Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President of Liberia

Born October 29, 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia; married James Sirleaf, c. 1955 (divorced); children: four sons. Education: Madison Business College, BBA (accounting), 1964; University of Colorado, BA (economics), 1970; Harvard University, MPA, 1971.

Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of Liberia, 5201 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20011.


Worked for the World Bank, 1970s; finance minister of Liberia, 1979–80; president of the Liberian National Bank, 1980s; vice-president and Africa representative for Citibank, 1980s; elected to Liberian Senate (did not serve), 1985; Africa director for the United Nations Development Program, 1990s; ran unsuccessfully for presidency of Liberia, 1996; head of Liberia's Governance Reform Commission, c. 2003–05; elected president of Liberia, 2005; inaugurated, 2006.

Member: Organization for African Unity on the Rwandan genocide panel, late 1990s–early 2000s.


When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated president of Liberia in January of 2006, she not only became the first elected female president in Africa, but also the focus of hope for a country that had seen little of it for 26 years. Since a 1980 coup, Liberia, a nation of three million people in West Africa, had suffered through military dictatorships and civil wars that left it impoverished, indebted, and in mourning. More than 250,000 Liberians had died in the civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, and hundreds of thousands more had been displaced. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, was elected on promises to root out the widespread corruption in the government and redevelop the country. She had a daunting task ahead of her, with most of the country unemployed, without schools, electricity, or running water. But Liberians, who had followed her career opposing Liberia's scheming past leaders, had placed their hopes on her. Her two popular nicknames, "Ma" and the "Iron Lady," reflected the combination of feminine caring and political toughness she projected.

Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in 1938. Her mother was a teacher who would travel by canoe from one school to another. Sirleaf studied in Liberian schools, then went to the United States to earn three more degrees. She worked as a waitress and at a drugstore in Madison, Wisconsin, while attending business school there, then earned a degree in economics from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. Meanwhile, her early marriage to James Sirleaf produced four sons but ended in divorce.

In the late 1970s, Sirleaf began to criticize the economic policies of Liberian president William Tolbert. In 1979, after protests of a proposed increase in the state-subsidized price of rice turned into riots that threatened Tolbert's government, Tolbert appointed Sirleaf as his minister of finance, hoping his former critic could help give his presidency a new direction. Washington Post writer Leon Dash found Sirleaf working in March of 1980 to attract international investors, prospect for oil, and move the Liberian economy from iron ore, which left it at the mercy of the volatile steel market, to tropical tree crops such as oil palm, coffee, and cocoa. But a month later, Tolbert was assassinated during a military coup that installed a young Army sergeant, Samuel Doe, in power. The new government made Sirleaf president of the Liberian National Bank, but she resigned to protest human-rights violations by the regime. She became the Africa representative for the American finance giant Citibank.

Twice in 1985, the Doe regime imprisoned Sirleaf. First, she was charged with treason after criticizing the Doe regime's economic policy in a speech to Liberian-American groups in Philadelphia in July. In the speech, she called for less government intervention in the economy, the construction of fewer large buildings, and more rural development. Government officials also claimed she had called them idiots who were practicing nepotism. Doe claimed that her comments were "detrimental to the peace and stability" of the country, according to Joe Ritchie of the Washington Post, and suggested that the political party she belonged to was implicated in a coup plot. She was placed in a military stockade in August, convicted in a closed military trial, and sentenced to ten years in prison, moves condemned by the U.S. State Department. But a few weeks later, under pressure from the United States government to hold free elections, Doe ordered her and other jailed politicians freed.

Sirleaf ran for Liberia's senate in the October of 1985 elections and won, but her victory was hollow. Doe declared himself the winner of the presidential election, while observers claimed that the candidate from Sirleaf's Liberian Action Party had actually won. Sirleaf announced that she and other members of her party would not serve in the new legislature. "Both the American people and the Liberian people have been defrauded," she declared, according to Blaine Harden of the Washington Post. A coup attempt followed in November, and the Doe regime accused Sirleaf of funding it. Drunken soldiers seized her and she was thrown in prison, along with several other opposition politicians. "As we were going, they told me they were going to take me to the beach and bury me alive," she told Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times. "They started in that direction, changed their minds, put me through tortures, put matches to my hair. They said, 'We're going to burn your hair off,' but didn't do it. They would come as close as possible. It clearly was just meant to terrorize me. That particular night in prison, anything could have happened." Men in her cell were taken away and executed; a soldier approached her intending to rape her, but an officer saved her. She was released after seven months and went into exile in the United States.

In December of 1989, a rebel group led by ex-government minister Charles Taylor launched a civil war to depose Doe. One of his allies, Prince Johnson, soon broke away from Taylor to lead his own force. At first, Sirleaf supported Taylor. Before the war, when Taylor had been working with exiles in the United States to build opposition to Doe, she raised $10,000 for him. "This is not a war being waged to bring the two rebel leaders to power," she wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in August of 1990. "It is a desperate attempt to try to end the brutal and corrupt reign of terror [of] Samuel Doe." A month later, Prince Johnson's forces brutally executed Doe. In 1991, during peace talks, Taylor briefly suggested that he, Sirleaf, and a member of the interim government that replaced Doe should govern the country until elections. However, Sirleaf distanced herself from Taylor as the civil war continued and devolved into ethnic killing, as Taylor developed a stronger reputation for brutality, and as Sirleaf realized that she had been wrong about him—that he was after power.

By 1996, when peace briefly came to Liberia and elections were scheduled for July, Sirleaf left her job as Africa director for the United Nations Development Program, returned to Liberia, and ran against Taylor for the presidency. "We want to carry the message to every county, every hamlet, every village that people can be free from fear now," she said on a Monrovia radio broadcast, according to Karen Lange of the Washington Post. Sirleaf finished a distant second to Taylor. Observers said many Liberians associated Sirleaf and the several other opposition candidates with the failed governing elites of the past, while Taylor had developed a mystique as a strong leader.

But by 1999, Taylor was facing international condemnation for supporting the brutal rebels fighting a civil war in Liberia's neighbor, Sierra Leone. A new group of Liberian rebels rose up against him. Sirleaf, back in exile, sharply criticized United States President Bill Clinton at the National Summit on Africa in Washington, D.C. for not intervening in the war in Sierra Leone. She also criticized the weakness of the United Nations peacekeeping force sent to Sierra Leone, which was not allowed to take aggressive action when war broke out again after a cease-fire. "If the terms of engagement allow you to do nothing but stand and watch, what's the point?" she asked, according to Steven Mufson of the Washington Post. By then, Sirleaf's words carried added moral authority, because the Organization of African Unity had appointed her as a member of a panel investigating another murderous crisis the international community had failed to prevent: the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Sirleaf, named the head of Liberia's opposition Unity Party, returned to Liberia in April of 2002 to prepare for elections scheduled for October of 2003. The same week she returned, Taylor banned all political rallies. "I did not realize that I was that powerful. Maybe I am," she told reporters who asked if she thought Taylor ban was aimed at her, according to the Washington Post. (Taylor said he feared rebel groups, which had advanced near Monrovia, would attack public gatherings.)

Taylor left office and went into exile in Nigeria in August of 2003, two months after a United Nations tribunal indicted him on war-crimes charges for his role supporting the rebels in Sierra Leone. At peace talks in Accra, Ghana, delegates from the Liberian government and rebel forces considered choosing Sirleaf as chairman of a new interim government for Liberia, but instead chose businessman Gyude Bryant. When the peace deal set late 2005 as the new date for elections, Sirleaf announced that she was considering running for president again. The peace deal also created a Governance Reform Commission, and Sirleaf was named its chairperson.

By then, Liberia was in ruins. Four out of five Liberians were unemployed, most of the country's schools had been closed for years, and most of its citizens were living without running water or electricity. Since the army and police force were equally degraded, 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers were patrolling the country to provide security. During her 2005 run for president, Sirleaf promised to fight corruption, promote economic development, and restore electricity to Monrovia within six months. Her most popular promise among Liberian women may have been to get Liberia's children back into school.

Sirleaf's opponents attacked her for having supported Taylor years earlier. Varney Sherman, another presidential candidate, bellowed at Sirleaf in a debate, according to Lane Hartill of the Washington Post: "What have you done to advance the cause of the common people? You funded the destruction of this country!" Sirleaf replied that she had made a mistake in supporting Taylor, and that once she realized it, she had done her part to oppose him. "We accepted him at face value," she said, according to Hartill. "He represented for us the pressure that we needed to bring on Doe. He was only after power himself and personal enrichment. He was a criminal at heart."

Soccer star George Weah emerged as Sirleaf's main opponent. However, Sirleaf had the advantage of being much better educated than Weah. Also, being a woman helped her win the trust of Liberian voters. "Men had ruled the country for 100 years, and it failed," she explained to Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Weah claimed fraud, but the country's National Election Commission certified her as the winner, and international election observers called the elections free and fair.

Sirleaf was inaugurated on January 16, 2006. Guests at the ceremony included United States First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, South African president Thabo Mbeki, and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. "We recognize this change is not a change for change's sake, but a fundamental break with the past," she said in her inaugural address, as quoted by Hans Nichols of the Washington Post. She promised to "take bold and decisive steps to address the problems that have for decades stunted our progress."

On her first trip abroad as president, Westerners often asked Sirleaf about the fate of ex-president Taylor. He was still living in exile in Nigeria, still wanted for trial before the war-crimes tribunal, but Obasanjo said he would only extradite Taylor if an elected Liberian government requested it. In March, realizing that bringing Taylor to justice would help attract Western financial aid, Sirleaf requested that Nigeria extradite him. After a brief escape, Taylor was arrested near Nigeria's border with Cameroon, sent to Liberia, then quickly sent to Sierra Leone to face trial. Sirleaf's decision pleased Western governments and human-rights advocates, but infuriated Taylor supporters, from some Liberians to Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Her security force foiled plots to assassinate her.

A year into Sirleaf's presidency, she could claim some partial successes. An internationally sponsored office, the Governance and Economic Man-agement Assistance Program, was monitoring public spending and negotiating better terms for the government on several contracts, one reason government revenues had increased by 50 percent. Some parts of Monrovia had received water and electrical service by early 2007. The economy had grown by eight percent. But half of the country's children were still not in school. United Nations troops, not Liberian forces, were still providing most of the security in Monrovia. Emergency assistance for the country was beginning to run out, and Sirleaf found herself asking for more funds. In her January state of the nation address, Sirleaf detailed plans to improve security in the country as well as her plans to set up a viable farming industry.

Sirleaf went to Washington, D.C. in February of 2007 seeking relief from Liberia's debts. The impoverished country owed $3.7 billion to international investors, eight times its annual gross domestic product, 30 times the value of its annual exports, and more than $1,000 per citizen of the country of three million. Most of the debt had been rung up by the Doe and Taylor regimes, and the new government, like many in the developing world, was stuck making huge debt payments rather than spending more of its tax revenue on the needs of its people. Sirleaf had powerful support for her mission. Her plea for debt relief, published in the Wall Street Journal that February, was co-authored by Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank and former member of George W. Bush's administration. A few days later, Rice announced that the United States would forgive Liberia's $391 million debt to it and grant Liberia $200 million in new aid, on top of $500 million it had granted earlier. Bush encouraged other holders of Liberian debt to write off those debts as well.

Observers warned that Sirleaf had only a limited window of opportunity to improve the standard of living in Liberia before its citizens turned again to despair and cynicism. But in early 2007, a popular Liberian hip-hop song about Sirleaf, called "Letter to the President," expressed Liberians' optimism about Sirleaf's leadership, their attachment to her motherly personality, and their extreme need for help. "Hello, Ma," the lyrics say (as quoted by Dixon in the Los Angeles Times). "See, what we need is change, a change from suffering, a change from poverty. You can make it, Ma. We trust you; that's why we voted for you."



AllAfrica, February 14, 2007.

Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1985, sec. News, p. 4; July 22, 1990, sec. Perspective, p. 1; December 3, 2005, sec. Editorial, p. 24; May 15, 2006, sec. Commentary, p. 21.

Glamour, November 2006, p. 170, pp. 179-81.

Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2007, p. A1.

Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007, p. A25.

Washington Post, March 3, 1980, p. A18; April 13, 1980, p. A1; August 16, 1985, p. A28; August 24, 1985, p. A20; September 26, 1985, p. A29; October 30, 1985, p. A31; November 18, 1985, p. A24; August 24, 1990, p. A26; March 24, 1991, p. A28; July 22, 1997, p. A17; August 10, 1997, p. C4; February 18, 2000, p. A17; May 8, 2000, p. A1; April 30, 2002, p. A16; August 22, 2003, p. A13; October 5, 2005, p. A16; December 16, 2005, p. C1; January 17, 2006, p. A11; March 18, 2006, p. A17; March 22, 2006, p. A17; March 31, 2006, p. A15.

Washington Times, January 25, 2007, p. A15.


"Johnson-Sirleaf claims Liberia win," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/11/10/Liberia.ap/index.html (November 14, 2005).

"New leader's pledge: Unite Liberia," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/01/16/liberia/ (January 17, 2006).

"Profile: Liberia's 'Iron Lady,'" BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4395978.stm (February 9, 2007).

"Woman wins historic Liberia vote," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/11/23/liberia/index.html (November 28, 2005).


"Liberia's President Outlines Programs, Decries Divisions," Voice of America News, January 30, 2007.

"President Bush Meets with President Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia," White House Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Briefings, February 14, 2007.

views updated

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


President of liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia, a small West African nation founded by freed American slaves in the nineteenth century. An economist by training, Sirleaf took office in 2006 as the first democratically elected female president in postcolonial Africa. Though she enjoyed considerable good will at home and abroad, Sirleaf faced an array of immense problems, the legacy of a devastating civil war (1989-2003) that left 250,000 people—nearly a tenth of the population—dead and the country's roads and power plants in shambles. Sirleaf made considerable progress in office, notably in persuading Liberia's creditors to forgive some of its crushing foreign debt. However, more than 80 percent of the adult population remained unemployed and large areas of the country were still without electric power more than two years into her administration.

The daughter of a lawyer and a teacher, Sirleaf was born Ellen Johnson on October 29, 1938, in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. About 1955, when she was still a teenager, she married James Sirleaf; their union produced four sons but ended in divorce. Amid her family obligations, Sirleaf doggedly pursued her education at Monrovia's College of West Africa, where she began her study of economics. Following her divorce in 1960 or 1961, she moved to the United States, where she enrolled at Madison Business College, a small school in Madison, Wisconsin, and supported herself as a waitress and store clerk. After receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration from Madison in 1964, she moved west to enroll at the University of Colorado, where she earned a bachelor's degree in economics in 1970. She then moved on to Harvard University, which granted her a master's degree in public administration in 1971.

Driven Twice into Exile

As she was completing her education in the United States, Sirleaf made regular trips back to Liberia, where in 1965 she began working for the government as a financial specialist. By 1979 she had risen to become Minister of Finance in the administration of William Tolbert. When Tolbert was deposed and executed in 1980 in a coup led by army sergeant Samuel K. Doe, Sirleaf lost her position. Though Doe subsequently appointed her president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, she served only briefly in that position, resigning when the extent of Doe's human-rights abuses became clear. With her life in danger from Doe's security forces, she fled into exile in Kenya, where she worked for several years as vice president of the regional office of Citicorp and as a senior loan officer for the World Bank.

In 1985, several months after Doe announced that he would allow free elections, Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for a seat in the nation's Senate. While she won the election, she refused to take office when Doe claimed, contrary to the findings of election observers, that he had defeated the presidential candidate from Sirleaf's party (the Liberian Action Party). As popular opposition to Doe increased following the controversial election, he began arresting dozens of his political opponents, including Sirleaf, who was detained at the end of 1985. Subjected to harrowing psychological abuse and sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly plotting against the government, Sirleaf was incarcerated for seven months. Her release in 1986 came only after vociferous international protest, particularly from the United States, where she moved immediately to escape further harassment. There she became a vice president at Washington's Equator Bank, an institution with a strong focus on Africa. In 1992 she left that position to become assistant administrator and director of the African bureau of the United Nations Development Programme.

In Liberia, meanwhile, Doe's abuse of power had worsened simmering ethnic and economic tensions, sparking a full-fledged civil war. Fighting first broke out in 1989, when two rebel coalitions, one led by Charles Taylor and the other by Prince Johnson, vied to unseat Doe, who was captured and executed by Johnson's forces the following year. It was Taylor, however, who soon gained the upper hand, amid human rights abuses on all sides. Taylor's growing reputation for brutality was particularly painful for Sirleaf because she had supported him briefly before the war in her eagerness to see the country free of Doe. When, in 1996, international peacekeepers succeeded in quelling the violence sufficiently to allow elections, Sirleaf returned to Liberia, despite considerable personal risk, in order to run for president against Taylor. She finished second in a field of fourteen, with 10 percent of the vote to Taylor's 75 percent. Despite his victory, Taylor continued to harass his opponents, and Sirleaf was forced for the second time into exile.

At a Glance …

Born Ellen Johnson on October 29, 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia; married James Sirleaf, c.1955 (divorced); children: four sons. Education: Studied accounting and economics at the College of West Africa, late 1950s; Madison Business College, BBA, accounting, 1964; University of Colorado, BA, economics, 1970; Harvard University, MPA, 1971.

Career: Government of Liberia, financial specialist, 1965-79, Minister of Finance, 1979-80; Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, president, c.1980-81; Citicorp, vice president of regional office for Africa, 1980s; World Bank, senior loan officer, 1980s; elected to Liberian legislature (did not take office), 1985; Equator Bank, vice president, late 1980s-early 1990s; United Nations Development Programme, assistant administrator and director of regional bureau for Africa, 1992-97; candidate for president of Liberia, 1996; Governance Reform Commission (Liberia), chair, 2003-05; President of Liberia, 2006—.

Memberships: International Institute for Women in Political Leadership, founding member; Open Society Initiative for West Africa, founding chair; Women Waging Peace Network.

Awards: Freedom of Speech Award, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, 1988; IRI Freedom Award, International Republican Institute, 2006; David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award, University for a Night, 2006; Common Ground Award, Search for Common Ground, 2006; Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, The Hunger Project, 2006; Freedom Award, National Civil Rights Museum, 2007; Presidential Medal of Freedom, United States Government, 2007.

Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of Liberia, 5201 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20011.

Sirleaf spent much of her time in exile trying to increase international awareness of the chaos and violence that was consuming her country. Taylor, meanwhile, was increasingly entangled in another, equally brutal civil war, this one in neighboring Sierra Leone. In 2002, as Taylor's position at home and abroad grew more precarious, Sirleaf bravely returned to Liberia to lead the Unity Party. Taylor banned all political parties in response, an act that prompted Sirleaf to remark, according to an Associated Press report in the Washington Post, "I did not realize that I was that powerful." The following year, intense international pressure finally forced Taylor to step down and go into exile himself. Taking his place was a new organization, the National Transitional Government of Liberia. Sirleaf was immediately selected chair of the Governance Reform Commission (GRC), one of the new administration's most important posts. Working with the GRC from 2003 to 2005, Sirleaf was responsible for designing and implementing a thorough reorganization of the country's governing structures, which had been weakened by years of corruption and mismanagement.

By 2005 Liberia was stable enough to hold elections again. Sirleaf was a frontrunner from the beginning of the campaign, with only one serious challenger, a former soccer star named George Weah. While Weah proved popular among young men, his relative lack of education and experience damaged his standing among women and older voters. In a run-off election on November 8, 2005, Sirleaf, with nearly 60 percent of the vote, defeated Weah handily. Though some of Weah's supporters challenged the fairness of the election, there was little evidence of fraud, and the results were certified by both the national election commission and international observation teams. Sirleaf thus became the first democratically elected female president in modern African history.

Enjoyed International Support

When she took office in January of 2006, Sirleaf enjoyed an immense outpouring of support from the international community and from her fellow Liberians, many of whom referred to her affectionately as "Ma" or, in a tribute to her determination, "The Iron Lady." For many of her supporters, Sirleaf personified the nation's ability to recover from the long nightmare of civil war. In a broader sense, however, she also represented new hope for Africa, particularly for African women, who have long borne the brunt of the violence, instability, and poverty that plague the continent. One indication of the hope her election inspired was the large number of prizes and honors she received in 2006 and 2007, among them a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States. Perhaps Sirleaf's greatest single challenge as she began her term was to transform those hopeful expectations into immediate improvements in the country's abysmal standard of living. With the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers, many of them still armed, were suddenly on the streets without work. Crime was increasing rapidly, and the unemployment rate stood at more than 80 percent. Useable roads, electricity, sanitation, and running water, meanwhile, had been essentially unavailable for decades, even in the capital. The vast majority of the population depended on foreign charities for health care, and Liberians' life expectancy remained among the lowest in the world.

Sirleaf concentrated on the problems she believed were both pressing and relatively easy to solve. The first of these, and the one with which she had the most early success, concerned the country's massive foreign debt. Under Doe and Taylor, Liberia borrowed billions of dollars. As the interest alone on that debt threatened to cripple any budget Sirleaf and her administration devised, the president used her contacts in the international business world and her considerable personal charm to negotiate favorable settlements with a number of creditors, notably the U.S. government, which forgave $358 million in Liberian debt in February of 2007. This relief allowed Sirleaf's government to begin raising the salaries of policemen and other civil servants, a fundamental step in the struggle against corruption. (Many Liberian civil servants said they had been forced to take bribes because they were unable to feed their families on their official salary.) Sirleaf, for her part, vowed to root out corruption and to prosecute the worst offenders. While the management of government funds and contracts improved quickly, thanks in part to help from an international partnership known as the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Programme (GEMAP), small-scale corruption remained rampant.

Early results from the president's other initiatives were similarly mixed. While significant portions of Monrovia regained electrical service under her administration, most of the rest of the country was still without power in 2008. Without reliable electricity, economic development in the country was difficult to sustain. As Sirleaf told Julianne Malveaux in Essence in 2006, "Liberia is not a poor country. We have mineral and forest resources, fisheries and agriculture. We just need sound economic policies and a stable environment." While Sirleaf made significant progress toward those goals during her first two years in office, much more remained to be done.



The Economist, December 16, 2006.

Essence, March 2006.

New York Times, February 22, 2008.

Washington Post, April 30, 2002.


"Biographical Brief of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf," Government of the Republic of Liberia: Executive Mansion, http://www.emansion.gov.lr/content.php?sub=President's%20Biography&related=The%20President (accessed October 31, 2008).

Toweh, Alphonso, "Liberia Leader Sets Up Anti-Corruption Commission," Reuters, August 22, 2008, http://africa.reuters.com/country/LR/news/usnLM96200.html (accessed October 31, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler

views updated

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Inaugurated as the president of the African nation of Liberia in January of 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 1938) was the first woman elected as the head of state in any African country.

Sirleaf faced enormous challenges upon taking office. Liberia had been torn by almost two decades of political instability and outright civil war that had killed nearly 10 percent of its citizens. The rest were mired in poverty, with little access to education, electric power, or basic sanitation. However, she enjoyed grassroots confidence to a degree unusual for a contemporary African leader. Liberians called her “Ma,” the “Iron Lady,” or simply Ellen. In her first years in office she devoted much of her time to trying to attract international investment and to find ways out of the ruinous levels of foreign debt Liberia had accumulated over its years of trouble.

Of Indigenous Liberian Background

Sirleaf was born Ellen Johnson on October 29, 1938, in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Her full name has sometimes been given in the hyphenated form of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, but her biography on the Web site of the Liberian Embassy in the United States omits the hyphen. Despite her American surname and cosmopolitan image, she was not descended from the African-American slaves who founded the Liberian nation in the nineteenth century and gradually assumed the status of a hereditary elite. Her father was a member of the Gola ethnic group and the son of a village chieftain who had been close to Liberian president Hilary Richard Wright Johnson (1837-1901). As a result of that relationship, Sirleaf's father was brought to the capital of Monrovia, given the name of Johnson, and allowed to obtain an education as a lawyer. He eventually became the first indigenous Liberian (i.e., not one of African-American descent) member of the country's national legislature. Sirleaf's mother was of mixed background; her father was a German trader who had to leave Liberia when the country entered World War I on the American side, and her mother was a market trader who was adopted by a member of the Liberian elite after her husband fled.

“I am glad that neither my father nor my mother forgot their roots, and so we spent a lot of time with my two illiterate grandmothers, Jenneh and Juah,” Sirleaf recalled to members of the All Liberian National Conference in Maryland in 2005, as quoted on the Liberia Past and Present Web site. “We also spent all of [our] vacation time in Julejuah, my father's ancestral village, where I learned most of all that there was to know about village life including the long walks from village to village, swimming and pulling canoe in the Kpo River, fishing with twine made from the palm tree, [and] bird hunting.” Sirleaf herself was given the best education her country had available, studying accounting and economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia.

Marrying James Sirleaf at age 17, she found time to raise four sons in the midst of an impressive educational career; the marriage later ended in divorce. Coming to the United States in the early 1960s, she earned three college degrees. She financed her own education at Madison Business College in Wisconsin, earning an accounting degree there in 1964 after stints as a waitress and drugstore employee in Madison. She earned a second bachelor's degree, in economics, at the University of Colorado in the 1960s, and from 1969 to 1971 she was a student in the graduate program at Harvard University, earning a master's degree in public administration in 1971. She returned home to a post in the Liberian government of President William Tolbert, and she was often sent abroad to cultivate international investment. In 1979 she was elevated to the post of minister of finance, becoming the first woman to hold that office in Liberia.

That began a long period during which Sirleaf attempted to bring professional procedures to Liberia's government against a backdrop of increasing ethnic strife and conflict between the traditional American-descended elites and the country's indigenous patchwork of ethnic groups, which often came into conflict among themselves. She took the side of demonstrators who opposed increases in the government-controlled price of rice, attempted to put in place procedures to curb corruption in government spending, and worked to lessen Liberia's dependence on its longtime but heavily cyclical export staple of iron ore in favor of more reliable foodstuffs such as palm oil and coffee.

Resigned Bank Presidency

Liberia's era of open conflict began with a 1980 military coup that deposed Tolbert (who was executed by firing squad) and installed Liberian army sergeant Samuel K. Doe in power. Doe appointed Sirleaf as director of the Liberian National Bank, but the two soon clashed over the new government's rampant civil rights violations. Sirleaf evaded her mentor's fate by leaving the country and settling in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was hired as the director of the Kenyan division of Citibank. When Doe named himself president in 1984 and putatively allowed the establishment of independent political parties, Sirleaf ran for president in October of 1985 as the candidate of the Liberian Action Party. Doe proclaimed himself the winner of the election, although independent observers proclaimed that Sirleaf would have won had there not been fraudulent practices during the election proceedings.

With that, Sirleaf's existence in her homeland took a sharp turn for the worse. An unsuccessful coup attempt against Doe at the end of 1985 led the dictator to take revenge against his political opponents. Despite her position as an elected Liberian senator, Sirleaf was arrested, jailed, sentenced to ten years in prison, and subjected to psychological torture; soldiers threatened to bury her alive on a beach or to burn off all her hair. After her release in 1986, Sirleaf returned to the United States, and began cultivating support among Liberian exile groups. In the late 1980s she held the post of president at the Equator Bank in Washington, D.C. and at Citibank's African regional office in Nairobi.

When a group of rebel military officers and government officials led by Charles Taylor launched an effort to remove Doe late in 1989, Sirleaf seemed to have a window of opportunity. She supported Taylor, while forces loyal to a third leader, Prince Johnson, captured and executed Doe, and Taylor invited her to join an interim government. The plan soon fell apart, however, as ethnic rivalries flared and Taylor began to wield dictatorial control hardly distinguishable from what the country had experienced under Doe. Sirleaf took a position as assistant administrator at the United Nations Regional Development Program for Africa in 1992, soon becoming the program's director.

Meanwhile, Liberia's situation had devolved into fullscale and ongoing civil war. The real power resided with Taylor, but a group of figurehead leaders was named (none was elected, but one, Ruth Sando Perry, was Africa's first female government leader). When peacekeepers from neighboring countries brought about a pause in ethnic clashes in 1996, free elections were held. Sirleaf quit her UN post and returned to Liberia to run against Taylor. She finished second in a field of 14 candidates, but won only 10 percent of the vote to Taylor's 75 percent.

Criticized U.S. Double Standard

Sirleaf once again faced treason charges in the wake of that election, and again she went into exile. Taylor, however, overplayed his hand by intervening in another civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone in 1999, backing a particularly brutal faction and stirring condemnation both at home and abroad. Sirleaf was a visible face in Washington, criticizing U.S. president Bill Clinton for not committing American forces to end the atrocities in Sierra Leone, even though a European civil war of similar scope in the former Yugoslavia had resulted in American intervention. In 2002 Sirleaf returned to Liberia and was named head of the Unity Party. Taylor responded by banning all political rallies.

In 2003 Liberia's national nightmare ended as Taylor, under UN indictment for war crimes, relinquished power to an interim government led by his subordinate Moses Blah, and went into exile in Nigeria. About 100,000 combatant forces were disarmed, 11 percent of them children who had often been kidnapped and pressed into service by guerrilla forces. The country lost 90 percent of its gross national product and was essentially in ruins, with unemployment running at a staggering 80 percent. Sirleaf was under consideration as interim president, but instead accepted the post of head of the country's Governance Reform Commission. She served in that role from 2003 to 2005 and then announced her candidacy for the presidency in the elections scheduled for 2005, promising to end government corruption. “It would have been much easier for her to quit politics and sit at home like others have done but she has never given up,” a Liberian political observer told the BBC News, as noted in a profile on Sirleaf on its Web site.

Sirleaf's chief opponent was George Weah, known as a soccer star and a figure with strong appeal to Liberia's masses of dispossessed young males. Sirleaf, however, appealed to Liberian women and emerged the winner with almost 60 percent of the vote in the head-to-head runoff against Weah on November 8, 2005. According to an article by correspondent Lydia Polgreen in the New York Times, supporters carried signs at her rallies that read “Ellen—she's our man!” Weah alleged that fraud had occurred, but Sirleaf won an across-the-board victory that included support from many male voters, and she was certified the winner by Liberia's national election commission. She was inaugurated as president, and as Africa's first elected female leader, on January 16, 2006. Her security forces destabilized a pair of coup attempts that were hatched after Sirleaf arranged for Taylor's extradition to Sierra Leone to face trial there.

Over her first two years in office, Sirleaf could point to some tangible successes. Foreign debt was forgiven by two of Liberia's biggest creditors, the United States and China, and Indian steelmaker Mittal announced a billion-dollar investment in new mining operations that were set to create 3,500 jobs. Partial water and electric service was restored to Monrovia, and Sirleaf implemented financial controls, in line with the suggestions of international monetary authorities, that increased government revenues. With growth running at 8 percent a year in 2007, Liberia had set out on the long road to recovery. Another significant change, however, was that Liberians now respected their government as a positive force. Samuel Kofi Woods II, the president's minister of labor, told Charlayne Hunter-Gault in an article in Essence magazine that Sirleaf's most important contribution had been the way she had changed the nature of political leadership. “I think now the government has political will,” he said, and it was Sirleaf who had brought that will to bear. In 2006 Time magazine named her to its TIME 100 list of important leaders and revolutionaries, which featured an essay by U.S. First Lady Laura Bush stating that Sirleaf's “courage and commitment to her country are an inspiration to me and women around the world.”


Newsmakers, Issue 3, Thomson Gale, 2007.


African Business, March 2007.

Economist (US), December 16, 2006.

Essence, October 2006.

New York Times, November 12, 2005.

Time, May 8, 2006.


“Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's tribal roots and Americo Liberian background,” Liberia Past and Present, http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/JohnsonSirleaf/TribalRoots.htm (January 20, 2008).

“President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: President of Liberia,” Join Africa, http://www.joinafrica.com/africa_of_the_week/ellenjohnsonliberia.htm (January 20, 2008).

“Profile: Liberia's ‘Iron Lady,’ ” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4395978.stm] (January 20, 2008).

“Profile of Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” Embassy of Liberia, http://www.embassyofliberia.org/biography.htm (January 20, 2008).