Liberia’s outgoing 24th President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born on 29 October 1938. Mrs. Sirleaf began her reign as the country’s 24th President on 16 January 2006. She was the first elected female head of state in Africa.
Our 24th president was born in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa before moving to 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 and later went to work for the World in the Caribbean and Latin America. Mrs. Sirleaf 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.
After Samuel Doe seized power in a coup d’état and executed Tolbert, Sirleaf fled to the United States. She worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank before returning to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado County in the disputed 1985 elections. She won but did not take her due to allegations of election fraud.
President Sirleaf fled the country for her dear life after the disputed 1985 elections and returned in 1997 to contest for the Liberian presidency for the first time. She finished second behind now jailed ex-president Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election.
She won the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. She was re-elected in 2011. In June 2016, she 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 2011, Mrs. Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Mrs. Sirleaf was conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12 September 2013. As of 2016, she is listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.
Sirleaf’s father was Gola and her mother had mixed Kru and German ancestry. While not Americo-Liberian in terms of ancestry, because of her education in the West, Mrs. Sirleaf is considered culturally Americo-Liberian by some observers, or assumed to be Americo-Liberian. She Sirleaf does not identify as such.
Sirleaf’s father, Jahmale Carney Johnson, was born into a Gola family in an impoverished rural region.He was the son of a minor Gola chief named Jahmale and one of his wives, Jenneh, in Julijuah, Bomi County.
Her father was sent to Monrovia, where he changed his surname to Johnson due to his father’s loyalty to President Hilary R. W. Johnson, Liberia’s first native-born president.
He grew up in Monrovia, where he was raised by an Americo-Liberian family with the surname McCritty.
Sirleaf’s father later became the first Liberian from an indigenous ethnic group to be elected to the country’s national legislature.
Mrs. Sirleaf’s mother was also born into poverty, in Greenville. Her grandmother, Juah Sarwee, sent Sirleaf’s mother to Monrovia when Sirleaf’s German grandfather had to flee the country after Liberia declared war on Germany during World War I.
A member of a prominent Americo-Liberian family, Cecilia Dunbar, adopted and raised Sirleaf’s mother.
Early life and career
Sirleaf was born in Monrovia in 1938. She 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. When they returned 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 because of James’ abuse.
Sirleaf returned to college to finish her bachelor’s degree. In 1970, she enrolled at the Economics Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where she spent the summer preparing for graduate studies. 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 home to work in the administration of William Tolbert, where she was appointed as Assistant Minister of Finance. 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.
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.
Sirleaf initially moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the World Bank. In 1981, she moved to Nairobi, Kenya 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 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).
1985 general election
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, 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, Doe and the National Democratic Party won the presidency and large majorities in both house. 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.
1997 presidential campaign
Sirleaf campaigning in Monrovia in 2005, shortly before she was elected.
At the beginning of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, 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, Sirleaf left Liberia and went into exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
2005 presidential campaign
After the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, 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 footballer George Weah. In the subsequent run-off election, 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, Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president.Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.
2011 presidential campaign
From left to right: Tawakkul Karman, Leymah Gbowee, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf display their awards during the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize, 10 December 2011 (Photo:Harry Wad).
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. Sirleaf was renominated as the Unity Party’s presidential candidate at the party’s national convention on 31 October 2010.
That same day, Vice President Joseph Boakai was nominated by Sirleaf and 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.
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 presidential oath for her second presidency on 16 January 2012.
2017 presidential campaign
Sirleaf crossed party lines to support George Weah in the 2017 presidential campaign. In the late evening hours of January 13, 2018, she along with some officials of the Unity Party were expelled by the National Executive Committee of the party, for failing to support Unity’s presidential candidate Joseph Nyumah Boakai.