Meet Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Africa's First Elected Female Head of State

Meet Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Africa’s First Elected Female Head of State

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born, 29 October 1938) is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was the first woman to be elected head of state of an African country.

Johnson Sirleaf was one of three recipients, along with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmān, of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace for their efforts to further women’s rights.

Sirleaf Education and Early Public Service

Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, her father(the first indigenous Liberian to sit in the national legislature) a decent of Gola, and her mom Kru-German. She did her college at the College of West Africa. In 1961 she furthered her education in the United States where studied economics and business administration at Madison Business College and a master’s degree (1971) in public administration from Harvard University.

She returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert’s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974. Later she worked again in the West, for the World Bank in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1979, she received a cabinet appointment as Minister of Finance, serving from 1980 to 85 in Samuel K. Doe’s military dictatorship.

She clashed with both heads of state. During Doe’s regime, she was imprisoned twice and narrowly avoided execution. In the 1985 national election, she campaigned for a seat in the Senate and openly criticized the military government, which led to her arrest and a 10-year prison sentence. She was released after a short time and allowed to leave the country.

Sirleaf initially moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the World Bank. In 1981, she moved to Nairobi, Kenya to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank. She resigned from Citibank in 1985 following her involvement at the 1985 general election in Liberia. She went to work for Equator Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC.

In 1992, Sirleaf was appointed as the Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Africa at the rank of Assistant Administrator and Assistant Secretary-General (ASG). She is internationally known as Africa’s Iron Lady. This is due to her political prowess. She resigned from this role in 1997 in order to run for the presidency of 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 the two international experts selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peacebuilding. 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).


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.” In 2010, Sirleaf released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.

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In the 1985 general election, she resigned from her job at Citibank to run for Vice President under Jackson Doe on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party. However, Sirleaf was placed under house arrest in August 1985 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 Samuel Doe regime.

Following international calls for her release, Samuel 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 was declared the winner of her Senate race, but she refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud.

Sirleaf returned to Liberia to contest for the 1997 general election. She ran as the presidential candidate for the Unity Party and came second in a controversial election, getting 25% of the vote to Charles Taylor’s 75%. After controversy about the results and being accused of treason, Sirleaf left Liberia and went into exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Sirleaf ran for the 2005 general election, as the candidate of the Unity Party in 2005. Sirleaf earned 59% of the vote versus 40% for Weah, though Weah disputed the results.

The announcement of the new leader was postponed until further election 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 and the first woman to be elected as president of an African country. Her inauguration took place on 16 January 2006. It was attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush.

Despite having previously pledged to serve only one term as president, in 2010 Johnson Sirleaf announced her intent to stand in the October 2011 presidential election, stating that she still had work to do. Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize mere days before the poll.

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. Tubman came in second with 32.7%, pitting him against Sirleaf in the second round. Tubman called for a boycott of the run-off, claiming that the results of the first round had been fraudulent. Sirleaf denied the allegations, and international observers reported that the first-round election had been free, fair, and transparent.

As a result of the boycott, Sirleaf won the second round with 90.7% of the vote, though voter turnout significantly declined from the first round. 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 the presidential oath for her second presidency on 16 January 2012.

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Sirleaf Personal life

In 1956, Ellen Johnson married James Sirleaf. They had four sons together before their divorce. She grew up as a Presbyterian, but later joined her husband’s Methodist faith. Through her sons, she has ten grandchildren.