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If you like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's story, you might also like:
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Ellen Sirleaf
Ellen Sirleaf
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Ellen Sirleaf Biography

Nobel Prize for Peace

Ellen Sirleaf Date of birth: October 29, 1938

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  Ellen Sirleaf

Ellen Eugenia Johnson was born in Monrovia, capital city of Liberia. Founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the United States, Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa. Its society has long been marked by tension between the indigenous people and the descendants of the American settlers. Three of Ellen Johnson's grandparents were of native Liberian descent; her paternal grandfather was a traditional chief of the Gola people. Her maternal grandfather was a German merchant who left the country during the First World War.

Ellen Johnson's mother was a teacher, her father an attorney, and the first indigenous Liberian to serve in the country's legislature, a body long dominated by the descendants of the American settlers. Her parents placed a high value on education, and young Ellen received her secondary education at the prestigious College of West Africa in Monrovia, the nation's capital. University seemed a logical next step, but at 17, Ellen married James Sirleaf, a young agronomist with a degree from the University of Wisconsin.

Ellen Sirleaf Biography Photo
With four sons born in rapid succession, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf settled into the role of homemaker, while many of her school friends embarked on professional careers. James Sirleaf worked in Liberia's Department of Agriculture. To augment the family income, Ellen Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper for an auto repair shop. When her husband was offered the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the United States, the Sirleafs left their children in the care of grandparents and made the trip to America together. While her husband pursued a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin's School of Agriculture, Ellen studied accounting at the Madison College of Business. On their return to Liberia, he resumed work in the Agriculture Department, while in 1965, she entered the Treasury Department, later known as the Ministry of Finance.

The pressure of two careers placed a strain on the Sirleafs' marriage. When her husband became violent and abusive, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf filed for divorce. After the dissolution of her marriage, she continued her education in the United States, earning an economics degree from the University of Colorado. In 1971, she completed a Master's in Public Administration at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The following year, Sirleaf became Assistant Finance Minister in the administration of Liberian President William Tolbert. Her public criticism of administration policy, on occasions such as a commencement address at the College of West Africa, attracted national attention and created friction between Sirleaf and her superiors. In the mid-1970s Sirleaf left the Ministry to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., but she returned to Liberia in 1977 to serve as Deputy Finance Minister.

Ellen Sirleaf Biography Photo
In 1979 a rice shortage provoked riots in the streets of Monrovia. Repressive measures on the part of the government, intended to quell the violence, further inflamed public opinion, and antagonized educated members of the country's indigenous population. President Tolbert fired his Finance Minster and appointed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to take his place; she was the first woman to hold this position in Liberia. As Finance Minister, she attempted a much-needed reform of the country's finances, but long-simmering tensions soon boiled over.

On April 12, 1980, a cadre of non-commissioned officers, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, staged a coup d'état. President Tolbert and 26 of his followers were killed on the day of the coup. Ten days later, 13 members of Tolbert's cabinet were executed in public. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and three other ministers were spared, but life in Liberia would soon become dangerous for anyone who opposed Doe and his allies. Sirleaf served briefly as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), but her situation soon became impossible and she fled the country. For a brief time, she again worked as Senior Loan Officer for the World Bank in the United States, but was soon back in Africa, as Vice President of Citicorp's Africa Office in Nairobi, Kenya.

Seeking international legitimacy for his regime, Samuel Doe scheduled elections in 1985. Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the vice presidency, but was soon arrested for criticizing Doe's corrupt regime. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, but international pressure forced Doe to pardon her shortly into her sentence. Although her name was removed from the vice presidential ballot, Sirleaf was permitted to run for the Senate. The subsequent election was widely viewed as fraudulent, and although Sirleaf won a seat in the Senate she refused to accept it. In November of 1985 she was arrested again and held until July of the following year, after which she left the country in secret and took a job as a Vice President of HSBC Equator Bank in Washington.

Ellen Sirleaf Biography Photo
Sirleaf had made a new life for herself in the world outside Liberia, but she closely followed developments in her homeland. After repeated coup attempts against the Doe regime, and extrajudicial killings of opposition leaders, the country descended into inter-tribal violence and civil war. In 1989 a former Doe ally, Charles Taylor, led an armed uprising against the regime. Initially, Sirleaf supported Taylor's insurgency, but the rebels' violent methods soon alienated Sirleaf and many other Liberians. In 1990, Samuel Doe was captured, in Monrovia, by a group of rebels who recorded and broadcast his torture and execution. Although Taylor emerged as the most powerful of the rebel commanders, he was unable to consolidate his rule, and fighting between rival factions continued for many years.

In 1992, Sirleaf joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The first woman to run the UN's development program for Africa, she served for five years as Assistant Administrator and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau of Africa, holding the title of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. By 1996 a coalition of neighboring African countries had forced the warring Liberian factions to agree to a ceasefire, and national elections were scheduled for the following year.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for President, but in an atmosphere still haunted by the violence of the preceding decade, she was decisively defeated by Charles Taylor. The regime of President Taylor proved to be a corrupt and repressive one, and Sirleaf became its most outspoken critic and her country's most visible advocate for reform. When President Taylor threatened to have her killed for her opposition to his administration, she moved to the neighboring country of Côte d'Ivoire, where she established a venture capital firm, the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, as well as Measuagoon, a community development NGO for Liberia.

Ellen Sirleaf Biography Photo
Meanwhile, General Taylor plunged Liberia into war with its neighbors. Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies recruited children to fight and commit atrocities, and the country teetered on the brink of dissolution. Attacks by armed resistance groups, pressure from the international community -- and the courageous nonviolent resistance of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace -- eventually led to Taylor's resignation. In 2003, the disgraced president fled to Nigeria. He was later arrested for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court sentenced Taylor, age 64, to 50 years in prison.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 2003 to chair the Governance Reform Commission of the Transitional Government. In this capacity she successfully transferred the reporting mechanism of the General Auditing Commission from the control of executive branch to the legislature, enabling more democratic oversight of the nation's finances.

In 2005, Sirleaf resigned from the Commission to accept the nomination of the Unity Party as its candidate for President of Liberia in the country's first truly free election. Sirleaf placed second in the first round of voting, but won the runoff decisively, with 59 percent of the vote. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the 24th President of Liberia. She is the first elected female head of state in African history.

Sirleaf spent the next five years repairing the damage done by 25 years of violence and misrule. From its peak of prosperity, prior to the 1980 coup, Liberia had become one of the world's poorest nations, beset by illiteracy, hunger and pandemic unemployment. In her first years in office, Sirleaf negotiated the lifting of international trade sanctions against Liberia, and complete forgiveness of the country's crushing external debt.

Ellen Sirleaf Biography Photo
By executive order, Sirleaf established a right to free, universal elementary education. President Sirleaf has also enforced equal rights for women, rights that were routinely ignored and abused during the chaotic years of civil war. Among other infrastructure projects, the Sirleaf administration has built over 800 miles of roads, attracting substantial foreign investment in mining, agriculture and forestry, as well as offshore oil exploration. A strong ally of the United States, President Sirleaf addressed a joint session of the United States Congress shortly after her inauguration. Liberia has also won support from China for construction of a new national university. President Sirleaf has placed a high importance on African and regional relations as well. She chairs the Mano River Union, fostering peace and economic cooperation among the neighboring nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.

In 2010, Newsweek magazine listed Johnson Sirleaf as one of the "Ten Best Leaders in the World," while The Economist called her "the best President the country has ever had." A grandmother of eight, President Sirleaf has become a popular symbol of democracy and women's rights, not only in her own country, but throughout Africa and the developing world. In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with women's rights campaigners Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel Committee credited Sirleaf's contribution to "securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women." Four days after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, President Sirleaf was elected to a second term in office.

This page last revised on Jun 14, 2012 16:26 EDT
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