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 a very distant second in the 1997 presidential election. Later, she was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. Sirleaf is the first and currently only elected female head of state in Africa.
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. Her ethnic background is 1/2 Gola from her father’s side, and 1/4 Kru and 1/4German 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.
Sirleaf’s mother was also born into poverty in Greenville, Liberia. Her grandmother Juah Sarwee sent 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.
Early life and career
Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, and studied economics and accounts from 1948 to 1955 at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She married James Sirleaf when she was 17 years old, and then traveled with him to the United States in 1961 to continue her studies and earned an accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Sirleaf later 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 native Liberia to work under the government of William Tolbert.
Sirleaf 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 12, 1980 military coup; Tolbert was assassinated and all but four 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 initially accepted a post in the new government as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, though she fled the country in November 1980 after publicly criticizing Doe and the People’s Redemption Council for their management of the country.
Sirleaf initially moved to Washington D.C. to work for the World Bank before moving to Nairobi in 1981 to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank. She resigned from Citibank in 1985 following her involvement in the 1985 election in Liberia and went to work for Equator Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC. In 1992, was appointed as the Assistant Administrator, then Director, of the United Nations Development Programme‘s Regional Bureau for Africa, from which she resigned in 1997 to run for president in Liberia. During her time at the UN, she was one of the seven internationally eminent persons designated in 1999 by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide, one of the five Commission Chairs for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and one of two international experts selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peace building. She was the initial Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).
1985 general election
While working at Citibank, Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the 1985 elections. However, Sirleaf was placed underhouse 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 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.
Though the elections, which saw Doe and the National Democratic Party win the presidency and large majorities in both houses, were widely condemned as neither free nor fair, Sirleaf was declared the winner of her Senate race. Sirleaf refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on November 12, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on November 13 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.
1997 presidential campaign
At the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Sirleaf initially supported Charles Taylor rebellion against Doe, helping to raise funds for his cause. However, she later went on to oppose him. By 1996, the presence of ECOWAS peacekeepers allowed for the cessation of hostilities, resulting in the 1997 general election, which Sirleaf returned to her native Liberia to contest. As the presidential candidate for the Unity Party, she placed second in a controversial election, losing with 10% of the vote to Charles Taylor’s 75%. Sirleaf left the country soon after and again went into exile inAbidjan.
2005 presidential campaign
After the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate for chairman of the government. Ultimately, Gyude Bryant, a political neutral, was chosen as chairman, while Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission.
Sirleaf once again stood for president as the candidate of the Unity Party in the 2005 general election. She placed second in the first round of voting behind footballer George Weah. In the subsequent run-off election, Sirleaf earned 59% of the vote to 40% for Weah, 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, includingUnited States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.
A fire broke out at the Executive Mansion on July 26, 2006, seriously damaging the structure. An independent panel formed to investigate the incident ruled out arson, attributing the fire to an electrical malfunction. Sirleaf called funding for the repair of the mansion a low priority and transferred her office to the nearby Foreign Ministry building, while choosing to live at her personal home in Monrovia.
On 26 July 2007, Sirleaf celebrated Liberia’s 160th Independence Day under the theme “Liberia at 160: Reclaiming the future.” She took an unprecedented and symbolic move by asking 25-year old Liberian activist Kimmie Weeks to serve as National Orator for the celebrations, where Weeks called for the government to prioritize education and health care. A few days later, President Sirleaf issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children.
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.
On November 3, 2010, Sirleaf dismissed her entire cabinet from office, promising to reassemble the cabinet in a short of time as possible. She argued that the move was taken to give her administration a “clean slate” in preparation for the final year of her term, though critics argued that the move was aimed to bolster her chances at reelection by confronting corruption in her administration. By early December 2010, Sirleaf had reconstituted her entire cabinet, replacing seven of her nineteen ministers.
From the beginning of her presidency, Sirleaf vowed to make reduction of the national debt, which stood at approximately $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 with 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, theUnited 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. On 16 September, the Paris Club agreed to cancel $1.26 billion, with independent bilateral creditors canceling an additional $107 million, essentially writing off Liberia’s remaining external debt. Sirleaf vowed to prevent excess borrowing in the future by restricting annual borrowing to 3% of GDP and limiting expenditure of all borrowed funds to one-off infrastructure projects.
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.
On 26 July 2009, Sirleaf apologized to Liberia for supporting Charles Taylor, adding that “when the true nature of Mr. Taylor’s intentions became known, there was no more impassioned critic or strong opponent to him in a democratic process” than she. On 28 August, the Legislature announced they must “consult our constituents for about a year” before deciding whether or not to implement the Commission’s recommendations.
During an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010, Sirleaf argued that the implementation of the TRC’s recommended ban would unconstitutionally violate her right to due process. In October 2010, the chairman of Sirleaf’s Unity Party, Varney Sherman, argued that implementation of the recommendation would be unconstitutional, as Article 21(a) of the Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws, and Sirleaf had broken no law at the time by financially supporting Taylor.
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 Liberiaduring the Second Liberian Civil War.
Sirleaf has forged close relations with the United States, Liberia’s traditional ally. Following the establishment of 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 headquarted 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 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.
Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st most powerful women 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 “the best president the country has ever had.”
In 1956, Sirleaf married James Sirleaf, whom she later divorced. Sirleaf is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren. Her great nephew, Emmanuel Sumana Elsar Sr., was her political advisor during the 2005 presidential elections against George Weah.
- 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
- 2006 Distinguished Fellow, Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, Emory University
- 2006 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws from Marquette University 
- 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 Indiana University
- 2008 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Brown University
- 2009 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Minnesota
- 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
- 2010 Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor’s Union