Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen (Liberia)

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president in Jan. 2006, having defeated the former footballer, George Weah, in a run-off. A US-educated economist, she returned from exile to attempt to resurrect Liberia’s shattered economy after 14 years of civil war. She was re-elected in presidential polling held in Oct.–Nov. 2011, pledging to continue her reform and anti-corruption agenda.

Early Life

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, Liberia on 29 Oct. 1938. She was educated at the College of West Africa in Monrovia from 1948–55, before graduating in accountancy in 1964 from the University of Wisconsin in the USA. From 1967 she served as special assistant to the secretary of the treasury in Liberia before undertaking an MA in public administration at America’s Harvard University from 1969–71. Returning to Liberia, Sirleaf became assistant minister of finance in the administration of William R. Tolbert, Jr. Following public criticisms of Tolbert’s presidency she resigned and left the country, taking up a post as a loan officer for several Latin American countries at the World Bank. In 1977 she was invited to return home to become deputy minister of finance for fiscal and banking affairs. In Aug. 1979 she replaced James T. Philips as minister of finance.

Shortly after a coup d’état and Tolbert’s assassination on 12 April 1980, the new military leader, Sgt Samuel Doe, appointed Sirleaf president of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment. However, she resigned in Dec. 1980 and returned to the World Bank, before becoming vice-president of Citibank in Nairobi, Kenya in mid-1981. She stood in Liberia’s general elections in Oct. 1985, at which Doe was controversially elected president. Sirleaf was elected senator but was sentenced to 10 years in jail as part of Doe’s crackdown on ‘opponents’ following a failed coup in Nov. 1985. Pardoned and released in June 1986, she again left Liberia for the USA, where she worked for the Equator Bank in Washington, D.C., followed by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in New York.

While in the USA, Sirleaf joined other Liberian exiles in criticizing Doe and helped raise funds for a fellow exile, Charles Taylor, to lead the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) into Liberia from the Côte d’Ivoire in 1989. It triggered a devastating civil war that led to the deaths of over 200,000 people by the time a ceasefire was declared in Aug. 1996. Disillusioned with Taylor, Sirleaf resigned as director of the UNDP’s Bureau for Africa (a post she held from July 1992) and stood against him on behalf of the Unity Party in presidential elections in 1997. She received only 10% of the vote (against 75% for Taylor) and was later charged with treason by him. Forced into exile again, she became active in various humanitarian projects, including investigations into the 1994 Rwandan genocide for the Organization for African Unity and serving on the board of the International Crisis Group and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Liberia again descended into civil war but Sirleaf returned after Taylor was forced into exile in Aug. 2003 (to be later imprisoned in 2012 by the International Criminal Court for abetting war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone). She headed the governance reform commission until resigning in March 2005 to enter the presidential race.

During her campaign, Sirleaf criticized the transitional government’s inability to fight corruption. She went through to a run-off against George Weah, a former World Footballer of the Year who was representing the Congress for Democratic Change, and on 11 Nov. the national elections commission declared Sirleaf the winner. Although Weah accused her of fraud, her victory was confirmed on 23 Nov. Independent observers declared the vote to be free, fair and transparent and her inauguration took place on 16 Jan. 2006.

Career Peak

In her inaugural speech, Sirleaf vowed to wage a war on corruption, promising that leading civil servants and ministers would have to declare their assets. She also pledged to work towards reconciliation by bringing former opponents into a government of national unity, and spoke of establishing peaceful relations with neighbouring West African states. She appointed a number of women to ministerial positions and controversially nominated a Nigerian soldier to head Liberia’s army. While rebuilding the country’s shattered economy—with a road network in ruins, no national telephone network, no national electricity grid and no piped water—has remained a major challenge, the World Bank and other international bodies have praised her government’s efforts in office. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was inaugurated with a mandate to investigate human rights abuses during the long civil war, and she has made progress in confronting poor governance and corrupt officialdom.

In Nov. 2010 Sirleaf appointed a 22-member acting cabinet after placing their predecessors on ‘mass administrative leave’. Several ministers were subsequently reappointed to their posts. She retained the presidency in Nov. 2011 when she was re-elected in a second round of voting, but there was a low turnout after rival candidate William Tubman boycotted the process because of alleged electoral fraud.

In Oct. 2011 Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her presidency from 2014 was dominated by efforts to contain the spread of an Ebola epidemic. The outbreak had killed nearly 5,000 Liberians by Jan. 2016 when the World Health Organization declared the whole of West Africa free of the disease. Furthermore, the crisis disrupted business and commerce and threatened to undermine the country’s post-civil war economic revival.

In June 2016 UN peacekeeping troops handed responsibility for Liberia’s security back to the country’s military and police forces.

Owing to the constitutional term limit, Sirleaf was ineligible to stand for a third time in the presidential elections scheduled for 2017. During the campaign she refused to support Vice-President Joseph Boakai’s candidacy and she was consequently expelled from the Unity Party. Rival candidate George Weah won a clear victory and succeeded Sirleaf as president on 22 Jan. 2018.

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