Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938) is the 24th and current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert from 1979 until the 1980 coup d’état, after which she left Liberia and held senior positions at various financial institutions. She placed second in the 1997 presidential election won by Charles Taylor. She won the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006, and she was a successful candidate for re-election in 2011. Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa.
Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen. The women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
1985 general election
While working at Citibank, Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President under Jackson Doe on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the1985 elections. However, Sirleaf was placed under house arrest in August of that year and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition as a consequence of a speech in which she insulted the members of the Doe regime. Following international calls for her release, Doe pardoned and released her in September. Due to government pressure, she was removed from the presidential ticket and instead ran for a Senate seat in Montserrado County.
Sirleaf refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on 12 November, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on 13 November by Doe’s forces. Despite continuing to refuse to accept her seat in the Senate, she was released in July 1986 and secretly fled the country to the United States later that year.
2011 presidential campaign
In January 2010, Sirleaf announced that she would run for a second term in office in the 2011 presidential election while speaking to a joint session of the Legislature. Opposition leaders noted that in doing so, she had broken a promise made during her 2005 campaign to only serve one term if elected. Sirleaf was renominated as the Unity Party’s presidential candidate at the party’s national convention on 31 October 2010. That same day, Vice President Joseph Boakai was nominated by Sirleaf and confirmed by the delegates as Sirleaf’s running mate.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Sirleaf four days prior to the election sparked criticism from opposition parties, with Congress for Democratic Change candidate Winston Tubman calling the award “undeserved” and “a political interference in our country’s politics.” Sirleaf called the timing of the award a coincidence and avoided mentioning the award during the final days of campaigning.
Sirleaf garnered 43.9% of the vote in the first round, more than any other candidate but short of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off.
Following the election, Sirleaf announced the creation of a “national peace and reconciliation initiative,” led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, to address the country’s divisions and begin “a national dialogue that would bring us together.”. She took presidential oath for her second presidency on 16 January 2012.
Achievements in Presidency
In October 2010, Sirleaf signed into law a Freedom of Information bill, the first legislation of its kind in West Africa. In recognition of this, she became the first sitting head of state to receive the Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor’s Union.
From the beginning of her presidency, Sirleaf vowed to make reduction of the national debt, which stood at approximately US$4.9 billion in 2006, a top priority for her administration. The United States became the first country to grant debt relief to Liberia, waiving the full $391 million owed to it by Liberia in early 2007. In September of that year, the G-8 headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided $324.5 million to paying off 60% of Liberia’s debt to the International Monetary Fund, crediting their decision to the macroeconomic policies pursued by the Sirleaf administration.
In April 2009, the government successfully wrote off an additional $1.2 billion in foreign commercial debt in a deal that saw the government buy back the debt at a 97% discounted rate through financing provided by the International Development Association, Germany, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom. The discounted rate was the largest ever for a developing country.
The country was deemed eligible to participate in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative in 2008. In June 2010, the country reached the completion point of the HIPC initiative, qualifying it for relief from its entire external debt. That same month, the World Bank and IMF agreed to fund $1.5 billion in writing off the Liberia’s multilateral debt.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In 2006, Sirleaf established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating more than 20 years of civil conflict in the country.
In their final report, issued in June 2009, the TRC included Sirleaf in a list of 50 names of people that should be “specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty (30) years” for “being associated with former warring factions.” The proposed ban stemmed from her financial support of former President Taylor in the initial months of the First Liberian Civil War.
Following a speech made by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 that America’s foreign aid would be used to promote the protection of gay rights, the issue of LGBT rights became a significant political topic in Liberia. According to The Guardian, “Since Clinton’s remarks, Liberian newspapers have published numerous articles and editorials describing homosexuality as ‘desecrating’, ‘abusive’ and an ‘abomination’.” Liberian law made “voluntary sodomy” punishable by up to one year in prison, although it has not been used to prosecute anyone in several years.
In February 2012, Bong County Senator Jewel Taylor proposed a bill that would carry a term of ten years in prison for homosexual activity, while a similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. On 19 March, Sirleaf addressed the issue, saying that she would not repeal the current law but would also not sign into law either of the two proposed bills. Sirleaf added, “We like ourselves just the way we are […] We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”
In a letter to The Guardian, Sirleaf’s press secretary challenged the portrayal of her remarks in the media saying that: “There currently exists no law referencing homosexuality in Liberia, and as such the President could not be defending a law on homosexuality. The President is on record as saying […] that any law brought before her regarding homosexuality will be vetoed. This statement also applies to an initial attempt by two members of the Liberian legislature to introduce tougher laws targeting homosexuality.” The letter added “the status quo in Liberia has been one of tolerance and no one has ever been prosecuted under that [current] law,” and went on to hint at future possible liberalization stating that “the President thinks that with the unprecedented freedom of speech and expression Liberia enjoys today, our budding democracy will be strong enough to accommodate new ideas and debate both their value and Liberia’s laws with openness, respect and independence.” The Guardian published a correction to its story, “Nobel peace prize winner defends law criminalising homosexuality in Liberia was updated to restore material cut in the editing process.
Upon her election to office, Sirleaf made her first foreign trip as President to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, meeting with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in an attempt to repair relations between the two countries following Côte d’Ivoire’s support of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia during the Second Liberian Civil War.
Following the establishment of United States Africa Command(AFRICOM) by the United States military, Sirleaf offered to allow the US to headquarter the new command in Liberia, the only African leader to do so. The command was eventually headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. On 15 March 2006, President Sirleaf addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress, asking for American support to help her country “become a brilliant beacon, an example to Africa and the world of what love of liberty can achieve.”
Sirleaf has also strengthened relations with the People’s Republic of China, reaffirming Liberia’s commitment to the One-China policy. In return, China has contributed to Liberia’s reconstruction, building several transmitters to extend the Liberia Broadcasting System nationwide and constructing a new campus for the University of Liberia.
Sirleaf is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an international network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development.
Her government later severed diplomatic ties with Libya, stating that “The Government took the decision after a careful review of the situation in Libya and determined that the Government of Colonel Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to govern Libya.”
Administration and Cabinet
Following her election in 2005, Sirleaf pledged to promote national reconciliation by bringing in opposition leaders into her administration. Opposition politicians who joined her initial administration included Minister of Transport Jeremiah Sulunteh, Minister of Education Joseph Korto, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nathaniel Barnes. Sirleaf also appointed several women to high-level posts in her administration, with female ministers initially leading the Ministries of Finance, Law, Commerce and Industry, Gender and Development, and Youth and Sports. Sirleaf said that while she had planned on appointing an all-female cabinet, she had been unable to find qualified female candidates for every position
Upon the inauguration of Sirleaf, the entire Supreme Court bench, which had been selected as part of the transitional government in 2003, stepped down, leaving Sirleaf to fill all five seats on the Court. Sirleaf nominated Johnnie Lewis, a Yale Law School graduate and former Circuit Court judge, for the office of Chief Justice. Lewis and three of Sirleaf’s Associate Justice nominees, J. Emmanuel Wureh, Francis Korkpor and Gladys Johnson, were confirmed by the Senate on 2 March 2006.
However, the Senate later rejected Tah’s nomination, leading Sirleaf to nominate her Minister of Youth and Sports, Jamesetta Howard Wolokollie, who was confirmed. Justice Johnson retired from the Court on 26 March 2011 after reaching the constitutionally mandated retirement age of seventy. Sirleaf nominated Phillip A. Z. Banks, her former Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Law Reform Commission, to replace Johnson in August 2011. Banks was confirmed by the Senate on 20 August 2011.
Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st most powerful woman in the world in 2006. In 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, while Time counted her among the top ten female leaders. That same year,The Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had. Sirleaf in 2012 attracted international attention for an interview regarding LGBT rights. See Gay rights. In 2010, Sirleaf released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.
Awards and Achievements
Here are some of her awards.
Recipient of the 1988 Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech Award
Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award
Grand commander Star of Africa Redemption of Liberia
Commandeur de l’Ordre du Togo (Commander of the Order of Togo)
2006 Common Ground Award recipient, Search for Common Ground
2006 Laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, The Hunger Project
2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States, awarded to Sirleaf by U.S. President George W. Bush on 5 November 2007
2008 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Brown University
2010 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University
2010 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
2011 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University
2011 African Gender Award
2011 Nobel Peace Prize
2012 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development
As of 2014, she is listed as the 70th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
“The Nobel Peace Prize 2011 – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
“Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to get Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace”. Retrieved 11 September 2013.
“Liberia: Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf Returns Triumphantly”. Africa News. 16 February 2007.
“Liberian Supreme Court Squashes Truth And Reconciliation Commission Ban on Politicians”. NetNewsPublisher. 24 January 2011.
“2010 Human Rights Report: Liberia”. United States Department of State. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 9 October 2012.
President Sirleaf addressing the 2008 General Conference of theUnited Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas
Miriam is the brand and media manager for the Africa in Me. She is a fun and enthusiastic person. Follow her on twitter: @miriamwanda