ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Africa’s First Female Head Of State

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Africa’s First Female Head Of State

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born Ellen Eugenia Johnson, 29 October 1938) is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa. She completed her education in the United States, where she studied at Madison Business College and Harvard University.

She returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert‘s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974. Later she worked again in the West, for the World Bank in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1979, she received a cabinet appointment as Minister of Finance, serving to 1980.

After Samuel Doe seized power that year in a coup d’état and executed Tolbert, Sirleaf fled to the United States. She worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank. Returning to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado County in 1985, an election that was disputed.

Sirleaf continued to be involved in politics. She finished in second place at the 1997 presidential election, which was won by Charles Taylor.

She went on to win the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. She was re-elected in 2011. She was the first woman in Africa elected as president of her country. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, in recognition of her efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process. She has received numerous other awards for her leadership.

In June 2016, 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.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF BACKGROUND

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is of mixed Gola and Kru-German ancestry. Her father was Gola and her mother had mixed Kru and German ancestry.

She is in fact Americo-Liberian in terms of ancestry, because of her parents’ upbringing and her own education in the West, Sirleaf is considered to be culturally Americo-Liberian, or assumed to be Americo-Liberian. Her parents both grew up in Monrovia, a center of Americo-Liberian influence.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attended the College of West Africa, a preparatory school, from 1948 to 1955. She married James Sirleaf when she was seventeen years old. The couple had four sons together, and she was primarily occupied as a homemaker. Early on in their marriage, James worked for the Department of Agriculture, and Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper for an auto-repair shop.

She traveled with her husband to the United States in 1961 to continue her education and earned an associate degree in Accounting at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Upon their return to Liberia, James continued his work in the Agriculture Department and Sirleaf pursued a career in the Treasury Department (Ministry of Finance). They divorced in 1961 as a result of her husband’s abuse.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to college to finish her bachelor’s degree. In 1970, she earned a BA in economics from the Economics Institute of the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also spent a summer preparing for graduate studies.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf studied economics and public policy at Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1969 to 1971, gaining a Master of Public Administration

She returned to her native Liberia to work in the administration of William Tolbert, where she was appointed as Assistant Minister of Finance. Whilst in that position, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attracted attention after a bombshell speech calling out the government on its ineptitude.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Political Career

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as Assistant Minister from 1972 to 1973 in the Tolbert administration. She resigned after a disagreement about government spending. Subsequently, she was appointed as Minister of Finance a few years later, serving from 1979 to April 1980.

Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup on 12 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.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf initially moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the World Bank. In 1981, she moved to NairobiKenya to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank.

She resigned from Citibank in 1985 following her involvement at the 1985 general election in Liberia. She went to work for Equator Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC.

In 1992, Sirleaf was appointed as the Director of the United Nations Development Programme‘s Regional Bureau for Africa at the rank of Assistant Administrator and Assistant Secretary General (ASG).

She resigned from this role in 1997 in order to run for the presidency of Liberia. During her time at the UN, she was one of the seven internationally eminent persons designated in 1999 by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide, one of the five Commission Chairs for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, and one of the two international experts selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peace building.

She was the initial Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).

While working at Citibank, Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President under Jackson Doe on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the 1985 elections. However, Sirleaf was placed under house arrest in August 1985 and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition, as a consequence of a speech in which she insulted the members of the Samuel Doe regime.

Following international calls for her release, Samuel Doe pardoned and released her in September. Due to government pressure, she was removed from the presidential ticket and instead ran for a Senate seat in Montserrado County.

In the 1985 elections, Samuel Doe and the National Democratic Party won the presidency and large majorities in both houses. The elections were widely condemned as neither free nor fair. Sirleaf was declared the winner of her Senate race, but she refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud.

After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on 12 November 1985, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on 13 November by Doe’s forces. Despite continuing to refuse to accept her seat in the Senate, she was released in July 1986. She secretly fled the country to the United States later that year.

FIRST PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

At the beginning of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf supported Charles Taylor‘s rebellion against Doe. She helped raise money for the war and founded the National Patriotic Front of Liberia with Taylor and Tom Woewiyu. Because of this, Doe’s government recommended that Sirleaf be banned from politics in Liberia for 30 years.

But, she later opposed Taylor’s handling of the war and his treatment of rival opposition leaders such as Jackson Doe. By 1996, the presence of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeepers led to a cessation of hostilities.

The nation held the 1997 general election, which Sirleaf returned to Liberia to contest. She ran as the presidential candidate for the Unity Party and placed second in a controversial election, getting 25% of the vote to Charles Taylor’s 75%.

After controversy about the results and being accused of treason, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf left Liberia and went into exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

SECOND PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

After the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate for chairman of the government. Ultimately, Gyude Bryant, a political neutral, was chosen as chairman, while Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission.

Sirleaf stood for president as the candidate of the Unity Party in the 2005 general election. She placed second in the first round of voting behind George Weah, a former footballer. In the subsequent run-off election, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf earned 59% of the vote versus 40% for Weah, though Weah disputed the results.

The announcement of the new leader was postponed until further election investigations were carried out. On 23 November 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president and the first woman to be elected as president of an African country.

Her inauguration took place on 16 January 2006. It was attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush.

In January 2010, Sirleaf announced that she would run for a second term in office in the 2011 presidential election while speaking to a joint session of the Legislature. Opposition leaders noted that in doing so, she had broken a promise made during her 2005 campaign to only serve one term if elected.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was re-nominated as the Unity Party’s presidential candidate at the party’s national convention on 31 October 2010. That same day, she nominated Vice President Joseph Boakai and his appointment was confirmed by the delegates as Sirleaf’s running mate.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Sirleaf four days prior to the election sparked criticism from opposition parties, with Congress for Democratic Change candidate Winston Tubman calling the award “undeserved” and “a political interference in our country’s politics. “Sirleaf called the timing of the award a coincidence and avoided mentioning the award during the final days of campaigning.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf garnered 43.9% of the vote in the first round, more than any other candidate but short of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off. Tubman came in second with 32.7%, pitting him against Sirleaf in the second round.

Tubman called for a boycott of the run-off, claiming that the results of the first round had been fraudulent. Sirleaf denied the allegations, and international observers reported that the first round election had been free, fair and transparent. As a result of the boycott, Sirleaf won the second round with 90.7% of the vote, though voter turnout significantly declined from the first round. 

Following the election, Sirleaf announced the creation of a “national peace and reconciliation initiative,” led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, to address the country’s divisions and begin “a national dialogue that would bring us together.” She took the presidential oath for her second presidency on 16 January 2012.

Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st most powerful woman in the world in 2006. In 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, while Time counted her among the top ten female leaders.

That same year, The Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had.” In 2010, Sirleaf released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf serves as an international inspiration to many women, both young am old, all across Africa and the world. Her story is one of a lifetime of dedication to her people and the sheer will to reach the peak of affairs of her country in order to bring about the sanctity of peace and togetherness.

By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.

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