|Written by:||Meshack Masibo|
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state. With her candor and reformative ideologies Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one woman to celebrate.
Born in Liberia in 1938 to a Gola father and Kru-German mother, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was schooled in the United States before serving in the government of her native Liberia. During her younger years as a graduate of the College of West Africa at Monrovia, she went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in accounting from the Madison Business College in Madison, Wisconsin, a degree in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard University.
She returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert ‘s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974 and later went to work in the Caribbean and Latin America. She returned to work for the late president Tolbert’s government again as deputy minister of Finance before being promoted to the post of Minister of Finance from 1979 to 1980. Whilst in that position, she attracted attention with a “bombshell” speech to the Liberian Chamber of Commerce that claimed that the country’s corporations were harming the economy by hoarding or sending their profits overseas.
In 1980, Tolbert was overthrown and killed by army sergeant Samuel Doe, who represented the Krahn ethnic group. Master Sergeant Samuel Doe , a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup on 12th April 1980; he ordered the assassination of Tolbert and execution by firing squad of all but four members of his Cabinet. The People’s Redemption Council took control of the country and led a purge against the previous government. Sirleaf initially accepted a post in the new government as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment . She fled the country in November 1980 after publicly criticizing Doe and the People’s Redemption Council for their management of the country.
She went into exile in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as in the United States, where she worked as an executive in the international banking community. In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and ran for a seat in the Senate, but when she spoke out against Doe’s military regime, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She served a partial sentence before moving to Washington, D.C. When she returned to her native country for a third time in 1997, it was as an economist, working for the World Bank and Citibank in Africa.
After supporting Charles Taylor’s bloody rebellion against President Samuel Doe in 1990, Johnson Sirleaf ran unsuccessfully against Taylor in the 1997 presidential election. Taylor subsequently charged Johnson Sirleaf with treason. In 2005, after campaigning for the removal of President Taylor, Johnson Sirleaf took over as leader of the Unity Party. That year, promising economic development and an end to corruption and civil war, she was elected as the Liberian President. When she was inaugurated in 2006, Johnson Sirleaf, or the “Iron Lady,” as she was also known, became the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state.
Despite Charles Taylor’s large number of followers in Liberian government, including his son-in-law and estranged wife, President Johnson Sirleaf submitted an official request to Nigeria for Taylor’s extradition in 2006. Five years later, she shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, awarded “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
In her efforts to bring justice to her people in Liberia, she has spent more than a year in jail at the hands of the military dictatorship of General Samuel Doe and had her life threatened by former President Charles Taylor. She campaigned relentlessly for Taylor’s removal from office and played an active and supportive role in the Transitional Government of Liberia as the country prepared for elections in October of 2005.
President Johnson Sirleaf was a presidential candidate in the 1997 Liberia general election where she finished second in the field of 13. Before that, she served for five years as Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Program as Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and was the first woman to lead the United Nations Development Project for Africa. She served as the Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission of the National Transitional Government of Liberia until she resigned in March 2004 to accept the nomination of the Unity Party of Liberia as the party’s leader.
In November 2005, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia and became the first woman to lead an African nation. In the elections she defeated popular world-class soccer star George Weah with an impressive 59.4 percent of the vote. In October 2007, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civil award, for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expanding freedom and improving the lives of people in Liberia and across Africa. And in 2010, as the only female and African Head of State, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was named by Newsweek Magazine as one of the World Top Ten Leaders. Sirleaf was conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12th September 2013 and in 2016, she was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.