Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: 10 Major Accomplishments
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is perhaps the most popular Liberian woman in modern history. She attained this feat of hers by serving as the President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. During that period she established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal after the bitter and tragic civil war of the 90s. President Sirleaf also won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her contributions to the social and economic empowerment of women not just in Liberia but across the globe.
Aside from being rated highly by her peers and many international organizations, Mrs Johnson Sirleaf has been consistently ranked among the top 5 most influential women from the African continent. We look at why Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is so influential by studying her 10 major accomplishments.
Quick Facts about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Birth Day and Place – October 29, 1938; Monrovia, Liberia
Born – Ellen Eugenia Johnson
Father – Jahmale Carney Johnson
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Education – Madison Business College; University of Colorado Boulder; Harvard University
Spouse – James Sirleaf (married in 1956; divorced in 1961)
Children – 4
Political Party – Liberian Action Party (1985–1996); Unity Party (1997–2018)
Elected offices – 24th President of Liberia (2006–2018)
Famous for – Liberia’s first female president; First democratically-elected female head of state in Africa; Nobel Peace Prize in 2011; Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
Nicknames – Iron Lady
10 Major Achievements of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Deputy Minister of Finance
After a number of years in studying in the United States, at institutions such as the Madison Business College and the University of Colorado Boulder, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to take up an appointment in President William Tolbert’s (20th President of Liberia) administration. The Harvard trained Public Administration graduate served as the deputy Minister of Finance between 1971 – 1974. She came to nationwide acclaim after she chastised corporations in Liberia for transferring their gains outside Liberia.
After falling out with high ranking government officials in President Tolbert’s administration, Ellen Johnson resigned from her position at the Ministry of Finance. She did however continue to feature in public affairs of the country until Sergeant Samuel Doe toppled Tolbert’s government in the April 1980 coup d’état. The ensuing chaos and the Doe’s persecution of ministers in Tolbert’s government forced Ellen Johnson to flee her home country in November 1980.
She chalked quite an impressive term in the global financial sector
While in exile, Ellen Johnson took up a number gigs in the financial sector. For example, she worked at the World Bank office (Caribbean and Latin America) in Washington D.C. for a number of years. She later moved to East Africa, where she took up the position of Vice President at the African Regional Office, Citibank.
While in exile, Sirleaf remained mindful of the precarious situation in her home country. She also did not shy away from criticizing Samuel Doe’s military regime.
After spending close to four years in Nairobi, Kenya, Sirleaf went on to have brief stint in Equator Bank, a subsidiary of the British multinational investment bank HSBC. She followed this up with a spell in the United Nations, working as the Director of the United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Africa in 1992.
Won a Senate seat in Montserrado County
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s first real spell in politics came in 1985, when she was nominated as the vice presidential candidate for the Liberian Action Party. In what was most likely a rigged election, military leader Samuel Doe and his National Democratic Party came out victorious in the election. Weary of Sirleaf’s influence in the country, Samuel Doe briefly placed Sirleaf and several other opposition figures under house arrest. Sirleaf was even sentenced to ten years in prison on trumped up charges of sedition.
After mounting international pressure on President Doe’s government, Sirleaf was released a month’s later. Not deterred, she went on to contest and win a seat in the Senate (representing Monserrado County); she, however, declined the seat as a form of protest to the brutalities of Doe’s regime.
Head of the Governance Reform Commission
With some semblance of democracy restored to Liberia in the lead up to the 1997 presidential election, Sirleaf contested in her first presidential election for the Unity Party. She garnered 25% at the polls, losing to would-be civil war lord Charles Taylor. Post the election, the country was plunged into a second civil war, which forced Sirleaf into another exile, in neighboring Ivory Coast.
While in exile, Sirleaf did her possible best to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia. Owing to the immense role she played in fostering peace, she was appointed chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission. In that role she continued to push for reconciliation in the country after the Second Liberian Civil War ended in late 2003.
First female President of Liberia
With relative peace and stability restored in the country, Liberians were able to hold a general election in 2005. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf contested on the ticket of the Unity Party. After the first round failed to produce an outright majority winner, the second round of election was held; Sirleaf emerged the victor, defeat legendary footballer George Weah by 59% to 40% of the votes.
On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the 24th President of Liberia. By so doing, she became the first woman in Africa to be democratically elected head of state. Her inauguration ceremony was attended by several dignitaries, including former U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Owing to her steady management of affairs, Liberians kept faith in her and re-elected in 2011.
Received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011
The year 2011 was really special for Sirleaf as she, along with two other distinguished women’s rights activist – Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen – picked up the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee selected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for the prize, which was established by the renowned Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, because of her unrelenting commitment to the advancement of women rights in Liberia and beyond. She and her fellow Nobel Peace laureates were singled out for the various roles they played in fostering peace in their respective countries.
This achievement of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf puts her in the elite group of African leaders that have won the Peace Prize, which includes the likes of South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in 1993, Egypt’s Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat in 1978, and Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed in 2019.
Stabilized the Liberian Economy
Some of the laudable programs that characterized her term in office was the free and compulsory elementary school education she rolled out in 2007. Her administration also passed the Freedom of Information bill in October 4, 2010, which made Liberia the first West African country to have such a law.
Another significant feat of achievement came when she helped Liberia secure debt reliefs from the U.S. and Germany; the later even helped Liberia pay about 60% of its debt obligation to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sirleaf made it the priority of her administration to keep the nation’s annual borrowing to 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
For her efforts in promoting transparency and accountability (i.e. the Freedom of Information bill of 2010), The African Editor’s Union awarded her the Friend of the Media in Africa Award.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also able to attract tens of millions of dollars in foreign direct investments into the Liberian economy.
An advocate of reconciliation and inclusive governance in Liberia
Sirleaf’s tenure in office was characterized by messages and polices aimed at national reconciliation and unity. She walked the talk by inviting some members of the opposition into her cabinet. For example, she appointed Jeremiah Sulunteh to the transportation ministry. She also appointed Joseph Korto and Nathaniel Barnes to the positions of Minister of Education and Ambassador to the United Nations respectively.
As a staunch women’s rights activist, Sirleaf included a number of women in her cabinet. The top positions in finance, gender and development, youth and sports, and commerce and industry ministries were all filled by women.
After serving two full terms, Sirleaf was succeeded by long-time foe-turned-ally George Weah. It was the first time since 1944 that Liberia had safely handled a peaceful transfer of power from one government to another.
Other notable accomplishments of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Here are a few more worth-mentioning achievements of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:
- In partnership with several sub-Saharan African countries and other international organizations, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was able to manage the West African Ebola virus outbreak (2013 – 2016), which originally spread from neighboring Guinea into countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.
- On November 5, 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award in the United States – by then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
- At the 49th ECOWAS heads of state meeting in Dakar Senegal, she became the first female to hold the title of Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been a recipient of several international awards for her leadership and women’s rights activism. Examples of those awards include: The Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech Award (1988); the Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award; Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (2017); and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (2012).
- In 2006, The Hunger Project awarded her the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Two years later, in 2008, she received a Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement.
- She has also received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from a number of universities across the world, including Harvard University and Yale University.
- She was once a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA), Accra, Ghana.
- In 2010, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s published her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.
- In 2019, she joined the Elders, a group of distinguished former world leaders that corporate to promote justice and peace around the world. The group, which was founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, has had the honor of having the likes of Ban Ki Moon (a former UN Secretary General); Algerian civil rights activist and statesman Lakhdar Ibrahim; former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland; Kofi Annan (a former UN Secretary General); Ela Bhatt; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a host of other renowned leaders.