Africa’s First Woman President- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Involvement Newspaper will be featuring African Women Leaders, heroes and activists in a bid to remember their contributions towards a better Africa.
By Winnie Barake
Thumbnail photo courtesy of britannica.com
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born Ellen Eugenia Johnson, 29th October 1938) is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006-2018.
Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa. Sirleaf was born in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa and completed her education in the United States, where she studied at Madison Business College and Harvard University.
While in college, she became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and she is an honorary member of the Links Incorporated. In 1956, Ellen Johnson married James Sirleaf. They had four sons together before their divorce. She grew up as a Presbyterian, but later joined her husband’s Methodist faith. Through her sons, she has been blessed by ten grandchildren. After her stay in the United States, Ellen returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert’s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971-1974. 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, where she worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank. In 1985, she retuned back to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado County, an election that was disputed.
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 Western African States (ECOWAS) peacekeepers led to a cessation of hostilities. The nation held the 1997 general election, where Ellen 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 75%. After controversy about the results and being accused of treason, Sirleaf left Liberia and went into exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. 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 Governance Reform Commission. Sirleaf stood for president as the candidate of the Unity Party in the 2005 general election. She placed the second in the first round of voting behind George Weah, a former footballer. 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 23rd November 2005, 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. As Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state, she has led Liberia through reconciliation and recovery following the nation’s decade-long civil war, as well as the Ebola Crisis, winning international acclaim for achieving economic, social, and political change.
Recognized as a global leader for women’s empowerment, President Sirleaf was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011. She is the recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom the United States’ highest civilian award—for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expanding freedom and improving the lives of Africans.
Her many honors also include the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest public distinction, and being named one of Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women in the World.”