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Biography: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's 'Iron Lady'

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President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, © Claire Soares/IRIN
Image © Claire Soares/IRIN

Date of birth: 29 October 1938, Monrovia, Liberia.

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, amongst the descendents of original colonists of Liberia (ex-African slaves from America, who promptly on arrival set about enslaving the indigenous people using the social system of their old American masters as a basis for their new society). These descendents are known in Liberia as Americo-Liberians.
Causes of Liberia's Civil Conflict
The social inequalities between indigenous Liberians and the Americo-Liberians has lead to much of the political and social strife in the country, as leadership bounced between dictators representing opposing groups (Samuel Doe replacing William Tolbert, Charles Taylor replacing Samuel Doe). Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf rejects the suggestion that she is one of the elite: "If such a class existed, it has been obliterated over the last few years from intermarriages and social integration."
Gaining an Education
From 1948 to 55 Ellen Johnson studied accounts and economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. After marriage at the age of 17 to James Sirleaf, she travelled to America (in 1961) and continued her studies, achieving a degree from the University of Colorado. From 1969 to 71 she read economics at Harvard, gaining a masters degree in public administration. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf then returned to Liberia and began working in William Tolbert's (True Whig Party) government.
A Start in Politics
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf served as Minister of Finance from 1972 to 73, but left after a disagreement over public spending. As the 70s progressed, life under Liberia's one-party state became more polarised - to the benefit of the Americo-Liberian elite. On 12 April 1980 Master Sergeant Samuel Kayon Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup and President William Tolbert was executed along with several members of his cabinet by firing squad.
Life under Samuel Doe
With the People's Redemption Council now in power, Samuel Doe began a purge of government. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf narrowly escaped - choosing exile in Kenya. From 1983 to 85 she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi, but when Samuel Doe declared himself president of the Republic in 1984 and unbanned political parties, she decided to return. During the 1985 elections Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf campaigned against Doe, and was placed under house arrest.
An Economist's Life in Exile
Sentenced to ten years in prison, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf spent just a short time incarcerated, before being allowed to leave the country once again as an exile. During the 1980s she served as Vice President of both the African Regional Office of Citibank, in Nairobi, and of (HSCB) Equator Bank, in Washington. Back in Liberia civil unrest erupted once more. On 9 September 1990, Samuel Doe was killed by a splinter group from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
A New Regime
From 1992 to 97 Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf worked as Assistant Administrator, and then Director, of the UN Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa (essentially an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN). Meanwhile in Liberia an interim government was put in power, lead by a succession of four un-elected officials (the last of whom, Ruth Sando Perry, was Africa's first female leader). By 1996 the presence of West African peacekeepers created a lull in the civil war, and elections were held.
A First Attempt at the Presidency
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1997 to contest the election. She came second to Charles Taylor (gaining 10% of the vote compared to his 75%) out of a field of 14 candidates. The election was declared free and fair by international observers. (Johnson-Sirleaf campaigned against Taylor and was charged with treason.) By 1999 civil war had returned to Liberia, and Taylor was accused of interfering with his neighbours, fomenting unrest and rebellion.
A New Hope from Liberia
On 11 August 2003, after much persuasion, Charles Taylor handed power over to his deputy Moses Blah. The new interim government and rebel groups signed an historic peace accord and set about installing a new head of state. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate, but in the end the diverse groups selected Charles Gyude Bryant, a political neutral. Johnson-Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission.
Liberia's 2005 Election
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf played an active role in the transitional government as the country prepared for the 2005 elections, and eventually stood for president against her rival the ex-international footballer, George Manneh Weah. Despite the elections being called fair and orderly, Weah repudiated the result, which gave a majority to Johnson-Sirleaf, and the announcement of Liberia's new president was postponed, pending an investigation. On 23 November 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country's next president. Her inauguration, attended by the likes of US First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, took place on Monday 16 January, 2006.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, divorced mother of four boys and grandmother to six children is Liberia's first elected female president, as well as the first elected female leader on the continent.

Image © Claire Soares/IRIN

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