ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: The Liberian "Iron Lady"

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Photo Credit: Emansion
By Ahmed Konneh - Liberian Correspondent

President Sirleaf’s life and incredible achievements should be a wake up call and a point of reference to the many African women who think gender is a barrier to achieving their full potential. Born in a male dominated a society, President Sirleaf has not only proven that the “gender- barrier” debate is a myth but shown that with determination and focus, women can be anything they aspire to be. Young women of nowadays must take lessons of possibilities from the pages of president Sirleaf’s heroic life and struggles for distinction in a men dominated African society. As Mwalimu Julius Nyerere would say “It can be done, just play your part.”

President Sirleaf's Background and Achievements
(Derived from The Executive Mansion and President Sirleaf's Biography: "This Child Will Be Great")

 “The Iron Lady” 

Politically known as “The Iron Lady”, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th  president of the Republic of Liberia and the first female head of state in Africa. She is currently serving her second term as the president of Liberia.

 Her ascendency to the presidency of Liberia was not only a major breakthrough and triumph for the Liberian Women but all other women in Africa and across the globe. 

 President Sirleaf has, throughout her career, demonstrated passionate commitment to hard work, integrity and good governance, advocating for the rights of women and the importance of education to provide a better future for her country and its people. She has restored Liberia’s broken image in the international community and Championed free speech throughout the length and breadth of Liberia.

 She has revised the national economy. Under her stewardship, the national budget has grown from a mere US$80 million in 2006 to over US$ 672 million in 2012, with an annual GDP growth increase of 8.7 percent. President Johnson Sirleaf has built strong relations with regional partners and the international community, attracting investment of over US$16 billion in Liberia’s mining, agriculture, forestry and hydrocarbon sectors to provide jobs for her people. Her leadership led to Liberia’s US$4.6 billion external debt forgiveness in June 2010, and the lifting of UN trade sanctions to allow Liberia access to international markets. She has also attracted over $5 million of private resources to rebuild schools, clinics and markets, and scholarships for capacity building.

After decades of fighting for freedom, justice and equality in Liberia and Africa  in 2011 President Sirleaf shared the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace with two other women – fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. They were recognized, by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.

Among her other distinguished honors are: France’s highest award and public distinction, the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur (2012), and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (2012). In 2007 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by an American President.

More recently, on September 28, 2013, before a crowd of more than 60,000 fans attending the 2013 Global Citizen Festival at Central Park’s Great Lawn, President Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia received this year’s Global Citizen Movement Award for championing the cause of gender equality. 

Two days later, on September 30, in Costa Rica, the Liberian leader  became the first sitting President and the first African to have her bust installed in the Garden of Nations of the United Nations-mandated University of Peace, joining such global icons as Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and others.

Her entry into politics came in 1972 when she delivered her now famous commencement address to her high school alma mater in which she sharply criticized the government, showing her determination to speak truth unto power. This was the start of a distinguished professional and political career that has spanned four decades.

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf joined the then Treasury Department in 1965, rising to the position of Minister of Finance in 1979 where she introduced measures to curb the mismanagement of government finances. After the 1980 military coup d’état, she served as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) but fled her country and the increasingly suppressive military government that same year. She traveled to Kenya and served as Vice President of Citicorp’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, and later moved to Washington, D.C., to assume the position of Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, and then as Vice President for Equator Bank. In 1992 she joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Before becoming President, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf served on many advisory boards. They include: the International Crisis Group; Women Waging Peace; the Synergos Institute; and the Open Society Institute for West Africa (OSIWA), which she chaired. She was a founding member of the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership; served, in 1999, on the Organization of African Unity (OAU) committee to investigate the Rwanda genocide, and chaired its commission for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. She collaborated with Mrs. Elisabeth Rehm of Finland for a UNIFEM investigative report, “Women, War, Peace,” on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peace building.

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is the recipient of other prized awards. So far, in 2013 alone, she has received the National Order of Benin; the National Medical Association of the United States Lifetime Humanitarian Award for Healthcare; the Year of Pan Africanism and African Renaissance African Union Award; the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign African Women Pioneer Award.

Other awards over the years have included: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Medal and Alpha Award of Honor (2012); the African Gender Award (2011); Friend of the Media Award (2010); FUECH Grand Cross Award (2009); FAO’s CERES Medal (2008); International Women’s Leadership Award (2008); International Crisis Group Fred Cuny Award for the Prevention of Deadly Crisis (2008); James and Eunice K. Matthews Bridge Building Award (2008); American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2008); National Civil Rights Museum Annual Freedom Award (2007); National Democratic Institute Harriman Award (2007); Bishop T. Walker Humanitarian Award (2007); Gold Medal of the President of the Italian Republic (2006); Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger (2006); National Reconciliation Award (2006); International Woman of the Year (2006); and the International Republican Institute Freedom Award (2006).

Mrs. Sirleaf has been awarded honorary doctorates by over 17 institutions, among them: Tilburg University in the Netherlands; the Nigerian Defence Academy; the University of Massachusetts Medical School; Harvard University; Rutgers University; Yale University; Georgetown University; the University of Abeokuta, Nigeria; the University of Minnesota; Furman University of South Carolina; Brown University; Indiana University; Dartmouth College; Concordia University; Langston University; Spelman College; and Marquette University.

Among other accolades, the Liberian leader has been ranked among the top 100 most powerful women in the world (Forbes 2012); the first most powerful woman in Africa (Forbes Africa 2011); among the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek 2010); among top 10 female leaders (TIME 2010); called “the best President the country has ever had (The Economist 2010); and as one of the six “Women of the Year” (Glamour 2010).

President Johnson Sirleaf has written widely on financial, development and human rights issues, and in 2008 she published her critically acclaimed memoir, This Child Will Be Great. She is the proud mother of four sons and grandmother of eleven.