Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Liberia's 'Iron Lady'
CBC News Online | March 28, 2006
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (AP file photo)
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Margaret Thatcher may share more than a nickname. Both "Iron Ladies" were the first women to hold the top political jobs in their countries. Both honed instincts that enabled them to survive in a male-dominated profession for the long term.
Thatcher may have had to fight for her political life. Johnson-Sirleaf has faced situations that could have ended her life. She was one of only four cabinet ministers to escape execution when Samuel Doe overthrew the government of President William Tolbert in 1980.
Like many Liberians who are descended from freed American slaves, Johnson-Sirleaf was educated in the United States. In 1961, she headed west to study at the University of Colorado and – later – at Harvard, where she studied economics and obtained a master's degree in public administration. In 1971, she returned to Liberia and a life in government, as a member of the privileged Americo-Liberian elite.
Shortly after Doe established that he was firmly in control of the country, Johnson-Sirleaf decided life in exile in Kenya would be far less risky than staying home as an opponent of the government.
Between 1983 and 1985, she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi. She decided to return to Liberia after Doe legalized political parties in 1984.
In the 1985 election, she ran for a senate seat. Her campaign took a turn for the worst when she gave a speech that was highly critical of Doe. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She served a few months house arrest before she was allowed to leave the country once more for a life of exile in Kenya.
Johnson-Sirleaf held a string of senior positions in the years that followed. She served as vice president of the African Regional Office of Citibank in Nairobi and of (HSCB) Equator Bank in Washington. In the 1990s, she was the director of the UN Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Africa. She has also served as president of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment, and senior loan officer of the World Bank. She has represented Liberia on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank.
Johnson-Sirleaf remained in exile until 1997. In the years she was out of the country, civil war was constant. Samuel Doe was overthrown and killed and various rebel groups fought for control of the country. The main rebel group was led by Charles Taylor.
Initially, Johnson-Sirleaf supported Taylor's rebellion. By 1996, African peacekeeping forces brought an end to the Liberian civil war. Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run against Taylor for president under the banner of the Unity Party.
Central to her campaign was her economic expertise – and the fact that she was not involved in the civil war. She placed a distant second to Taylor, capturing about 15 per cent of the vote.
After the election, Taylor charged Johnson-Sirleaf with treason. She returned, briefly, to a life of exile.
But peace under Taylor did not last long. Within two years, yet another rebellion was simmering. As well, there were allegations that Taylor was a gunrunner and was supporting civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The United Nations cited him for war crimes.
By August 2003, Taylor bowed to the pressure and left for Nigeria. Taylor's departure set the stage for presidential elections in October 2005.
None of the 22 candidates received the required 50 per cent of the vote. All but two candidates were dropped from the ballot for November's run-off election. Johnson-Sirleaf faced former soccer star George Weah.
Johnson-Sirleaf pledged to bring the "motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency" needed to heal a country wracked by so many years of violence and warfare. She also stressed the need for universal education.
Her opponent – George Weah – did not graduate from high school.
"This is not the time to come and learn on the job," Johnson-Sirleaf said on the campaign trail. "This is the time to come and do it; the time to perform and achieve."
Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated on Jan. 16, 2006, becoming Africa's first female elected head of state.
"To help reconcile the country I plan to build a government that includes members of the opposition," she told reporters. "That way we'll minimize the danger of another civil war."
Still, she expects UN peacekeepers to remain in the country for most of the decade. She estimates it will take that long until Liberia can rely on its own security forces to maintain order.
Johnson Sirleaf's challenges are huge. Liberia's public works are in shambles, there is little or no running water, and the electricity grid is non-existent. The country's roads, schools and medical facilities barely function.
Several countries that were to help rebuild Liberia's infrastructure pulled out, citing widespread corruption that continued after Taylor's departure.
But with the inauguration of a new president, there are signs the aid will return. The European Union has committed $70 million to help bring electricity back to the capital, Monrovia. The United States is committed to rebuilding the armed forces. The UN mission in Liberia, which includes 15,000 peacekeepers, costs about $700 million a year.
In March 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf asked Nigeria to surrender Taylor to a United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Nigeria reluctantly agreed, but Taylor disappeared before he could be arrested.