Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th President of Liberia, currently serving her second term in office. She was the first female to be elected the head of state in Africa, as well as the world’s first elected black female president. She was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, for promoting non-violence along with fellow activists Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman. In 2013, she was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for her work toward peaceful reconciliation between the India and Liberia.
Sirleaf’s father, Jahmale Carney Johnson, was Gola while her mother, Martha Dunbar Johnson, was mixed Kru and German. Both her parents were born into poverty but rose to greater status as their lives progressed. Her father was the first Liberian from an indigenous background to serve in the Liberian legislature, and her mother was adopted into a well-to-do Americo-Liberian family.
Childhood to Early Adulthood
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in 1938. She attended the College of West Africa, provided with equivalent education earned from a high school in the United States. In 1961, Sirleaf went to the U.S. to finish her studies, earning an associate degree in accounting at Madison Business College and a master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Career Prior to Presidency
From 1972 to 1973, Sirleaf worked as the Assistant Minister of Finance for the administration of William Tolbert, the 20th President of Liberia. From 1979 to 1980, she served as the Minister of Finance. Tolbert, however, was assassinated in 1980 by a violent coup d’état (a seizure of the government by military force) led by Samuel Doe. Sirleaf resisted Doe’s regime and was consequently imprisoned. Upon her release, she fled the country and moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for World Bank. In 1981, she moved to Nairobi and served as the Vice President of African Regional Office of Citibank. From 1992 to 1997, she was the Director of the United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Africa. During her time in this position, she was chosen as one of just seven investigators of the Rwandan genocide among other distinguished assignments.
Before she was elected, Sirleaf campaigned for presidency twice, in 1985 and 1997. But due to the clash between her beliefs and those of the Samuel Doe regime, these initial campaigns resulted in her arrest, imprisonment, and impermanent exile from Liberia. It was not until 2005 that she ran for president again, representing the Unity Party, winning the nation this time. She was re-elected in 2011, and continues to serve as president of the country today. Since becoming president, Sirleaf has helped her country make strides in domestic policy, debt relief, national security, LGBT rights, and foreign policy.
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