Success Story from Liberia: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s First Female President


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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938. She attended the College of West Africa at Monrovia, moved to the USA with her husband in 1961, and went on to receive three degrees from US-based institutions: a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the Madison Business College in 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 the government of President William Tolbert, as the Assistant Minister of Finance. While in that position, she gave a speech in the Liberian Chamber of Commerce in which she charged the country’s corporations with harming the economy by sending their profits overseas or hoarding them. A military coup by Samuel Doe in 1980 led to President Tolbert being overthrown and killed and Ms. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile in Kenya and the USA. She returned to Liberia once again in 1985, but was forced to leave the country when she spoke out against the military regime. In 1990, President Doe was assassinated.

In 1992, Ms. Sirleaf was appointed as the Director of the United Nations Development Programme‘s Regional Bureau for Africa. During her time with the UN she was one of seven eminent persons designated in 1999 by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide. She also was one of the five Commission Chairs for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and one of two international experts chosen by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women as well as women’s roles in peace building. She was the initial Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration.

In 1997, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf resigned from the UN and returned to Liberia for a third time to run in the presidential election. Although she only secured a small percentage of the votes in the 1997 election, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 presidential election. She was inaugurated in 2006 and became the world’s first black female President and the first female elected head of state in Africa.

In 2006, Ms. Sirleaf established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a mandate to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating Liberia’s more than 20 years of civil conflict. The TRC issued its final report in June 2009. The report recommended that 50 people, including Johnson Sirleaf not be allowed to hold public office. Nonetheless, in 2011, Johnson Sirleaf was re-elected as President of Liberia and along with two other women, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.

Although President Johnson Sirleaf has had widespread support in the West, she has her critics, including Leymah Gbowee. Gbowee resigned from the TRC in late 2012 and spoke out against Johnson Sirleaf for granting her sons lucrative governmental jobs and not doing enough to fight corruption and poverty. President Johnson Sirleaf has stood by her decisions and suspended one of her sons from his post as deputy governor of the central bank for failing to declare all of his assets.

In addition to her Nobel Prize, President Johnson Sirleaf has been recognized with numerous other prestigious honors and awards including: a Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech Award (1988), Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award, the titles of Grand commander Star of Africa Redemption of Liberia and Commandeur de l’Ordre du Togo (Commander of the Order of Togo). She has been awarded numerous honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from US institutions, including from Marquette University (2006), Indiana University (2008), Brown University (2008), Dartmouth College (2008), Yale University (2010), and Harvard University (2011). Other honors have included a Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007), EITI Award (2009), African Editors’ Union Friend of the Media in Africa Award (2010), African Gender Award (2011), an Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (2012). In 2014, President Johnson Sirleaf was listed as the 70th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has President Johnson Sirleaf been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

She has juggled enemies and allies while helping Liberia on its first sustained course of economic growth in decades. President Sirleaf has helped reduce the national debt. She also has improved access to health services through her support for innovative programs and has urged the world to help her country combat the Ebola crisis. Liberia has not received as much support from outsiders as she had hoped and Johnson Sirleaf has earned some additional criticism with regard to not doing enough about corruption and insufficient progress toward national development when outsiders entered Liberia in numbers during the Ebola crisis.

Nonetheless, she has remained OPTIMISTIC in the face of great challenges. She has navigated decades of violence and the horrors of war and made it through stints in jail where her life was in danger because of her beliefs. Her unwavering strength has led to Ms. Sirleaf being known as the ‘Iron Lady.’ President Johnson Sirleaf has gained the support of philanthropists and foreign governments that want to see Liberia succeed.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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