Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen

Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen

Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen: see Sirleaf, Ellen Johnson.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born October 29, 1938) is the current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert from 1979 until the 1980 coup d'état, after which she left Liberia and held senior positions at various financial institutions. She placed a distant second in the 1997 presidential election. Later, she was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on January 16 2006.

Johnson-Sirleaf is often referred to as the "Iron Lady", and she is Africa's first elected female head of state. She has pledged to embark neoliberal reforms.


Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. She is a descendent of Americo-Liberians, ex-African slaves from The United States and indigenous Liberian. Johnson-Sirleaf studied economics and accounts from 1948 to 1955 at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She was married to James Sirleaf when she was only 17 years old, and then traveled to America in 1961 to continue her studies at the where she eventually earned a degree. Johnson-Sirleaf then read economics at Harvard from 1969 to 1971, gaining a Masters Degree in public administration. She then returned to her home country of Liberia to work under the government of William Tolbert. Mrs. Sirleaf is the mother of four boys and has eight grandchildren. She served as Finance Minister from 1972 to 1973 under Tolbert's administration. She resigned after getting into a disagreement about spending. A few years later Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup 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. Johnson-Sirleaf was able to narrowly escape by going into exile in Kenya. From 1983 to 1985 she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi. When Samuel Doe declared himself president of Liberia and unbanned political parties in the country, she decided to return to her home country to participate in elections and run against Doe. She was placed under house arrest for doing so, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Johnson-Sirleaf served a much shorter time before taking the offer to once more go into exile.

She moved to Washington D.C., and served as Vice President of both the African Regional Office of Citibank, in Nairobi, and of (HSCB) Equator Bank, in Washington. From 1992 to 1997 she worked as assistant administrator, then Director, of the United Nations Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Africa. Back in Liberia civil unrest was stirred and Samuel Doe was killed by a splinter group from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Initially supporting Charles Taylor's bloody rebellion against President Samuel Doe in 1990, she later went on to oppose him. An interim government was put in power, lead by a succession of four un-elected officials. By 1996 the presence of West African peacekeepers created a lull in the civil war, and elections were held, spurring Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to return once more to contest the elections. She came second in a controversial election, losing to Charles Taylor who got 10% of the vote. Many observers said the election was fair, though Johnson-Sirleaf was soon charged with treason.

By 1999 civil war had returned to the region and Taylor was accused of interfering with his neighbours, fomenting unrest and rebellion. On 11 August 2003, after much persuasion, Charles Taylor handed power over to his deputy Moses Blah. The new interim government and rebel groups signed an historic peace accord and set about installing a new head of state. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate, but in the end the diverse groups selected Charles Bryant, a political neutral. Johnson-Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission. Johnson-Sirleaf played an active role in the transitional government as the country prepared for the 2005 elections, and eventually stood for president against her rival the ex-international footballer, George Weah as leader of the Unity Party. Johnson-Sirleaf won a majority in the election through Weah disputed the results. The announcement of the new leader was postponed until further investigations were carried out.

On 23 November 2005, Ellen Johnson-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 US First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, took place on Monday 16 January, 2006.


During the election campaign, the grandmother figure was often dwarfed by her party officials and bodyguards. One veteran of Liberia's political scene said Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf's nickname comes from her iron will and determination.

"It would have been much easier for her to quit politics and sit at home like others have done but she has never given up".

In the first round of 2005 voting, she came second with 175,520 votes, putting her through to the runoff vote on November 8 against former soccer player George Weah. On November 11, the National Elections Commission of Liberia declared Johnson Sirleaf to be president-elect of Liberia. On November 23, they confirmed their decision saying that Johnson Sirleaf had won with a margin of almost 20% of the vote. Independent, international, regional, and domestic observers declared the vote to be free, fair, and transparent. Her supporters said she had two advantages over the man she faced in the run-off - former football star George Weah - she is better educated and is a woman. Her inauguration took place on January 16 2006; foreign attendees of the ceremony included Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Michaëlle Jean.

On March 15 2006, President Johnson Sirleaf addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress, asking for American support to help her country “become a brilliant beacon, an example to Africa and the world of what love of liberty can achieve.”

Uncomfortably for Johnson Sirleaf, former President Taylor's followers remain in large numbers in Liberia's government. Taylor's estranged wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, is in the Senate. So is Prince Johnson, whose gruesome torture and murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990 was captured on a widely-distributed videotape.

On July 26 2007, President Johnson 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. Kimmie became Liberia's youngest National Orator in over a hundred years and delivered a powerful speech. He called for the government to prioritize education and health care. A few days later, President Sirleaf issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children.


  • 1972–circa 1978: Assistant Minister of Finance of Liberia
  • 1979–1980: Minister of Finance of Liberia
  • 1982–1985: Vice President of the Africa Regional Office of Citibank, Nairobi
  • 1986–1992: Vice President and member of the executive board of Equator Bank, Washington, D.C.
  • 1988–1999: Member of board of directors of The Synergos Institute
  • 1992–1997: Director of the UN Development Programme Regional Bureau for Africa
  • 1997: Presidential candidate of the Unity Party
  • 2004–2005: Chairperson of the Commission on Good Governance (Liberia)
  • 2005: Standard bearer of the Unity Party; Candidate for President
  • 2006-present: President of Liberia

Other previous positions:

  • Founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership
  • Member of the advisory board of the Modern Africa Growth and Investment Company
  • Member of the finance committee of the Modern Africa Fund Managers
  • President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment
  • President of the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation
  • Senior loan officer of World Bank
  • Vice president of Citibank

Miscellaneous information

Her granddaughter attended North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, GA


  • From Disaster to Development (1991)
  • The Outlook for Commercial Bank Lending to Sub-Saharan Africa (1992)
  • Co-author: Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building (2002), a project of UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women)
  • Contributor "Because I am a Girl - : In the Shadow of War" a study into girls in reference to the achievement of the Millineum Development Goals




  • Jon Lee Anderson, Letter from Liberia, "After the Warlords," The New Yorker, March 27, 2006.

See also

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