The Incredible and Path Breaking Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.Sirleaf wrote in her 2013 memoir.
As the first female elected head of state in the history of Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf broke down a barrier that few people thought was attainable when she won the 2005 Liberian presidential election.
What makes Sirleaf’s story both empowering and ground-breaking is how she went from being a regular Liberian mother of four boys to an executive in the international banking industry, from a victim of domestic abuse to a political icon, and from a post-war president to a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is incredible how the Sirleaf climbed to political prominence on a continent and in a society where women are viewed as property or targets of acquisition.
Early Life of Madam Sirleaf
Born in Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf’s early years were shaped by the death of her father when she was just seven years old and the resilience of her mother, who supported the family through toil and sacrifice.
Sirleaf married at age 17, the year she received her high school diploma. She devoted the following ten years to her family, which developed as a result of her having four sons in quick succession. She grasped the chance to pursue an accounting degree at the Madison Business College in Wisconsin when her husband was offered the opportunity to study in the United States.
They eventually came back to Liberia, where Sirleaf was hired by the country’s Treasury Ministry. However, the strain of two occupations made their marriage uncomfortable. Sirleaf filed for divorce after experiencing domestic violence. She received a jail sentence threat at about the same time from Liberian authorities for advocating for the country to revert to democracy; this would become a recurring theme in her life.
She returned to the United States to pursue her schooling in what she referred to as a “escape.” She attended Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration in 1971, amid the height of the Vietnam War protests. She left Liberia once more and quickly rose through the ranks of the administration. She wouldn’t, however, remain silent about the widespread corruption in her country.
A roller coaster career
Despite her candour, she was appointed minister of finance in 1979; nevertheless, she would only occupy this position until a coup d’état rocked the nation in 1980. She was working for a president who had most of his cabinet members executed by firing squad. Only Sirleaf and three other ministers received a pass. She left Liberia once more in that year.
She travelled to Washington, DC, where she worked for the World Bank, and then to Kenya, where she held the position of Vice President of Citibank’s African Regional Office. She still felt compelled to defend her country, though. She went back to Liberia in 1985 to restart her political career.
She spoke out against the corrupt government while running for vice president. She thus received a ten-year prison term for sedition. Soon after, as a result of worldwide pressure, she was pardoned.
She was imprisoned again following the elections and another coup attempt. She was released in 1986 and fled to the United States, where she took a job with HSBC Equator Bank. She eventually moved on to a position with the United Nations, but she never lost sight of what was going on in her home country.
The first Liberian civil war erupted in 1989. It would last until the end of hostilities in 1996. Sirleaf returned to her country to run for president in 1997, but she was defeated by President Charles Taylor.
Taylor was one of his harshest critics. He threatened to assassinate Sirleaf, prompting her to flee Liberia once more.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Madam President
Taylor quickly slumped Liberia into war with its neighbours and a second civil war. Liberian women, who were subjected to unspeakable cruelty, feelings of inadequacy, and displacement, eventually rose up in protest. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement ultimately persuaded Taylor’s government to communicate with rebel groups. After playing a critical role in establishing peace, the same movement declared that peace was insufficient. In the lead-up to the 2005 election, its members energised the electorate in an effort to ensure that women voted for politicians who would aid the nation in prospering.
At that time, Sirleaf won the election to become Africa’s first female head of state. It was a defining moment for the country.
Sirleaf and two other African women activists received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their work ensuring women’s safety and involving them in peace-building efforts.
Despite the ongoing difficulties in Liberia, since she became president, there has been peace. Sirleaf introduced the right to free, universal elementary education while she served as president of Liberia. She also upheld women’s equality, made significant strides in the nation’s reconstruction, and triumphed in the fight against the terrible Ebola outbreak.
She left Liberian politics once her term was up, but her powerful struggle for advancement has continued. In order to “unleash Africa’s most abundant untapped power – its women,” she established the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development in 2018.