Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Exile, Election, Exile, Election – a long way of becoming president

And we are back for the last week of this month with another first: the first female president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 📝

Her legacy is not only becoming the first female head of state, but she was also able to help the land with its financial problems and committed to fighting for women’s rights. This commitment led to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. 🏆💵

Go check the article on this memorable woman!

Ellen Eugenia Johnson Sierleaf | *29-10-1938 | Liberia | Politician, Former President, Economist

On the 16th of January 2006, she became the first female president of Liberia: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Actually, this achievement was even bigger than it seems, since Johnson Sirleaf was also the first female head of state in any country of the African continent. When she ran for president, she mainly pledged for ending the civil war and the country’s corruption. On top of this, she vowed on rebuilding the country’s destroyed infrastructure. So, since the beginning of her presidential term, she faced some serious challenges. On top of this, the country was struggling with an enormous national debt and an unemployment rate running at 80 percent. Although these challenges seem to be excessively large, challenges, so to say, run like a thread through Johnson Sirleaf’s life. 

Ellen Eugenia Johnson was born in 1938 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in the west of Africa. When she was 17 years old, she married James Sirleaf, from whom she would later divorce. Rapidly after each other, four sons were born. In 1961, the couple left their children in the care of their grandparents, and moved to The United States of America to study. Johnson Sirleaf studied economics and business administration. A few years later, the two returned to Liberia, to both work at the Ministry of Finance. The two careers in one marriage resulted in a lot of stress and him being violent and abusive towards Johnson Sirleaf. After Johnson Sirleaf divorced James Sirleaf, she went back to The United States of America, to continue her education. In 1971, she obtained her Harvard University master’s degree in public administration. She moved back to Liberia, where she worked as an assistant of the minister of finance. Later she also worked as finance minister herself (1980-1985).

Johnson Sirleaf was known for her firm adherence to moral values, while working at the financial department. This became a motive for a big clash between the two heads of state; President William Tolbert and Samuel Kanyon Doe. During the tenure of the latter, Johnson Sirleaf was imprisoned twice, where she barely escaped from being executed. In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf campaigned for a seat in the Senate in the national elections of Liberia. She openly criticized the military government. This led to her arrest and a 10-year prison sentence. Luckily she was released after a short time, and allowed to leave the country, which she did. During her 12 years of exile in Kenya and The United States of America, Liberia collapsed into civil war. At the same time, Johnson Sirleaf became an influential economist for the World bank and other international financial institutions. 

After many years of civil war, Liberia reached a truce. Johnson Sirleaf took her chance, and ran for president in the 1997 elections, representing the Unity Party (UP). Charles Taylor won the elections. He made Johnson Sirleaf finish second and forced her back in exile on the grounds of treachery. A few years after the civil war resumed in 1999, Taylor went into exile. The tables had turned. His disappearance paved the way for Johnson Sirleaf to return to Liberia. As the chair of the Commission on Good Governance, she supervised and contributed to the preparations for democratic elections. Some years later, the ‘Iron Lady’ ran again for president. On the 16th January of 2006, she had her inauguration as the first female president of Liberia. During her tenure, she was able to completely get rid of the national debt. After her first term as Liberia’s president, she stood for election again. 

Only days before the elections, of what might be Johnson Sirleaf’s second term, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace together with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for her commitment to women’s rights. Johnson Sirleaf’s political opponents accused the Nobel Prize Committee of interfering with the Liberian elections. Despite the fact that these elections had a bumpier road then the previous, Johnson Sirleaf was reelected. In 2018, the new president of Liberia was democratically elected; George Weah. Since 1944, it was the first presidential change between two democratically elected presidents. Just before Johnson Sirleaf resigned, she was awarded the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.


Author: Marlijn Metzlar
Image: Secom Bahia


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