She was educated at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She moved to the United States with her husband in 1961 to study economics and business administration. After obtaining a master’s degree (1971) in public administration from Harvard University, she entered government service in Liberia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as Assistant Minister of Finance (1972–73) and as Finance Minister (1980–85).
During the 80s Liberian dictatorship regime, Johnson Sirleaf was imprisoned twice and narrowly avoided execution. In the 1985 national election she campaigned for a seat in the Senate and openly criticized the military government, which led to her arrest and a 10-year prison sentence. She was released after a short time and allowed to leave the country. She spent 12 years in exile between Kenya and the United States, during which time Liberia collapsed into civil war. In exile, Johnson Sirleaf became an influential economist for the World Bank, Citibank, and other international financial institutions. From 1992 to 1997 she was the director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme.
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 and was forced back into exile when the government charged her with treason. By 1999 Liberia’s civil war had resumed and in 2003, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to chair the Commission on Good Governance, which oversaw preparations for democratic elections.
I do not face any particular problems as a woman president because I have been a professional for a long time. I keep telling people: I am a technocrat who happens to be a woman.
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 of Liberia,” she placed second in the first round of voting, and on November 2005, she won the runoff elections.
With more than 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country and unemployment running at 80%, Johnson Sirleaf’s governance 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 investments in the country.
In 2010 Johnson Sirleaf announced her intent to stand in the October 2011 presidential election, stating that she still had work to do. In the pre-election climate she was also appointed to win the Nobel Prize for her work on women’s right and empowerment, together with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmān.
Johnson Sirleaf was re-elected with slightly more than 90% of the vote at the runoff elections. Although Johnson Sirleaf’s administration had made efforts to curb corruption, it continued to be a problem during her second term. 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 2014-2016, 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.
In June 2016, Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold the position since it was created.
In 2018 Johnson Sirleaf founded the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women“.
Written by WAVE intern Diva Adelaide Edosini