Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia
Born October 29, 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia; married James Sirleaf, c. 1955 (divorced); children: four sons. Education: Madison Business College, BBA (accounting), 1964; University of Colorado, BA (economics), 1970; Harvard University, MPA, 1971.
Addresses: Office —c/o Embassy of Liberia, 5201 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20011.
Worked for the World Bank, 1970s; finance minister of Liberia, 1979–80; president of the Liberian National Bank, 1980s; vice-president and Africa representative for Citibank, 1980s; elected to Liberian Senate (did not serve), 1985; Africa director for the United Nations Development Program, 1990s; ran unsuccessfully for presidency of Liberia, 1996; head of Liberia's Governance Reform Commission, c. 2003–05; elected president of Liberia, 2005; inaugurated, 2006.
Member: Organization for African Unity on the Rwandan genocide panel, late 1990s–early 2000s.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated president of Liberia in January of 2006, she not only became the first elected female president in Africa, but also the focus of hope for a country that had seen little of it for 26 years. Since a 1980 coup, Liberia, a nation of three million people in West Africa, had suffered through military dictatorships and civil wars that left it impoverished, indebted, and in mourning. More than 250,000 Liberians had died in the civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, and hundreds of thousands more had been displaced. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, was elected on promises to root out the widespread corruption in the government and redevelop the country. She had a daunting task ahead of her, with most of the country unemployed, without schools, electricity, or running water. But Liberians, who had followed her career opposing Liberia's scheming past leaders, had placed their hopes on her. Her two popular nicknames, "Ma" and the "Iron Lady," reflected the combination of feminine caring and political toughness she projected.
Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in 1938. Her mother was a teacher who would travel by canoe from one school to another. Sirleaf studied in Liberian schools, then went to the United States to earn three more degrees. She worked as a waitress and at a drugstore in Madison, Wisconsin, while attending business school there, then earned a degree in economics from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. Meanwhile, her early marriage to James Sirleaf produced four sons but ended in divorce.
In the late 1970s, Sirleaf began to criticize the economic policies of Liberian president William Tolbert. In 1979, after protests of a proposed increase in the state-subsidized price of rice turned into riots that threatened Tolbert's government, Tolbert appointed Sirleaf as his minister of finance, hoping his former critic could help give his presidency a new direction. Washington Post writer Leon Dash found Sirleaf working in March of 1980 to attract international investors, prospect for oil, and move the Liberian economy from iron ore, which left it at the mercy of the volatile steel market, to tropical tree crops such as oil palm, coffee, and cocoa. But a month later, Tolbert was assassinated during a military coup that installed a young Army sergeant, Samuel Doe, in power. The new government made Sirleaf president of the Liberian National Bank, but she resigned to protest human-rights violations by the regime. She became the Africa representative for the American finance giant Citibank.
Twice in 1985, the Doe regime imprisoned Sirleaf. First, she was charged with treason after criticizing the Doe regime's economic policy in a speech to Liberian-American groups in Philadelphia in July. In the speech, she called for less government intervention in the economy, the construction of fewer large buildings, and more rural development. Government officials also claimed she had called them idiots who were practicing nepotism. Doe claimed that her comments were "detrimental to the peace and stability" of the country, according to Joe Ritchie of the Washington Post , and suggested that the political party she belonged to was implicated in a coup plot. She was placed in a military stockade in August, convicted in a closed military trial, and sentenced to ten years in prison, moves condemned by the U.S. State Department. But a few weeks later, under pressure from the United States government to hold free elections, Doe ordered her and other jailed politicians freed.
Sirleaf ran for Liberia's senate in the October of 1985 elections and won, but her victory was hollow. Doe declared himself the winner of the presidential election, while observers claimed that the candidate from Sirleaf's Liberian Action Party had actually won. Sirleaf announced that she and other members of her party would not serve in the new legislature. "Both the American people and the Liberian people have been defrauded," she declared, according to Blaine Harden of the Washington Post . A coup attempt followed in November, and the Doe regime accused Sirleaf of funding it. Drunken soldiers seized her and she was thrown in prison, along with several other opposition politicians. "As we were going, they told me they were going to take me to the beach and bury me alive," she told Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times . "They started in that direction, changed their minds, put me through tortures, put matches to my hair. They said, 'We're going to burn your hair off,' but didn't do it. They would come as close as possible. It clearly was just meant to terrorize me. That particular night in prison, anything could have happened." Men in her cell were taken away and executed; a soldier approached her intending to rape her, but an officer saved her. She was released after seven months and went into exile in the United States.
In December of 1989, a rebel group led by ex-government minister Charles Taylor launched a civil war to depose Doe. One of his allies, Prince Johnson, soon broke away from Taylor to lead his own force. At first, Sirleaf supported Taylor. Before the war, when Taylor had been working with exiles in the United States to build opposition to Doe, she raised $10,000 for him. "This is not a war being waged to bring the two rebel leaders to power," she wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in August of 1990. "It is a desperate attempt to try to end the brutal and corrupt reign of terror [of] Samuel Doe." A month later, Prince Johnson's forces brutally executed Doe. In 1991, during peace talks, Taylor briefly suggested that he, Sirleaf, and a member of the interim government that replaced Doe should govern the country until elections. However, Sirleaf distanced herself from Taylor as the civil war continued and devolved into ethnic killing, as Taylor developed a stronger reputation for brutality, and as Sirleaf realized that she had been wrong about him—that he was after power.
By 1996, when peace briefly came to Liberia and elections were scheduled for July, Sirleaf left her job as Africa director for the United Nations Development Program, returned to Liberia, and ran against Taylor for the presidency. "We want to carry the message to every county, every hamlet, every village that people can be free from fear now," she said on a Monrovia radio broadcast, according to Karen Lange of the Washington Post . Sirleaf finished a distant second to Taylor. Observers said many Liberians associated Sirleaf and the several other opposition candidates with the failed governing elites of the past, while Taylor had developed a mystique as a strong leader.
But by 1999, Taylor was facing international condemnation for supporting the brutal rebels fighting a civil war in Liberia's neighbor, Sierra Leone. A new group of Liberian rebels rose up against him. Sirleaf, back in exile, sharply criticized United States President Bill Clinton at the National Summit on Africa in Washington, D.C. for not intervening in the war in Sierra Leone. She also criticized the weakness of the United Nations peacekeeping force sent to Sierra Leone, which was not allowed to take aggressive action when war broke out again after a cease-fire. "If the terms of engagement allow you to do nothing but stand and watch, what's the point?" she asked, according to Steven Mufson of the Washington Post . By then, Sirleaf's words carried added moral authority, because the Organization of African Unity had appointed her as a member of a panel investigating another murderous crisis the international community had failed to prevent: the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Sirleaf, named the head of Liberia's opposition Unity Party, returned to Liberia in April of 2002 to prepare for elections scheduled for October of 2003. The same week she returned, Taylor banned all political rallies. "I did not realize that I was that powerful. Maybe I am," she told reporters who asked if she thought Taylor ban was aimed at her, according to the Washington Post . (Taylor said he feared rebel groups, which had advanced near Monrovia, would attack public gatherings.)
Taylor left office and went into exile in Nigeria in August of 2003, two months after a United Nations tribunal indicted him on war-crimes charges for his role supporting the rebels in Sierra Leone. At peace talks in Accra, Ghana, delegates from the Liberian government and rebel forces considered choosing Sirleaf as chairman of a new interim government for Liberia, but instead chose businessman Gyude Bryant. When the peace deal set late 2005 as the new date for elections, Sirleaf announced that she was considering running for president again. The peace deal also created a Governance Reform Commission, and Sirleaf was named its chairperson.
By then, Liberia was in ruins. Four out of five Liberians were unemployed, most of the country's schools had been closed for years, and most of its citizens were living without running water or electricity. Since the army and police force were equally degraded, 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers were patrolling the country to provide security. During her 2005 run for president, Sirleaf promised to fight corruption, promote economic development, and restore electricity to Monrovia within six months. Her most popular promise among Liberian women may have been to get Liberia's children back into school.
Sirleaf's opponents attacked her for having supported Taylor years earlier. Varney Sherman, another presidential candidate, bellowed at Sirleaf in a debate, according to Lane Hartill of the Washington Post : "What have you done to advance the cause of the common people? You funded the destruction of this country!" Sirleaf replied that she had made a mistake in supporting Taylor, and that once she realized it, she had done her part to oppose him. "We accepted him at face value," she said, according to Hartill. "He represented for us the pressure that we needed to bring on Doe. He was only after power himself and personal enrichment. He was a criminal at heart."
Soccer star George Weah emerged as Sirleaf's main opponent. However, Sirleaf had the advantage of being much better educated than Weah. Also, being a woman helped her win the trust of Liberian voters. "Men had ruled the country for 100 years, and it failed," she explained to Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune . Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Weah claimed fraud, but the country's National Election Commission certified her as the winner, and international election observers called the elections free and fair.
Sirleaf was inaugurated on January 16, 2006. Guests at the ceremony included United States First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, South African president Thabo Mbeki, and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. "We recognize this change is not a change for change's sake, but a fundamental break with the past," she said in her inaugural address, as quoted by Hans Nichols of the Washington Post . She promised to "take bold and decisive steps to address the problems that have for decades stunted our progress."
On her first trip abroad as president, Westerners often asked Sirleaf about the fate of ex-president Taylor. He was still living in exile in Nigeria, still wanted for trial before the war-crimes tribunal, but Obasanjo said he would only extradite Taylor if an elected Liberian government requested it. In March, realizing that bringing Taylor to justice would help attract Western financial aid, Sirleaf requested that Nigeria extradite him. After a brief escape, Taylor was arrested near Nigeria's border with Cameroon, sent to Liberia, then quickly sent to Sierra Leone to face trial. Sirleaf's decision pleased Western governments and human-rights advocates, but infuriated Taylor supporters, from some Liberians to Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Her security force foiled plots to assassinate her.
A year into Sirleaf's presidency, she could claim some partial successes. An internationally sponsored office, the Governance and Economic Man- agement Assistance Program, was monitoring public spending and negotiating better terms for the government on several contracts, one reason government revenues had increased by 50 percent. Some parts of Monrovia had received water and electrical service by early 2007. The economy had grown by eight percent. But half of the country's children were still not in school. United Nations troops, not Liberian forces, were still providing most of the security in Monrovia. Emergency assistance for the country was beginning to run out, and Sirleaf found herself asking for more funds. In her January state of the nation address, Sirleaf detailed plans to improve security in the country as well as her plans to set up a viable farming industry.
Sirleaf went to Washington, D.C. in February of 2007 seeking relief from Liberia's debts. The impoverished country owed $3.7 billion to international investors, eight times its annual gross domestic product, 30 times the value of its annual exports, and more than $1,000 per citizen of the country of three million. Most of the debt had been rung up by the Doe and Taylor regimes, and the new government, like many in the developing world, was stuck making huge debt payments rather than spending more of its tax revenue on the needs of its people. Sirleaf had powerful support for her mission. Her plea for debt relief, published in the Wall Street Journal that February, was co-authored by Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank and former member of George W. Bush's administration. A few days later, Rice announced that the United States would forgive Liberia's $391 million debt to it and grant Liberia $200 million in new aid, on top of $500 million it had granted earlier. Bush encouraged other holders of Liberian debt to write off those debts as well.
Observers warned that Sirleaf had only a limited window of opportunity to improve the standard of living in Liberia before its citizens turned again to despair and cynicism. But in early 2007, a popular Liberian hip-hop song about Sirleaf, called "Letter to the President," expressed Liberians' optimism about Sirleaf's leadership, their attachment to her motherly personality, and their extreme need for help. "Hello, Ma," the lyrics say (as quoted by Dixon in the Los Angeles Times ). "See, what we need is change, a change from suffering, a change from poverty. You can make it, Ma. We trust you; that's why we voted for you."
AllAfrica, February 14, 2007.
Chicago Tribune , August 24, 1985, sec. News, p. 4; July 22, 1990, sec. Perspective, p. 1; December 3, 2005, sec. Editorial, p. 24; May 15, 2006, sec. Commentary, p. 21.
Glamour , November 2006, p. 170, pp. 179-81.
Los Angeles Times , January 25, 2007, p. A1.
Wall Street Journal , February 13, 2007, p. A25.
Washington Post , March 3, 1980, p. A18; April 13, 1980, p. A1; August 16, 1985, p. A28; August 24, 1985, p. A20; September 26, 1985, p. A29; October 30, 1985, p. A31; November 18, 1985, p. A24; August 24, 1990, p. A26; March 24, 1991, p. A28; July 22, 1997, p. A17; August 10, 1997, p. C4; February 18, 2000, p. A17; May 8, 2000, p. A1; April 30, 2002, p. A16; August 22, 2003, p. A13; October 5, 2005, p. A16; December 16, 2005, p. C1; January 17, 2006, p. A11; March 18, 2006, p. A17; March 22, 2006, p. A17; March 31, 2006, p. A15.
Washington Times , January 25, 2007, p. A15.
"Johnson-Sirleaf claims Liberia win," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/11/10/Liberia.ap/index.html (November 14, 2005).
"New leader's pledge: Unite Liberia," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/01/16/liberia/ (January 17, 2006).
"Profile: Liberia's 'Iron Lady,'" BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4395978.stm (February 9, 2007).
"Woman wins historic Liberia vote," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/11/23/liberia/index.html (November 28, 2005).
"Liberia's President Outlines Programs, Decries Divisions," Voice of America News, January 30, 2007.
"President Bush Meets with President Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia," White House Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Briefings, February 14, 2007.