Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born on 29 October 1938, in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, amongst the descendants of original colonists of Liberia. These descendants are known in Liberia as Americo-Liberians. Sirleaf’s father Jahmale Carney Johnson became the first Liberian from an indigenous ethnic group to sit in the country’s national legislature.
Sirleaf studied economics and accounts from 1948 to 1955 at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She married James Sirleaf in 1956 when she was 17 years old, and then traveled with him to the United States in 1961 to continue her studies and earned an accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Sirleaf later studied economics and public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1969 to 1971, gaining a Master of Public Administration. She then returned to her native Liberia to work under the government of William Tolbert.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf served as Minister of Finance from 1972 to 73, but left after a disagreement over public spending. As the 70s progressed, life under Liberia’s one-party state became more polarized – to the benefit of the Americo-Liberian elite. Master Sergeant Samuel Kayon Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup on 12 April 1980 and President William Tolbert was executed along with several members of his cabinet by firing squad. The People’s Redemption Council took control of the country and led a purge against the former government. Sirleaf initially accepted a post in the new government as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, though she fled the country in November 1980 after publicly criticizing Doe and the People’s Redemption Council for their management of the country.
Sirleaf moved to Washington D.C. to work for the World Bank before moving to Nairobi in 1981 to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank. She resigned from Citibank in 1985 following her involvement in the 1985 election in Liberia and went to work for Equator Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC. In 1992, was appointed as the Assistant Administrator and then the Director, of the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Africa, from which she resigned in 1997 to run for president in Liberia.
Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 While she was still working at Citibank, to run for Vice President on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the 1985 elections. But she was placed under house arrest in August of that year and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for her speech in which she insulted the members of the Doe regime. Following international calls for her release, 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. Sirleaf refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on November 12, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on November 13 by Doe’s forces. Despite continuing to refuse to accept her seat in the Senate, she was released in July 1986 and secretly fled the country to the United States later that year.
At the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Sirleaf initially supported Charles Taylor rebellion against Doe but later went on to oppose him. By 1996, the presence of ECOWAS peacekeepers allowed for the cessation of hostilities, resulting in the 1997 general election. Sirleaf returned to her native Liberia to contest for the elections. As the presidential candidate for the Unity Party, she placed second in a controversial election, losing with 10% of the vote to Charles Taylor’s 75%. Sirleaf left the country soon after and again went into exile in Abidjan.
With the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate for chairman of the government. Gyude Bryant, a political neutral, was chosen as chairman, while Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission. Sirleaf once again stood for president as the candidate of the Unity Party in the 2005 general election. She placed second in the first round of voting behind footballer George Weah. On 23 November 2005, Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president. Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.
On 26 July 2007, Sirleaf celebrated Liberia’s 160th Independence Day under the theme “Liberia at 160: Reclaiming the future.” She took an unprecedented and symbolic move by asking 25-year old Liberian activist Kimmie Weeks to serve as National Orator for the celebrations. Weeks called for the government to prioritize education and health care. But, President Sirleaf issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children.
In October 2010, Sirleaf signed into law a Freedom of Information bill, the first legislation of its kind in West Africa. In recognition of this, she became the first sitting head of state to receive the Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor’s Union.
Sirleaf is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an international network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development.
Sirleaf is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren. Her great nephew, Emmanuel Sumana Elsar Sr., was her political advisor during the 2005 presidential elections against George Weah.
Sirleaf is recipient of many awards. She recieved Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech Award in 1988, Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award, Grand commander Star of Africa Redemption of Liberia, Commandeur de l’Ordre du Togo (Commander of the Order of Togo), In 2006 She was the recipient of Common Ground Award, Search for Common Ground, In 2006 She received Laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, The Hunger Project, In 2006 Only She recieved Distinguished Fellow, Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, Emory University, Same Year (2006) she was Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws from Marquette University, Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st Forbes magazine in 2006, She was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States by U.S. President George W. Bush on 5 November 2007, She was Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Indiana University (2008), Same year she was Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Brown University, In 2009 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Minnesota, In 2010 She was Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University, Again 2010 She was Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, In 2010 She was also Awarded by The African Editor’s Union with Friend of the Media in Africa Award. 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 “the best president the country has ever had.”