Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Credit: US Dept. of State

Ellen Johnson Sileaf

Term 23th President: 2006 – 2018
Born October 29, 1938, Monrovia, Liberia
Race/Ethnicity Mixed Race, Gola
County of Origin Montserrado
Profession Banker
Political Party Unity Party


Ellen Johnson was born in 1938 to Carney and his wife Martha. Her father was a Gola man who moved to Monrovia as a teenager and lived with an Americo-Liberian family as a ward. Her mother was from Sinoe County and the daughter of a German merchant and his Kru wife. During World War I when Liberia expelled all German citizens from the country, her grandfather left his family and never made contact afterwards. Due to family hardships, her mother also went to live with an Americo-Liberian family. Mistreatment by her first family caused another family to take and raise her as their own.

Although Johnson Sirleaf’s parents struggled during the early years with four children, the family became well off when her father became a lawyer and later the first native member of the House of Representatives. In her memoir, she mentions President Tubman regularly visiting their home and sending her father on many foreign trips.

Ellen grew up in the Americo-Liberian circles and was considered one of them. Her family had the right connections and benefited as part of the elite class. During her campaign in 2005 and in her memoir, she said her family was always connected to its indigenous roots and had never turned their backs.


College of West Africa (CWA)
1964 BA in Accounting, Madison Business College, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
1970 Diploma (Economics), University of Colorado, Colorado, USA
1971 Masters in Public Administration, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Sirleaf attended College of West Africa (CWA), one of the best high schools in Liberia at the time. After her marriage at an early age, and having four children, she and her husband travelled to the US to further their studies through government scholarships. In her autobiography, she describes the process of getting her scholarship since her father had died and the family had lost some of its clout:

When Doc was awarded a scholarship to pursue his master’s in agriculture in the United States, I saw my chance and launched at it. I applied for a government scholarship so that I could accompany my husband and further my own studies. Had my father been alive and still a member of the legislature, the application would have been a mere formality, the scholarship given without hesitation or note. That was the way things worked. My sister, Jennie, had received such a scholarship to study nursing in England, on both her own merit and the strength of my father’s connections.

-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child will be Great

The couple returned to Liberia after their studies and she began her professional career in the Treasury Department. Some years later, she returned to the US and earned a master’s degree from Harvard University.


Sirleaf was a prominent Liberian who had worked in the Tubman and Tolbert governments. She was a member of the True Whit Party that ruled the nation for more than a century. She rose in the ranks of government, working in the Treasury Department. She was described as an independent thinker who at times clashed with her boss Stephen Tolbert, who was also the president’s brother. She briefly served as the Minister of Finance from 1979 until the 1980 coup.

She was arrested, tried and jailed after the coup. However, with mounting pressure from the World Bank, Citi Bank, her US connections and some friends in Liberia, she was released. Becoming even more politically active in the Doe era, she was arrested and jailed, but later ran for a senate seat which she won in the 1985 elections. By her account, she refused to occupy the seat because the elections had been rigged in Doe and his party’s (NDPL) favor. She went into exile for the rest of Doe’s presidency.

Her career also comprised many years outside of Liberia where she worked with the World Bank, Citi Bank, and other banking institutions in Africa, the US and Latin America. After supporting Taylor in starting the civil war in 1989, she later broke ties with him and ran against him for the presidency in 1997. Sirleaf lost to Taylor who won about 75% of the votes and served as Liberia’s 22nd president. When the war ended and Taylor had gone into exile, Sirleaf was finally elected as president in 2005.


After the end of the war in 2003, the nation was ruled by an Interim government headed by Gyude Bryant as it prepared for elections. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the runoff election on November 8th, 2005, defeating former football star, George Weah.

She is Africa’s first democratically elected female president, but the continent’s second female head of state. Ruth Perry of Liberia was Africa’s first female head of state, leading the interim government of Liberia prior to the election of Charles Taylor in 1997. Sirleaf assumed office on Monday January 17, 2006 with her administration taking over from the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL).

Under her leadership Liberia was very stable with no war or uprisings, thanks to UNMIL that stayed in the country for her most of her presidency to maintain security and peace. Liberia returned to normalcy under Sirleaf and the government, businesses, schools and other functions and industries began operations again in the war torn country. The Liberian economy grew during Sirleaf’s term but not enough to provide job and growth opportunities for the nation’s mostly young population.

Perhaps her major success as president was working with the international community to forgive Liberia’s national debt in 2010. In total, Liberia’s accumulated debt for over a decade was about 4.6 billion US dollars. Per the IMF’s First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky,

…it was the sustained implementation of a strong macroeconomic program and ambitious reform agenda by the government of President Johnson Sirleaf.

-IMF, 2010

Sirleaf’s period also had numerous small-scale development projects in many counties. With the help of the UNDP, the US and EU, the counties had operational administrative centers. There were several chief compounds, markets, bridges, and community colleges also built in the counties. However, large-scale projects like and the new RIA terminal and Ministerial Complex were unfinished when she left office.

The renovated hydroelectric plant in Monrovia is unable to supply electricity to most of the city’s residents, let alone the country. Most of the nation’s schools lack basic amenities, supplies and qualified teachers. The roads are also in terrible conditions, making the transport of goods and services extremely difficult. Liberia also imports a majority of its food, making the price of food very expensive for regular citizens.

The Ebola crisis affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone started in March 2014 and revealed Liberia’s desperate situation. There were only about 100 doctors and a poor healthcare system in the country of approximately 4 million. The president was again begging for foreign aid to fight Ebola. Liberians and the international community responded with all of their efforts and the outbreak ended in 2016. Over the two and a half year period, the three countries reported about 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths.

As is typical of African governments, the Sirleaf administration was known for nepotism, corruption and lacking in government accountability. Her sons held high government positions, a hugh portion of the national budget was used for compensation and benefits for high ranking government officials instead of development projects. She ran for reelection in 2011, ignoring the TRC recommendation that she and others should not hold public office because of their involvement in the civil war.

The president declared the fight against corruption a government priority. Various instruments such as GEMAP, GAC and LEITI contributed to increased transparency and accountability. However, corruption remains systemic and widespread at all levels. Due to the prevailing weakness of the judicial and law enforcement systems only few prosecutions took place and corruption continues to threaten political stability and to undermine progress in economic and social development.

-European Commission, 2009

The Liberian economy grew during Sirleaf’s term but not on a scale to provide job and growth opportunities for the mostly young population. The Ebola crisis had the economy at a standstill and the decrease in the price of Liberia’s exports also hindered its economy. Moreover, towards the end of Sirleaf’s presidency, the United Nations and other relief agencies were leaving the country, leaving many Liberians unemployed and lowering the flow of money into the country. The These factors led to further economic decline.

Regardless of the successes and failures at home, Ellen was internationally celebrated and earned numerous awards during and after her presidency including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and the Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership in 2018. She made countless international appearances and speeches abroad where she was called the Iron Lady of Africa. Sirleaf was succeeded by soccer star George Weah in January 2018.

Post Presidency

Sirleaf still resides in Monrovia. She is in a category of former presidents that made grand speeches and promises, a few development projects, but not much else. She is now defending her presidency and blaming its failures on the Liberian culture. As such, the nation continues in darkness without electricity or running water, with subpar schools, inadequate roads, and numerous other issues that has plagued her for over a century.


2014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 08 Mar. 2019

About Liberia. UNDP. 24 May 2019.

Annual Report 2008. Liberia. European Union. May 2009.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf responds to allegations of nepotism. Al Jazeera UpFront. 24 May 2019.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The Nobel Prize. Nobel Media. 24 May 2019.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 25 Jun 2019.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wins 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Mo Ibrahim Foundation. 12 Feb. 2018.

Fiscal Year 2014/15 National Budget. Government of the Republic of Liberia. Department of Budget and Development Planning. 27 No. 2014.

Gerdes, Felix. Civil War and State Formation : The Political Economy of War and Peace in Liberia. Frankfurt ; New York: Campus Verlag, 2013. Print.

Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen. This Child Will Be Great : Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

Last Service Center Officially Dedicated in Montserrado County. UNDP. 20 Dec. 2017.

Lipsky, John. Liberia: Life after Debt, Speech by John Lipsky, IMF First Deputy Managing Director. IMF. 30 Jun 2010.

President Sirleaf Dedicates Development Projects in Grand Bassa County. Executive Mansion. 12 May 2017.

President Sirleaf Dedicates Development Projects in Margibi and Bong Counties; Becomes First Liberian President to Visit Piata Town. Executive Mansion. 13 Aug. 2012.

The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is over. World Health Organization. 09 May 2015.

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