The first woman to be elected as the head of an African country, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born on October 29, 1938, in Monrovia, Liberia. As a child, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was prophesied to be great by an old man. As recounted in her memoir entitled This Child will Be Great,  she tells the story of her birth when an old man paid a visit to offer congratulations to her family. Seeing little Sirleaf, the old man declared to Sirleaf’s mother, “This child will be great. This child is going to lead.” Indeed, she is great and had the opportunity to lead Liberia from 2006 to 2018.


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s rise to power was not uneventful. She grew up in a colorful mix of a family from the Gola and Mandingo tribes where neighbours worked together to clean, cook and raise children. Her upbringing imparted a feeling of a strong community in Sirleaf. Once, Sirleaf fell into an outdoor toilet made of planks with a hole in the ground.

Fortunately, a neighbor rushed and pulled her out when she heard her screaming for help. From this incident, Sirleaf learnt the importance of helping the needy. She attended a Methodist high school called the College of West Africa in Liberia. Smart and diligent, she got good grades and played well in the volleyball team. In high school, she learned how to ignore bullies that ridiculed her for her light complexion by calling her “Red Pumpkin’’. Ellen Johnson met James Sirleaf; a man who attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, one of the most prestigious black institutions in America and got married to him. In 1962, James Sirleaf was granted a scholarship to study Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Even though her marriage with James was deteriorating, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf grabbed that opportunity as it would enable her to study in Madison as well. She received a US scholarship that allowed her to enroll in the business program at Madison Business College. A year later, James Sirleaf earned his degree and went back to Liberia while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stayed in the USA to complete her studies. After two years, with a diploma from Madison Business College, she quickly got a job as the head of the Debts Section at the Treasury Department in Liberia. At the time she was working for the Treasury Department, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf got the firsthand image of Liberia’s struggling economy: limited resources, job scarcity with many families living below the poverty line. She wanted to pull her country out of its financial abyss but how?

In 1969, to help developing countries, the Harvard Institute for International Development organized a conference. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, being chosen to represent the Treasury Department, criticized the government for not taking actions to restore the economy.

Then, to criticize a government was unthinkable, and worse when done by a woman. Her courage for telling people the truth about her experience in the Treasury Department impressed the economist and professor Gustav Papanek at the Boston University. Gustav Papanek encouraged Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to attend Harvard University’s international studies program where she studied Economics and Public Policy from 1969 to 1971. Graduating with a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, she returned to Liberia to help restore her country’s slumping economy. Hired as the Liberian Assistant Minister of Finance, she used her powerful oratory to express her views on the weak economy and ways to strengthen it. She was then elevated to the role of Minister of Finance until the April 1980 coup staged by Samuel Doe and member of the Krahn ethnic group. This coup witnessed the assassination of President William Tolbert and several members of his administration. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fled to Washington where she worked for the World Bank. But her desire to help her people forced her to return to Africa and she settled in Nairobi, Kenya. In the meantime, Liberia’s economy and social turmoil doubled. And for the worse, Samuel Doe declared himself President in 1984. He and his military members took over Liberia.

In 1985, armed with courage and determination, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and ran for the role of vice president. During one of her campaign speeches, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf criticized Doe and his political ideas.

Consequently, she was arrested and charged for treason and rebelling against authority. She was then sentenced to ten years in prison. Her arrest revolted the international community and calls for her release came from many nations. After months of imprisonment, Samuel Doe pardoned Ellen Johnson Sirleaf but removed her from the presidential election race. She ran for the Senate and won but refused to accept the Senate seat on the ground that the election process had been corrupt. Once again, Ellen had to flee Liberia for her outspokenness.

On September 9, 1990, Samuel Doe was killed during an uprising. Charles Taylor, the head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, assumed power. Though Charles Taylor’s tenure was marred by civil war, his decrees as the new leader called for democratic elections with the support of ECOWAS. This allowed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become a political leader with supporters as well as detractors.

In 1997, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came back to Liberia to run for presidency representing the Unity Party. She came in second position, and Charles Taylor won the presidency. Taylor accused Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of treason and disloyalty to citizens for being a vocal critic of the government’s election practices. She fled to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor’s presidency was plagued with war, and the people of Liberia aspired to a change. On August 11, 2003, Charles Taylor stepped aside.

A new leader was needed to implement peaceful reforms for Liberia. Many people recommended Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was made the head of the Governance Reform Commission which was created to promote principles of honest governance. Over the years, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf applied herself to restore the economy and to spark positive changes.

For a better impact, she ran for the presidency on the ticket of the Unity Party against the popular footballer, George Weah. Though the odds were against her, she was able to garner support from family and friends, rally women to her cause to win the presidential elections in 2006. On November 23, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the twenty-fourth president of Liberia and the first African Woman to lead a nation in Africa.

Under Sirleaf’s leadership, Liberia saw improvement: education, women’s rights, solution to the Liberian deep-rooted conflict between Liberians of different ethnic groups. She also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the promotion of national peace, security, and unity. The commission was also mandated to investigate the causes of Liberia’s civil conflict.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s rise to greatness is an example of young peacebuilders in Africa. Her beliefs in non-violence, the power of words and speech are commendable ingredients that set Liberia on the path of stability and peace. Her effective leadership gave confidence to the people. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also earned the respect of the international community.

As a result of her dedication to peace, she was among the three women who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Nobel Committee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was chosen for her “nonviolent struggle…for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work.”


Written by

Alimi SALIFOU                                                                                                                                 Program Officer                                                                                                                                 Building Blocks for Peace Foundation