Black History: Special Delivery!!
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938 – present) was the first woman elected as president of an African country when she assumed leadership in Liberia in 2005. Sirleaf was also one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her commitment to advancing women’s rights.
Sirleaf is of mixed Gola and German ancestry. She was educated at the College of West African in Monrovia. At the age of 17, she married James Sirleaf who she later divorced. In 1961 she came to the U.S. to study business administration and economics. She obtained a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. Sirleaf then returned to Liberia and began working for the Liberian government. She served in various roles under President William Tolbert’s and Samuel K. Doe’s administrations.
Known for fiscal integrity she often clashed with government officials over issues of corruption. During Samuel K. Doe’s administration, she was imprisoned twice; narrowly avoiding execution. In 1985, during the national election, she campaigned for a senate seat. During her campaign, she openly criticized the military government that was currently in power. She later sentenced to 10 years in prison. After a short time, she was released from prison and was permitted to leave the country; spending 12 years of exile in Kenya and the United States. During her time in exile, the government collapsed throwing the country into civil war.
While in the U.S. Sirleaf became a sought after economist working for the World Bank, Citibank, and other financial institutions. She also served as president of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations. Upon returning to Liberia, Sirleaf ran for president in 1997; losing to Charles Taylor. As a result of losing the election, she was forced back into exile when the Taylor Administration charged her with treason. In 2005 she ran for president defeating George Weah. Sirleaf faced serious challenges with the country still experience civil unrest and an unemployment rate of 80%. She quickly sought assistance from the international community to help resolve Liberia’s debt. By 2010, all of the debt was relieved and Sirleaf had procured millions of dollars of foreign investment in Liberia. Sirleaf won a 2nd term as president in 2011.
Though Sirleaf had made progress in ending corruption; it still persisted even within her own administration. Sirleaf came under-fire for nepotism because some of her children had high-level government positions. Liberia continued to make progress economically for the country until the Ebola Virus devastated the country in 2014; killing over 4,000 Liberians over a two year period.
Sirleaf facing term limits could not run for another term. In February 2018 she was awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize For Achievement in African Leadership. As part of the award, she received $5 million dollars disbursed over 10 years followed by an annual $200,000 stipend for the remainder of her life.