When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated the 24th president of the Republic of Liberia on January 16, 2006, she became Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. Her election reflected the hope and belief that African nations could embrace participatory democracy.
Ellen Euphemia Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia on October 29, 1938, to Jahmale Carney Johnson, an attorney descended from a Gola chief, and Martha Dunbar, a mixed-race (Kru and German) teacher. Johnson grew up with one sister and two brothers.
From 1948 until 1955, Johnson studied accounting and economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. In 1956, she married James “Doc” Sirleaf. Over the next few years, while Doc worked as a teacher at the Booker Washington Institute, a vocational high school in Liberia, she was a homemaker.
When her husband received a scholarship to study agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1960s, Sirleaf traveled to the United States with him. Eventually Sirleaf received a scholarship of her own, and then earned a B.B.A. in Accounting from the Madison (Wisconsin) Business College in 1964. As Sirleaf became more interested in economics and a career of her own, Doc grew more controlling and abusive, leading the couple to separate and eventually divorce.
Sirleaf continued her studies and received a degree in economics from the University of Colorado in 1970, followed by a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1971.
In 1972, 34 year old Sirleaf returned to Liberia to serve as Assistant Minister of Finance for President William Tolbert, a post she held for one year until 1973. In 1979, she became Liberia’s first female Minister of Finance. On April 12, 1980, President Tolbert was removed from power and executed in a coup led by then Sgt. Samuel Doe. After narrowly escaping being assassinated, Sirleaf fled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she served as Director of Citibank from 1983 to 1985.
Returning to Liberia in 1985 to run for a seat in the Senate, Sirleaf was sentenced to 10 years for criticizing now President Doe’s military regime. After serving a partial jail sentence, Sirleaf fled to the United States in 1986 where she first worked at the (HSCB) Equator Bank in Washington, D.C., and later as Assistant Administrator and then Director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa from 1992 to 1997.
In 1997, Sirleaf returned to Liberia a third time. On this occasion she ran for president but lost badly to President Charles Taylor. When Taylor was deposed by a coalition of African armies, Sirleaf joined the transitional government which set the stage for the 2005 election. She ran for president again winning over 60% of the vote as she defeated George Weah, a former international soccer star.
In 2007, Sirleaf received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor given by an American President. In 2011 Sirleaf, along with two other women, Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” That same year Sirleaf won her second term as Liberia’s president, and was sworn in on January 15, 2012. Later in 2012 Sirleaf was given two other distinguished awards, the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award and public distinction, and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has four adult sons and eleven grandchildren.