Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
October 29,1938 – Present
Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia to a Gola father who was one of the first indigenous men to serve in government and a mother who was part German. She attended the College of West Africa during her teens before marrying James Sirleaf in either 1955 or 1956 at the age of 17. Over the course of the next few years, Johnson Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper and homemaker while her husband worked for the Department of Agriculture.
In 1961, the couple moved to America to further their education and settled in Wisconsin. Johnson Sirleaf earned an associate degree in Accounting from Madison Business College. The couple eventually returned to Liberia where Johnson Sirleaf’s husband went back to work at the Agriculture Department and she joined what would become the Ministry of Finance. Their union had quickly produced four sons but now with two working partners, their relationship changed. The marriage ended in divorce as a result of Johnson Sirleaf’s husband becoming physically abusive.
Now single, Johnson Sirleaf returned to America to further advance her education. She studied economics at the University of Colorado and later enrolled at Harvard University from which she obtained a master’s degree in public administration.
In 1972, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and again found employment with the government. In addition to other roles, she served as the Assistant Minister and later Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert. Despite being an official in the Tolbert administration Johnson Sirleaf spoke out against government spending and corporate greed. There was a break in service between the two positions during which Johnson Sirleaf was at odds with the government and worked overseas in banking.
A military coup in 1980 overthrew the Tolbert administration leaving Johnson Sirleaf as one of the few high-ranking officials to not be executed. She briefly served in the new government but continued her habit of speaking out against government mismanagement. Unfortunately, the new military dictatorship was less accepting of criticism and she found herself at various times imprisoned and facing execution.
Johnson Sirleaf eventually left Liberia and spent most of the next 12-years in exile. During those years, Johnson Sirleaf worked in Washington, D.C. at the World Bank, Kenya for Citigroup, and New York at the United Nations Development Programme. There was a brief return to Liberia in 1985 when Johnson Sirleaf attempted to run for office in what would come to be viewed as fraudulent elections. Liberia descended into civil war as various factions fought for power.
Johnson Sirleaf initially supported a rebel leader who intended to stage a coup but withdrew her support as the violence escalated. The rebels eventually overthrew the dictatorship in 1990 but then began to fight amongst themselves for control of the country. With mounting pressure from nearby African countries, a ceasefire was established in advance of an agreed-upon 1997 election.
Once again, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for office and was the first runner-up in the presidential election. But as the trend of corruption and subjugation of dissenting views continued the political climate forced Johnson Sirleaf to relocate to Côte d’Ivoire. But instead of once again joining an organization she established a venture capital firm and non-profit to develop and improve conditions in Liberia.
When the head of the government was himself forced into exile, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia. One of Johnson Sirleaf’s first acts of business was leading groups aimed at making arrangements for a new democratic election and reforming oversight of the country’s finances. With parameters in place, Johnson Sirleaf resigned from her oversight roles to run for president.
Following a runoff, Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005 and sworn in as Liberia and the continent’s first female president. The win was buoyed at least in part by the women of Liberia rallying support across the country for Johnson Sirleaf. Her two-term 12-year presidency would have some substantial wins but also areas deserving of criticism.
One of the greatest achievements of her presidency was that it extended the period of peace that had begun after the collapse of the last dictatorship. Access to basic education for children and recognition of women’s rights were now guaranteed. Another key win was that Johnson Sirleaf’s knowledge of finance and ties to international organizations resulted in substantial debt relief and attracted foreign investments. In addition, the violence that was rampant for decades during the civil wars died down and the country entered a period of peace. Early wins in Johnson’s tenure would see her receive a joint Nobel Peace Prize.
Unfortunately, the Johnson Sirleaf administration would be mired by accusations of corruption. Both internal oversight and global watchdog groups would report instances of high ranking government officials being corrupt and/or participating in bribery scandals. Few if any of the accused would be forced to stand trial or be held otherwise accountable for their wrongdoing.
Johnson Sirleaf would also be personally accused of nepotism following the appointment of three sons and one of her sisters to prominent government positions. Of particular concern was the collapse of the nation’s oil company following her son’s departure despite it having made substantial sums of money for the government.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy would be a bit of a mixed bag. Progress with regards to peace and national financial stability but also continued corruption. The development and advancements within the country were also offset by an economic downturn and an Ebola outbreak that would claim the lives of thousands of Liberians. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Johnson Sirleaf’s political life was not being Liberia’s first female president but rather the first Liberian president to peacefully transfer power.
- Azango, Mae, and Prue Clarke. 2017. “The Tearing Down of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Foreign Policy. October 9, 2017. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/09/the-tearing-down-of-ellen-johnson-sirleaf-liberia-elections/.
- “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” 2018. Academy of Achievement. November 26, 2018. https://achievement.org/achiever/ellen-johnson-sirleaf/.
- “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 25, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ellen-Johnson-Sirleaf.
- Ford, Tamasin. 2018. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The Legacy of Africa’s First Elected Female President.” BBC News. BBC. January 22, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42748769.
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