Ellen Eugenia Johnson was born in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. Founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the United States, Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa. Its society has long been marked by tension between the indigenous people and the descendants of the American settlers. Three of Ellen Johnson’s grandparents were of native Liberian descent; her paternal grandfather was a traditional chief of the Gola people. Her maternal grandfather was a German merchant who left the country during the First World War.
Ellen Johnson’s mother was a teacher, her father an attorney, and the first indigenous Liberian to serve in the country’s legislature, a body long dominated by the descendants of the American settlers. Her parents placed a high value on education, and young Ellen received her secondary education at the prestigious College of West Africa in Monrovia, the nation’s capital. University seemed a logical next step, but at 17, Ellen married James Sirleaf, a young agronomist with a degree from the University of Wisconsin.
With four sons born in rapid succession, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf settled into the role of homemaker, while many of her school friends embarked on professional careers. James Sirleaf worked in Liberia’s Department of Agriculture. To augment the family income, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper for an auto repair shop. When her husband was offered the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the United States, the Sirleafs left their children in the care of grandparents and made the trip to America together. While her husband pursued a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture, Ellen studied accounting at the Madison College of Business. On their return to Liberia, he resumed work in the Agriculture Department while, in 1965, she entered the Treasury Department, later known as the Ministry of Finance.
The pressure of two careers placed a strain on the Sirleafs’ marriage. When her husband became violent and abusive, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf filed for divorce. After the dissolution of her marriage, she continued her education in the United States, earning an economics degree from the University of Colorado. In 1971, she completed a master’s in public administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The following year, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Assistant Finance Minister in the administration of Liberian President William Tolbert. Her public criticism of administration policy, on occasions such as a commencement address at the College of West Africa, attracted national attention and created friction between Johnson Sirleaf and her superiors. In the mid-1970s, she left the Ministry to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., but she returned to Liberia in 1977 to serve as Deputy Finance Minister. In 1979, a rice shortage provoked riots in the streets of Monrovia. Repressive measures on the part of the government, intended to quell the violence, further inflamed public opinion and antagonized educated members of the country’s indigenous population. President Tolbert fired his finance minister and appointed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to take his place; she was the first woman to hold this position in Liberia. As Finance Minister, she attempted a much-needed reform of the country’s finances, but long-simmering tensions soon boiled over.
On April 12, 1980, a cadre of non-commissioned officers, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, staged a coup d’état. President Tolbert and 26 of his followers were killed on the day of the coup. Ten days later, 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet were executed in public. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and three other ministers were spared, but life in Liberia would soon become dangerous for anyone who opposed Doe and his allies. Johnson Sirleaf served briefly as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), but her situation soon became impossible and she fled the country. For a brief time, she again worked as a senior loan officer for the World Bank in the United States, but was soon back in Africa, as vice president of Citicorp’s Africa Office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Seeking international legitimacy for his regime, Samuel Doe scheduled elections in 1985. Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the vice presidency but was soon arrested for criticizing Doe’s corrupt regime. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, but international pressure forced Doe to pardon her shortly into her sentence. Although her name was removed from the vice presidential ballot, Johnson Sirleaf was permitted to run for the Senate. The subsequent election was widely viewed as fraudulent, and although Johnson Sirleaf won a seat in the Senate, she refused to accept it. In November of 1985, she was arrested again and held until July of the following year, after which she left the country in secret and took a job as a vice president of HSBC Equator Bank in Washington.
Johnson Sirleaf had made a new life for herself in the world outside Liberia, but she closely followed developments in her homeland. After repeated coup attempts against the Doe regime and extrajudicial killings of opposition leaders, the country descended into inter-tribal violence and civil war. In 1989, a former Doe ally, Charles Taylor, led an armed uprising against the regime. Initially, Johnson Sirleaf supported Taylor’s insurgency, but the rebels’ violent methods soon alienated Johnson Sirleaf and many other Liberians. In 1990, Samuel Doe was captured, in Monrovia, by a group of rebels who recorded and broadcast his torture and execution. Although Taylor emerged as the most powerful of the rebel commanders, he was unable to consolidate his rule, and fighting between rival factions continued for many years.
In 1992, Johnson Sirleaf joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The first woman to run the UN’s development program for Africa, she served for five years as assistant administrator and director of the UNDP Regional Bureau of Africa, holding the title of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. By 1996, a coalition of neighboring African countries had forced the warring Liberian factions to agree to a ceasefire, and national elections were scheduled for the following year.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for president, but in an atmosphere still haunted by the violence of the preceding decade, she was decisively defeated by Charles Taylor. The regime of President Taylor proved to be a corrupt and repressive one, and Johnson Sirleaf became its most outspoken critic and her country’s most visible advocate for reform. When President Taylor threatened to have her killed for her opposition to his administration, she moved to the neighboring country of Côte d’Ivoire, where she established a venture capital firm, the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, as well as Measuagoon, a community development NGO for Liberia.
Meanwhile, General Taylor plunged Liberia into war with its neighbors. Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies recruited children to fight and commit atrocities, and the country teetered on the brink of dissolution. Attacks by armed resistance groups, pressure from the international community — and the courageous nonviolent resistance of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace — eventually led to Taylor’s resignation. In 2003, the disgraced president fled to Nigeria. He was later arrested for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court sentenced Taylor, age 64, to 50 years in prison.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 2003 to chair the Governance Reform Commission of the Transitional Government. In this capacity, she successfully transferred the reporting mechanism of the General Auditing Commission from the control of the executive branch to the legislature, enabling more democratic oversight of the nation’s finances.
In 2005, Johnson Sirleaf resigned from the Commission to accept the nomination of the Unity Party as its candidate for President of Liberia in the country’s first truly free election. Johnson Sirleaf placed second in the first round of voting, but won the runoff decisively, with 59 percent of the vote. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the 24th President of Liberia. She is the first elected female head of state in African history.
Johnson Sirleaf spent the next five years repairing the damage done by 25 years of violence and misrule. From its peak of prosperity, prior to the 1980 coup, Liberia had become one of the world’s poorest nations, beset by illiteracy, hunger and pandemic unemployment. In her first years in office, Johnson Sirleaf negotiated the lifting of international trade sanctions against Liberia and complete forgiveness of the country’s crushing external debt.
By executive order, Johnson Sirleaf established a right to free, universal elementary education. President Johnson Sirleaf also enforced equal rights for women, rights that were routinely ignored and abused during the chaotic years of civil war. Among other infrastructure projects, her administration built over 800 miles of roads, attracting substantial foreign investment in mining, agriculture, and forestry, as well as offshore oil exploration. A strong ally of the United States, President Johnson Sirleaf addressed a joint session of the United States Congress shortly after her inauguration. Liberia also won support from China for construction of a new national university. President Johnson Sirleaf placed a high importance on African and regional relations as well. She chairs the Mano River Union, fostering peace and economic cooperation among the neighboring nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.
In 2010, Newsweek magazine listed Johnson Sirleaf as one of the “Ten Best Leaders in the World,” while The Economist called her “the best president the country has ever had.” A grandmother of eight, President Johnson Sirleaf has become a popular symbol of democracy and women’s rights, not only in her own country but throughout Africa and the developing world. In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with women’s rights campaigners Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel Committee credited Johnson Sirleaf’s contribution to “securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.” Four days after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, President Johnson Sirleaf was elected to a second six-year term in office.
President Johnson Sirleaf set a new precedent for an African president, making good on her promise to retire after serving two full terms. She declined to endorse the nominee of the Unity Party, Vice President Joseph Boakai, and instead threw her support to a former opponent, George Weah, a retired soccer star who enjoyed enormous popularity with the Liberian public. Johnson Sirleaf’s choice, George Weah, won a decisive victory in the 2017 election. Johnson Sirleaf’s former supporters expelled her from the Unity Party, while she prepared Liberia for a peaceful transition of power from one party to another.
In January 2018, Mr. Weah was sworn in as President of Liberia — the country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 73 years. A month later, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In making the award, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation cited Johnson Sirleaf’s “transformative leadership” of a country “devastated and broken by 14 years of civil war.” The prize, endowed by the Sudanese-born British philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, is awarded only to democratically-elected African leaders who leave office at the end of their constitutionally mandated terms.
In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the oath of office as President of Liberia, the first woman to serve as elected leader of an African nation. Her victory was the culmination of a 25-year campaign to bring democracy and justice to her country, a struggle that repeatedly subjected her to death threats, exile and imprisonment.
The oldest republic in Africa, Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the United States. In the 20th century, tensions between the indigenous population and the descendants of the Americo-Liberian settlers erupted into violent conflict. The Harvard-educated Johnson Sirleaf served as Minister of Finance before the elected government fell victim to a military coup in 1980. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile, escaping the fate of her former cabinet colleagues, who were executed by the government of General Samuel Doe. Five years later, she returned to run for the vice presidency, only to be arrested for criticizing the general’s corrupt and dictatorial rule. Initially sentenced to ten years in prison, worldwide outcry led to her release. She again went into exile, and built a second career in banking and international development, running the African bureau of the UN Development Programme.
Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in the 1990s, after the violent overthrow of General Doe. She ran for president in 1997, but the victor in that contest, Charles Taylor, forced her into exile yet again. Taylor’s rule proved disastrous, embroiling Liberia in war with its neighbors, while the country descended into chaos. When Taylor fell from power, Johnson Sirleaf returned to chair a national commission on government reform, setting the stage for Liberia’s first truly free election in decades.
After winning a decisive victory in the 2005 election, President Johnson Sirleaf moved quickly to repair the wounds of years of misrule and disorder. She introduced free and compulsory elementary education, and pursued foreign investment and land reform. After election to two six-year terms, she announced her decision to retire. Defying her own party, she endorsed a former opponent to succeed her, ensuring a peaceful transfer of power. Her courage and tenacity in facing down her most ruthless adversaries have earned this diminutive grandmother a fitting nickname, the Iron Lady of Africa.
Going back for a moment to the Liberia of your childhood, paint a picture of what it was like politically and socially at that time. Was there a lot of strife? Was it a relatively peaceful period?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: If we’re talking about my childhood, yeah, very peaceful. Underdeveloped countries, not too many of the comforts that one would find other places. But a happy childhood, free from violence, free from lawlessness. The extended family system made everybody someone else’s keeper. Of course, that all was changed when the trouble started in 1979. When we had the Rice Riots, and a year later in 1980 a coup d’état, the whole environment had changed. But during my childhood, and up until the time when I was moving up professionally, the country was a great place to be. Everybody knew everybody. It’s a small country, small population. So it was easy to move around, easy to pursue what one wanted. The difficulty started after.
What happened in 1979? What were the Rice Riots?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There was, as we have now, commodity price increases and shortages of basic commodities, and rice was one of them. Rice is the staple of our country. So the price of rice went up and there was an attempt to try to stabilize the price by increasing it, so as to provide incentive for domestic production, and that led to riots. Now the riot said to be based on rice really was also a result of political turbulence, because there already was the movement to challenge the status quo. We had had the monopolization of power and privilege in the country for a long time, and the educated indigenous population was already emboldened. So the shortage of rice provided an excuse for that. But that led to over-reactive force by the government that left a lot of people dead. People were then imprisoned, and so the soldiers then, a year later, decided to stage a coup d’état. These were uncommissioned officers, and as you know, there was tremendous brutality associated with that, where 13 people were tied to stakes on a beach and shot. So many people were killed.
I was then an official — Minister of Finance, the head of my Ministry.
Working for President Tolbert?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, it was the Tolbert government. I was in the Ministry as a deputy at the time of the Rice Riots in ’79. The Minister then was removed. I was actually appointed Minister after that in ’79. So when the coup d’état came, I was the Minister of Finance. The previous Minister was shot. There were four of us, of all the cabinet, that were spared, that were not killed or something. I was sent away on virtual house arrest for a while.
President Tolbert was killed, wasn’t he? Along with most of his cabinet?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The president was killed. There were 13 persons, not all of them cabinet ministers. I think about ten of them were cabinet ministers that were all shot.
The leader that took over then was Samuel Doe. Could you tell us about him?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Samuel Doe was a sergeant, a very young sergeant who led the rebellion and led all the action that took over. He pronounced himself the leader and proceeded to govern. Of course, he started off making sure that the order was totally challenged and uprooted. But it didn’t take very long for him to adopt some of the same practices that he and his colleagues had criticized so much. As a matter of fact, even worse, because they introduced violence into the society and they ruled by fiat, by decrees. The criticism of the settler population monopolizing power was simply replaced by his own ethnic group monopolizing power. And of course, there was not much done. A lot of corruption, not much development. And the brain drain, most of the talented people left the country. Capital flight, most of the businesses closed and sent their money out, and that started the economic freefall that we’re only just recovering from.
How did you end up under house arrest?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I was in a house the morning of the coup, and I was called to report and I didn’t. I waited until it was safe enough to go. So I was escorted every day to a house, to stay there and to come back every morning and report. Now if you’re talking about the house arrest later on, during the general elections, that’s much further along the way.
We’ll get to that too. You must have been in fear for your life. So many other ministers had been shot to death.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh yeah. Everybody had fear for their lives, particularly anybody who was working in the old order. You had to have a fear for your life.
At some point you went to Kenya. Is that right?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. When I left the country, at the end of 1980, I actually went back to the World Bank. I was on leave from the World Bank when I came back in 1977. I went back to the World Bank for a year, but then I had a very good offer from Citicorp. That’s what took me to Nairobi as a vice president of the Citibank regional office. I lived there for five years.
It sounds like you had a good job as Vice President of Citicorp in Kenya, where you were relatively safe. Why did you return to Liberia in the mid ’80s?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Well, general elections were called for 1985, and I was persuaded to join in the organizing of a new political party. I went back to help get the party organized and get it registered, and that led to other things that got me in trouble. I made a speech in the U.S. and said some things.
You spoke out against Doe’s regime while you were in the U.S.?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There was a Liberian Independence Day celebration in 1985, July 26. I spoke in Philadelphia on behalf of the Association of Liberia in the United States. I was a keynote speaker at that celebration, and I said a few things about the government. I had been home trying to register the party, and I left and came to Philadelphia to make the statement, and then went back with the intent of just forgetting it, since the party was not registered, and going back to Nairobi. That’s when I was put under house arrest and subsequently was jailed.
You were actually sentenced to ten years in prison, weren’t you?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. I went before a military tribunal and they found me guilty, sentenced me to ten years. But I did not serve, because there was a protest, first by Liberian women, and there were protests in the U.S. The U.S. Congress also did a resolution threatening to cut off aid if political prisoners, which I was one of, were not released.
Do you think it was the pressure from the U.S. government that made Doe relent?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The U.S. government was one aspect, but you also had a lot of pressure from international organizations and people all over the world.
You ran for the Liberian Senate in 1985, didn’t you?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: That’s when I was in prison. When the party finally was registered and they couldn’t get a deal, so they ran me as a senator and in the elections we won. We won handily. But we took a decision not to accept those seats because the elections were fraudulent.
That must have been a difficult decision, wasn’t it?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: It is perceived to be difficult, but when you’re trying to send a strong message that you’re not going to participate in fraud, it’s not that difficult to make.
Doesn’t this sound like recent (2008) events in Zimbabwe?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Indeed it does. I suppose that’s why Morgan Tsvangirai decided not to participate in the runoff.
After you were released, did you go back to the U.S.? To Washington, D.C.?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. Obviously, I had to leave the Citibank job. I came back to Washington, D.C. and was associated with a bank called Equator Bank, part of the Hong Kong Bank Group, and I worked with them until ’92.
Looking at your career, one constant is that you’ve always returned to Liberia. You were a successful banker in the United States, but you felt that pull to return.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I had already been a part of, if you may, a part of the “politics.”
When you have colleagues who are shot on the beach, when you’ve gone back, and you’re working in the government, and you form a political party, and you’ve gone through a tribunal and all of that, you’ve already invested a lot in political life, so it’s not something you walk away from. Particularly if, as I feel, you feel the country deserved more, and you feel that with the right leadership that that country could be successful and its potential could be realized. So that was always part of the motivation.