01/16 – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Brazil in 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 2006, Liberia – a small country on the West African Coast – elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president. Sirleaf, a Harvard alumnus and experienced banker, was notable for being the first democratically-elected female head of state in African history. Sirleaf had run in previous elections and criticized the corruption and illegal behaviours of many of her opponents. For her criticisms, she was placed under house arrest during Liberia’s 1985 election and sentenced to 10 years in jail by Samuel Doe, the controversial military leader of Liberia at the time; soon after, international pressure forced Sirleaf’s release. In 2005, she finally won the presidency, and assumed power in 2006.

Sirleaf’s campaign, although successful, was in some ways overshadowed by rumours about her political past. In 1989, she had financially supported Charles Taylor in his military uprising against Samuel Doe. Taylor was, at the time, popular for his opposition to the controversial Doe; later on, however, revelations about Taylor’s crimes in the 2nd Liberian Civil War came back to haunt Sirleaf. In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended barring her from public office for her earlier support of Taylor, but the ruling was considered unconstitutional.

Having experienced many of Liberia’s troubles first hand in her decades as a political outcast, Sirleaf immediately set to work on her main priority: debt relief. Her campaign to have Liberia’s debt paid off or cancelled was successful, and restrictions on future borrowing (3% of GDP per year) were set in place. Her work in promoting African stability through peacekeeping earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and in 2016 she was elected chair of the Economic Community of West African States – the first woman to earn the title. Despite her controversial past, Sirleaf managed to build a successful legacy and improved Liberia’s standing on the world stage.

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