This week, Liberia’s former president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was awarded the $5 million Ibrahim prize for African Leadership. Sirleaf is probably best known for receiving the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with her Liberian compatriot Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, for their struggle for women’s full participation in peace building. In 2005, Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected woman president, and recently stepped down after two terms as Liberia’s head of state.
Now — at a moment when she’s a bit more controversial, at least domestically — she’s received the Ibrahim Prize, an honor started in 2007 that is designed to encourage good governance. The prize goes to a former head of any country in Africa who was democratically elected — and who turned over power in a constitutional process in the previous three calendar years. President Nelson Mandela received an honorary award in 2007. Sirleaf is the first woman to win.
So, who is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
To understand Sirleaf and her administrations, we first need to understand that Liberia’s history has been shaped by tensions among the various indigenous communities of Liberia and Americo-Liberians, descendants of African American settlers who arrived mostly in the 19th century fleeing racism. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the legacies of colonialism as a major cause of the civil war that wracked Liberia from 1989 through the early 2000s. Inequalities continue to this day: Monrovia, the capital, has long been the epicenter of development, with running water, paved roads, and a port that remains valuable to foreign companies. The interior of Liberia remains underdeveloped with very few paved roads, few schools and widespread poverty.
Sirleaf had a long history in Liberian government before the civil wars
Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia in 1938 to indigenous parents who had been fostered by Americo-Liberian families. Sirleaf’s maternal grandfather was German. She went to school in the capital but spent holidays in rural Bomi county with her maternal grandmother, learning the local language Gola, and seeing the split between the American-descended Liberians and the indigenous Liberians. At 17, Ellen Johnson married James “Doc” Sirleaf. They had four children and went to the United States to study, where she earned an accounting degree as the marriage fell apart and then a Harvard MBA in 1972.
With her financial expertise, Sirleaf served in Liberia’s government. She was part of the Tolbert administration when the tensions between the Americo-Liberian elite and the mostly impoverished indigenous Liberians erupted, and indigenous staff sergeant Samuel Doe led a 1980 coup. Sirleaf served in his administration for some six months as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment before fleeing to the United States.
Between 1989 to 1997, various Liberian militias vied for power, unleashing terrible violence. Charles Taylor was one warlord, now serving a sentence of life imprisonment for his part in the blood diamond trade that fueled violence in neighboring Sierra Leone. In the late 1980s and early 1990, Sirleaf briefly supported Taylor, raising money for his cause.
In 1997, Sirleaf ran for the presidency — but was beaten by Taylor in an election whose results the United States recognized, despite violence and irregularities. Only two years later, civil war returned, scarring the country with sexual violence, the use of child soldiers and horrific suffering until 2003. That’s when women under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee forced the warlords, then meeting in Ghana, to seriously engage in negotiations to end the war.
Sirleaf was a controversial president — at times more popular abroad than at home
Sirleaf won the presidency in the 2005 election, barely squeaking into office in a run-off against George Weah, a soccer star who has just succeeded her as president.
Sirleaf already had a stellar reputation internationally, having held high posts at the United Nations, Citibank and the World Bank. As a result, she excelled at bringing in international development organizations to Liberia, focusing particularly on women’s rights, ending gender-based violence, building “capacity” and furthering reconciliation among former combatants — with help from agencies and NGOs ranging UNIFEM, UNHCR and UNMIL (the UN Mission in Liberia) to The Carter Center, Doctors Without Borders, CARE, The International Rescue Committee and Oxfam. These organizations helped Liberia build the rule of law, social justice and health. Global companies also invested: In 2011, the U.S. State Department noted over $16 billion in new foreign investment in Liberia since 2006.
Sirleaf exemplifies all that a certain era of development stood for: calls for fiscal responsibility, economic investment and the promotion of good governance tied to the state. But while international organizations saw in her a trusted collaborator, at home her vision of development and her ties to international capital made her suspect to many Liberians. Sirleaf made deals with international corporations to buy or lease rights to exploit Liberian land officially in the public domain, but which indigenous groups had long claimed as their own, despite having no formal title. Sirleaf also angered many when she ran for a second term in 2011 and won, even after The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission advised that she not run for a second term because of her earlier support for Taylor.
In her second term, Sirleaf faced the 2014 Ebola crisis. She ended a very controversial quarantine of West Point, a destitute area of Monrovia, choosing instead to have Liberian public health officials emphasize social engagement and civic education. Liberia became the first of the three stricken countries in the region to end the Ebola outbreak.
But when Sirleaf appointed her sons to key roles in the government, ethics advocates and Liberian critics criticized her for nepotism, which undermined her administration’s campaign against corruption.
And yet she did emphasize good governance — and ushered Liberia through a peaceful transition of power
Whatever her presidency’s shortcomings, Sirleaf’s accomplishments fit the requirements of the Mo Ibrahim prize. She presided over a decade of peace in Liberia. She stepped aside at the end of her second term, as prescribed by the Liberian constitution. She has raised Liberia’s profile globally.
The prize committee acknowledges that she has been accused of corruption. But it notes, “Since 2006, Liberia was the only country out of 54 to improve in every category and sub-category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. This led Liberia to move up 10 places in the Index’s overall ranking during this period.”