“On this day in 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a diminutive grandmother dubbed the “”Iron Lady,”” was elected president of Liberia, the first elected female leader on the African continent.
Born on 29 October 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia, to ethnically diverse parents who were born poor and raised by Americo-Liberian (Liberians of African-American descent) families, Sirleaf was ambitious from the start. She studied economics and accounts in Monrovia, then traveled to the United States where she earned degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Harvard University. She returned to Monrovia to serve in the government, but was exiled to Nairobi, and later, the United States, when President William Tolbert was killed in a coup. In 1985, Sirleaf returned to Liberia and ran for the Senate, but she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking out against the Samuel Doe military regime, which had assassinated Tolbert five years earlier. She served a partial sentence and in 1997, began working as an economist for the World Bank and Citibank in Africa. In 1990, Sirleaf supported Charles Taylor’s rebellion against President Samuel Doe, then ran unsuccessfully against Taylor in the 1997 presidential election, after which Taylor charged Sirleaf with treason. Finally, on 23 November 2005, after campaigning for the removal of Taylor and promising economic development and an end to corruption, Sirleaf, representing the Unity Party, was elected president of Liberia. When she was inaugurated two months later, she became the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state.
Under Sirleaf’s presidency, Liberia successfully reduced its national debt, forged close relations with the US and China, and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate officials, who in the previous two decades of internal civil conflict, proved themselves unfit for elected office. Sirleaf was one of 50 people named in that list for her initial financial support of President Charles Taylor during the start of the First Liberian Civil War. The TRC’s proposed list of 50 personalities who should be banned from elected office, including Sirleaf, was later found unconstitutional.
A mother of four, grandmother of eight, and known as Liberia’s “”Iron Lady,”” Sirleaf is something of an international darling. She has received numerous international awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Forbes magazine named her the 51st most powerful woman in the world in 2006; And in 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, TIME included her among the top ten female leaders, and the Economist called her “”arguably the best president the country has ever had.””
Now in her early 70s, Sirleaf continues to serve as Liberia’s 24th president.”
Credit: Alamy BHF4RJ
Caption: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia and the first woman to lead an African country, in Berlin, Germany.