When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia in November 2005, her victory was celebrated by many. Since the creation of modern African states, Ma Ellen, as she is fondly referred to in Liberia, was the first elected female Head of State of an African country.
Ma Ellen has a formidable resume, which includes a graduate degree in Economics from Harvard, an early introduction to politics as part Liberia’s one-party state of the 70s, years of service in various international economic institutions and a stint at the UN Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa, first as Assistant Administrator and then as Director.
She was twice exiled from Liberia for political reasons, but returned in 1997 to make her first bid for the presidency. After losing to Charles Taylor, she was charged with treason and fled Liberia for the second time. Ma Ellen returned in 2005 for a second and successful bid for the presidency.
Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as Africa’s first elected female President on January 16, 2006. In the five years since then, she has succeeded in significantly reducing Liberia’s national debt and providing free mandatory education for all elementary school aged children. She also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006 to investigate the decades of civil war in the country. The commission eventually recommended that she, among others, be barred from holding public office for 30 years because of their support of Charles Taylor’s regime. She has argued against the recommendation, apologizing to the nation for supporting Taylor and explaining that she withdrew her support and was one of his most vocal critics after she realized his true intentions.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf married James Sirleaf at the tender age of 17. She later divorced him after repeated bouts of domestic violence. She has four sons and eight grandchildren.
Ma Ellen in an interview for TEDWomen said that women make good leaders because they bring extra sensitivity to situations, are more likely than men to be concerned for the welfare of a nation and to respond to people’s needs. She is also known as “the Iron Lady of Africa” because of her reputation for making tough decisions and taking strong action. Her grandmotherly moniker of Ma Ellen balances out her tough side. She has done women all over the world proud, but especially African women. We hope that many more women will have opportunities to follow in her footsteps.
Image: The Daily Femme