In her 2009 memoir This Child Will Be Great, Republic of Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
As the world’s first elected Black female president, and the first woman in Africa to be elected head of state, Sirleaf’s dreams were big from the beginning.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938 to a teacher and an attorney, Sirleaf attended school there at the College of West Africa. When she was 17, she married agronomist James Sirleaf and moved with him to the United States in 1961. They had four children. But her marriage became violent and abusive, leading to divorce. She continued her studies and eventually earned an economics degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard University.
After returning to Liberia in 1980, Mrs. Sirleaf served as assistant minister of Finance in President William Tolbert’s administration. But Tolbert was soon overthrown and killed by Army Sergeant Samuel Doe, who represented the Krahn ethnic group. In order to stay alive, Sirleaf soon went into exile, first in Nairobi and later went back to the United States where she worked in international banking.
But she returned to her native country in 1985 to run for a seat in its senate and spoke out against the oppressive military regime faced by citizens in her country. But her opposition to Doe’s government resulted in a 10-year prison sentence. Serving only part of it, Sirleaf returned to the United States once again until 1997 when she moved back to Liberia as an economist for the World Bank and Citibank.
That same year, she ran for president but lost to one-time ally Charles Taylor, who basically forced the country to elect him under threat. However, Taylor’s administration amounted to another corrupt and cruel regime and he was accused of war crimes based on his involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. After his actions caused a second Civil War in Liberia — and Taylor fled to Nigeria — the nation was rife for new leadership.
In 2005, “Ma” Sirleaf, now known as the “Iron Lady” of Liberian politics, took leadership of the nation’s Unity party and with pledges to end corruption and civil war. She was elected president, beating star footballer George Weah in a close vote, and took office in 2006.
The next five years were spent repairing the damage done by decades of corruption and poverty. In her first few years as president, Sirleaf successfully negotiated the removal of trade sanctions against Liberia and forgiveness of the country’s heavy debt. She also passed an executive order establishing a universal right to free elementary education, enforced rights for women, built 800 miles of roads and general infrastructure improvements. In 2010, Newsweek magazine named her one of the “Ten Best Leaders in the World.”
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other African women, Yemeni political activist Tawakkol Karman and fellow Liberian peace worker Leymah Gbowee (best known for leading Liberia’s “sex strike”). The Nobel committee bestowed the award on the women “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Just four days after she was awarded the prize, she was elected to a second term in office.
Each week through March, EBONY.com will feature an international woman leader in our “Freedom Fighters” series. Follow the hashtag #EBONYWHM for more of our Women’s History Month content.