NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 09: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joins former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton for the official release of the No Ceilings Full Participation Report which coincides with the start of the 59th session of the United Nations? Commission on the Status of Women on March 9, 2015 in New York City. Global and community leaders participated in the program which looked to highlight the findings showing 20 years of global data compiled by No Ceilings reveals that there is more to done to achieve ?full and equal participation? of women and girls worldwide. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Africa’s first female president: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938) is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa.

Born in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother, Sirleaf was educated at the College of West Africa before moving to the United States, where she studied at Madison Business College and Harvard University. She returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert’s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974 and later went to work for the World Bank in the Caribbean and Latin America. She returned to work for the late president Tolbert’s government again as deputy minister of Finance before being promoted to the post of Minister of Finance from 1979 to 1980. After Samuel Doe seized power in a coup d’état and executed Tolbert, Sirleaf fled to the United States. She worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank before returning to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado county in the disputed 1985 elections.

After returning to Liberia, Sirleaf ran for office, and finished in second place at the 1997 presidential election won by Charles Taylor. She won the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. She was re-elected in 2011. In June 2016, she was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold the position since it was created.

In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Sirleaf was conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12 September 2013. In 2016, she was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine

President Sirleaf became president after a devastating civil war and led a process of nation building and reconciliation. During her time in office she convinced creditors to erase almost $5 billion of external debt and managed Liberia’s Ebola crisis. The capital had no running water or electricity, and unemployment was an astounding 80 percent. Reflecting how slowly economic wheels were turning, the annual budget was a mere $80 million. Annual donor aid was three-and-a-half times that. Sirleaf said her top priorities would include stamping out corruption, getting electricity in the capital and assuring a future for 100,000 ex-combatants who laid down arms last year, many of whom are prowling the streets, unemployed.

Sirleaf took charge of a ruined nation struggling for peace after a quarter-century of coups and war. Speaking for the first time as president, she also promised to stamp out corruption to secure the trust of skeptical foreign donors whose aid is desperately needed to rebuild.   

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated Sirleaf, saying she had a “historic mandate to lead the nation toward a future of lasting peace and stability.”   

Turning around Africa’s oldest independent state – first founded for freed US slaves – where institutions had become rotten to the core, was never going to be easy. Standing in front of a Liberian flag with her left hand on a Bible, Sirleaf pledged to “faithfully, conscientiously and impartially discharge the duties and functions of the office of president of the Republic of Liberia to the best of my abilities, so help me God.”

“All around Africa, there is a sense that incremental change is not enough to deliver on the promise of the continent’s future. The demand of the young rings loud and clear: we must strive for transformational change.

However, women and youth, and the catalytic forces of change we know them to be, remain the missing link on this journey toward change.

I hold two mutually reinforcing positions about Africa’s future.

First, realising national development agendas depends on strong government capacity. Good governance and a robust civil service can serve as the engine for formulating and implementing policies conducive to development goals.

Second — and my main reason for writing — is that for as long as Africa excludes its women and girls from full participation in and leadership of their societies, the transformational change the continent desperately needs will remain elusive.

These truths hold not only in Liberia, where our post-conflict consolidation has seen remarkable progress in the last decade, but also in other settings still grappling with capacity challenges in delivering effective education, health, and security services to the people.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

As she wrapped up her 12-year presidency, Liberian former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf left behind what has been described as a legacy of “fragile gains.” Faced with the almost insurmountable challenge of building a country ravaged by civil war and saddled with crippling debts, she was able to negotiate settlements, rebuild infrastructure, and lift sanctions; she was also considered a strong proponent of equal rights for women. But she also came under fire for cronyism and corruption, and during the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014, her decision to use troops to quarantine the heavily infected and poor West Point neighborhood was widely criticized. Despite this, she receives credit for some parts of her leadership, including her final presidential act: Stepping aside to let the country’s democratic process choose its next leader.

Inaugurated as president in January 2018, George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah is a Liberian politician and former professional football player currently serving as the 25th President of Liberia.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,

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