Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, born 29 October 1938 in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother, is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and the first elected female head of state in Africa.
She was educated at the College of West Africa. She completed her education in the United States, where she studied at Madison Business College and Harvard University. She returned to Liberia to work in William Tolbert’s government as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1971 to 1974. Later she worked again in the West, for the World Bank in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1979, she received a cabinet appointment as Minister of Finance, serving to 1980.
After Samuel Doe seized power that year in a coup d’état and executed Tolbert, Sirleaf fled to the United States. She worked for Citibank and then the Equator Bank. She returned to Liberia to contest a senatorial seat for Montserrado County in 1985, an election that was disputed. She continued to be involved in politics. She finished in second place at the 1997 presidential election, which was won by Charles Taylor.
She won the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. She was re-elected in 2011, the first woman in Africa elected as president of her country. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, in recognition of her efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process.
In June 2016, Sirleaf was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold the position since it was created.
Sirleaf received various honors and awards. In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Sirleaf was conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12 September 2013. In 2016, she was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.
Sirleaf was also recipient of the 1988 Roosevelt Institute Freedom of Speech Award, Ralph Bunche International Leadership Award, Grand commander Star of Africa Redemption of Liberia, 1996 Commander of the Order of Mono, 2006 Common Ground Award recipient, Search for Common Ground; 2006 Laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, The Hunger Project; 2006 Distinguished Fellow, Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, Emory University; 2006 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws from Marquette University; 2006 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award from Synergos; 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States, awarded to Sirleaf by U.S. President George W. Bush on 5 November 2007
Others are 2008 Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement; 2008 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Indiana University, Dartmouth College; and Brown University; 2009 Awarded the EITI Award for “the rapid progress the country has made towards implementation of the EITI”; 2009 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Tampa; 2010 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; 2010 Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor’s Union; 2011 Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University; 2011 African Gender Award; 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Disarmament and Development; Won the 2017 version of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
She married James Sirleaf in 1956 when she was seventeen years old. She grew up as a Presbyterian, but later joined her husband’s Methodist faith. Through her sons she has ten grandchildren. The couple had four sons together, and she was primarily occupied as a homemaker. Early on in their marriage, James worked for the Department of Agriculture, and Sirleaf worked as a bookkeeper for an auto-repair shop. She traveled with her husband to the United States in 1961 to continue her education and earned an associate degree in Accounting at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin.
When they returned to Liberia, James continued his work in the Agriculture Department and Sirleaf pursued a career in the Treasury Department (Ministry of Finance). They divorced in 1961 because of James’ abuse.
Several of her children served in the Liberian government. Her son Robert Sirleaf served as head of the National Oil Company of Liberia, Charles Sirleaf holds a senior position at the Central Bank of Liberia, and stepson Fombah Sirleaf heads the Liberian National Security Agency, with responsibility for internal security. Other members of the Sirleaf family are serving in other positions in government.
She was accused in 2014 of interfering with a criminal investigation involving her stepson Fombah Sirleaf and the security agency. Her Minister of Justice Christiana Tah resigned in October 2014, accusing President Sirleaf of interference with the criminal investigation into the illegal seizure of money from Korean businessmen by the NSA in a warrantless hotel raid in July 2014. In 2019, her son, Charles Sirleaf, was charged with economic sabotage through the unlawful printing of local currency to the value of $75 million USD. The investigation was carried out by investigative auditing firm Kroll.