Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a politician, economist and the 24th President of Liberia who served from 2006 – 2018. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa. Also, she is the first woman to chair the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2016 since its creation.
Sirleaf is a Nobel Laureate, she won the peace award along with two others in 2011 – Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karma. Aside this, she has also won notable leadership awards including the Mo Ibrahim Prize in 2017.
Generally, Sirleaf is regarded as Africa’s Iron Lady. She is a promoter of peace, freedom and women empowerment. In 2008, she published the memoir, This Child Will Be Great.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Background
She was born Ellen Eugenia Johnson in October 1938 in Monrovia. Her father, Jahmale was from the Gola tribe and her mother, Juah, a Kru-German descent.
Firstly, she attended the College of West Africa from 1946 -1955. After some time, she moved to the United States to complete her education. In the US, she attended Madison Business College to study Accounting.
Subsequently, Ellen went to the University of Colorado Boulder and earned a degree in Economics. Also, she had her Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1969 to 1971.
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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Early Career
Ellen worked at the Treasury Department in Liberia in 1965. Then, after her education in the US, she came back and worked in William Tolbert’s government as Deputy Minister of Finance.
Next, in 1979, she was appointed Minister of Finance, where she introduced policies to address mismanagement of government finance. Then, in 1980, she moved to the US following a coup d’etat in Liberia.
In the US, she worked at the World Bank. Then, she became the Vice president of Citibank’s Africa regional office in Nairobi. Later on, she became the vice president of Equator Bank.
In addition, Sirleaf also worked as Assistant Administrator of the UN Development Programme, as a Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa. Later on, she resigned to contest for Liberia presidency in 1997.
Also, she served as the Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission of the National Transition Government of Liberia and resigned in 2004 to take on the nomination for the Unity Party of Liberia leadership.
Ellen got married to James Sirleaf in 1956 at the age of 17. However, in 1961, the duo divorced due to James’ abuse. Their marriage is blessed with four sons. Ellen has several grandchildren.
Ellen started getting involved in politics right from 1985 after returning to Liberia from the US.
First, she contested for a senatorial seat for Montserrado County. Then, in 1997, she lost the presidential race to former President Charles Taylor. Consequently, she contested again in 2005 and this time, she emerged the winner.
On January 16, 2006, Sirleaf was inaugurated as the 24th president of Liberia and the first female elected president in Liberia and Africa. Also, in November 2011, she was re-elected into office. Then, in January 2018, she handed power to George Weah.
As the President, Sirleaf focused on rebuilding the country after the Liberia bloody civil war ended. She pledged to promote national reconciliation by bringing in opposition leaders into her administration. For instance, She brought in Minster of Transport, Jeremiah Sulunteh; Minister of Education, Joseph Korto; and others. Also, Sirleaf appointed women to high-level positions in her government.
In addition, she attracted over $16 billion in foreign direct investment. Also, more than $5 million was also attracted to private resources to rebuild schools, clinics, markets and to fund scholarships for capacity building.
Besides that, she successfully negotiated $4.6 billion in external debt and the lifting of UN trade sanctions, which have allowed Liberia to once again access international markets. She increased the national budget from $80 million in 2006 to over $672 million in 2012, with annual GDP growth rate of more than 7%.
In October 2010, she signed the Freedom of Information Bill into law, and as a result, was awarded the Friend of the Media Africa Award.
The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center For Women And Development
Generally, the Ellen Johnson center was established to be a catalyst for change across Africa. It seeks to become the premier institution dedicated to advancing and sustaining women’s public leadership and social development across Africa.
Basically, Ellen is passionate about supporting the next generation of women, therefore, the Amujae Initiative was launched to commemorate the International Women’s Day 2020. The name Amujae is derived from a phrase in kru, a Liberian local dialect, a moo jaee which means – ‘We are going up’.
Generally, the aim of the initiative is to shift the landscape for women in public leadership in Africa, moving from a culture of tokenism to one that truly values women leaders. With this, several women have been chosen across the African continent and will be groomed on how to become great leaders.
Awards And Recognition
Ellen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. The award is in recognition of her non-violent struggle and effort to the safety of women and women’s rights in full participation of the peacekeeping process. Also, she has received several medals, honorary doctorate awards, and notable recognition from beyond the shores of Africa.
Some these include;
Award And Medals
Freedom of Speech Award, Roosevelt Institute, 1988
Gold Medal of the President of the Italian Republic, 2006
Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, 2006
Common Ground Award recipient, Search for Common Ground, 2006
National Reconciliation Award, 2006
International Woman of the Year, 2006
International Republican Institute Freedom Award, 2006
David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award from Synergos, 2006
Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2007
National Civil Rights Museum Annual Freedom Award, 2007
National Democratic Institute Harriman Award, 2007
Bishop T. Walker Humanitarian Award, 2007
FAO’s CERES Medal, 2008
Golden Plate Award, 2008
International Women’s Leadership Award, 2008
International Crisis Group Fred Cuny Award for the Prevention of Deadly Crisis, 2008
James and Eunice K. Matthews Bridge Building Award, 2008
American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award, 2008
EITI Award, 2009
FUECH Grand Cross Award, 2009
Friend of the Media Award, 2010
African Gender Award, 2011
Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, 2012
Grand-Criox de la Legion d’Honneur, 2012
Mo Ibrahim Prize, 2017
Also, she has received an honorary doctorate from the following institutions:
Tilburg University (Netherlands)
The Nigerian Defence Academy,
The University of Massachusetts Medical School,
The University of Abeokuta (Nigeria)
The University of Minnesota
Furman University of South Carolina,
Langston University, Spelman College
University of Tampa
Other Recognition Are;
51 Most Powerful Women in the World, Forbes Magazine, 2006
One of the World Top Ten Leaders, Newsweek Magazine, 2010
One of the Top ten female leaders, Time Magazine, 2010
Best President Liberia has ever had, The Economist, 2010
83rd Most Powerful Woman in the World by Forbes, Magazine, 2016
One of the 70 Most Powerful Women in the world by Forbes, 2015
One of the 50 Most Powerful Women In Africa, 2020
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Quotes
“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
“When it comes to advancing women’s public leadership, we don’t have the luxury of time. Africa’s development depends upon harnessing the energy of our women to accelerate progress.”
“Regardless of our ages, or where we come from, we are the same. We have so much more to do to lift women up in our own countries, in Africa, and around the world.”
“Leadership is never given on a silver platter; one has to earn it.”
“With an education, a girl has the opportunity to write her own future and make informed decisions about her career, body, health, partner and more.”
“To stand as a role model in your society means working within your society and being able to help those in your society.”
Lessons From The Life Of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Be More Deliberate
Growing up wasn’t luxury for Ellen. She got married at age 17 after high school. Soon after, she gave birth to four children, as at the time the majority of her colleagues were moving on with their education. Even then, she was a homemaker and cared for her family.
Notwithstanding her situation then, she still had a dream. Going to College became a priority for her. She disclosed “going to college became a goal so that I could equal those friends and classmates who had gone ahead”.
With that dream in mind, she moved to the US and furthered her education. Getting an education paved the way for her to achieve her dreams.
Beyond Survival, Strive To Succeed
According to Sirleaf, “It’s been a lifetime… of making sure that I keep struggling to not only survive but to succeed”. For instance, in order to be safe and fulfill a political dream, Ellen fled Liberia on countless occasions.
Besides, she was also thrown into jail at different times by political opposition. In short, the trials were endless at the time. But despite all of these, Ellen grew stronger and made history for herself. Whatever she did, she didn’t just want to survive, she wanted to make history.
As entrepreneurs, it’s nice to start small and slow, but when you master the waters, you have to look for ways to scale. You cannot continue to play small. You have to face your fears and take the bull by the horn.