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01
Nov
2012

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia)

Categories // Profiles & Bios

ellen-johnson-sirleaf.jpgEllen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938) is the 24th and current President of Liberia, and 2011 Nobel Peace prize laureate.

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.

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She was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006.

A peace movement called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led to her election, making Liberia the first African nation with a female president. The story is told in the 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Sirleaf is the first modern, and currently the only elected, female head of state in Africa.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, to educated parents. Her ethnic background is 1/2 Gola from her father's side, and 1/4 Kru and 1/4 German from her mother's side. Sirleaf’s father, Jahmale Carney Johnson, was born into rural poverty. He was the son of a Gola chief named Jahmale and one of his wives, Jenneh, in Julijuah, Bomi County.

Her father was sent to Monrovia, where his last name was changed to Johnson because of his father's loyalty to President Hilary R. W. Johnson, Liberia's first Liberian-born president. He grew up in Monrovia where he was raised by an Americo-Liberian family with the surname McGritty. Sirleaf's father later became the first Liberian from an indigenous ethnic group to sit in the country's national legislature. Her mother was also born into poverty in Greenville, Liberia.

Her grandmother Juah Sarwee sent Johnson-Sirleaf's mother to Monrovia when Sirleaf's German grandfather had to flee the country after Liberia declared war on Germany during World War I. A member of a prominent Americo-Liberian family, Cecilia Dunbar, adopted and raised Sirleaf's mother. While not Americo-Liberian by ancestry, Sirleaf is considered culturally Americo-Liberian by some observers or assumed to be Americo-Liberian. However, Sirleaf does not identify as such.

Sirleaf studied economics and accounts from 1948 to 1955 at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She was married to James Sirleaf when she was only 17 years old, and then traveled to America in 1961 to continue her studies and earned an accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sirleaf then studied economics and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1969 to 1971, gaining a Master of Public Administration. She then returned to her home country of Liberia to work under the government of William Tolbert. She served as Assistant Minister of Finance from 1972 to 1973 under Tolbert's administration. She resigned after getting into a disagreement about spending.

Subsequently she was Minister of Finance from 1979 to April 1980. Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in an April 1980 military coup; President William Tolbert was assassinated and several members of his cabinet were executed by firing squad. The People's Redemption Council  took control of the country and led a purge against the former government. Sirleaf was able to narrowly escape by going into exile in Kenya. From 1983 to 1985 she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi.

When Samuel Doe declared himself president of Liberia and unbanned political parties in the country, she decided to return to her home country to participate in elections and run against Doe. She was placed under house arrest  for doing so, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sirleaf served a much shorter time before taking the offer to once more go into exile.

She moved to Washington D.C., and served as Vice President of both the African Regional Office of Citibank, in Nairobi, and of (HSCB) Equator Bank, in Washington. From 1992 to 1997 she worked as assistant administrator, then Director, of the United Nations Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Africa. Back in Liberia civil unrest was stirring and Samuel Doe was killed by a splinter group from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

Initially supporting Charles Taylor's bloody rebellion against President Samuel Doe in 1990, she later went on to oppose him. An interim government was put in power, led by a succession of four un-elected officials. By 1996 the presence of West African peacekeepers created a lull in the civil war, and elections were held, spurring Sirleaf to return once more to contest the elections. She came second in a controversial election, losing with 10% of the vote to Charles Taylor's 75%. Many observers said the election was fair, though Sirleaf was soon charged with treason.

By 1999 civil war had returned to the region and Taylor was accused of interfering with his neighbours, fomenting unrest and rebellion. On 11 August 2003, after much persuasion, Charles Taylor handed power over to his deputy Moses Blah. The new interim government and rebel groups signed an historic peace accord and set about installing a new head of state.

Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate, but in the end the diverse groups selected Charles Bryant, a political neutral. Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission. Sirleaf played an active role in the transitional government as the country prepared for the 2005 elections, and eventually stood for president against her rival the ex-international footballer, George Weah as leader of the Unity Party. Sirleaf won a majority in the election though Weah disputed the results. The announcement of the new leader was postponed until further investigations were carried out.

On 23 November 2005, Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country's next president. Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.

In November 2007, she received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government's highest civilian award.

Sirleaf is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren. Her great nephew, Emmanuel Sumana Elsar Sr., was her political advisor during the 2007 presidential elections against George Weah.

 

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