Internationally known as Africa’s “Iron Lady,” former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a leading promoter of peace, justice and democratic rule. Sirleaf was the first woman in Africa elected as president of her country.
Following her education at the College of West Africa, President Johnson Sirleaf moved to the United States where she earned an accounting degree from the Madison College of Business and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
In her efforts to bring justice to her people in Liberia, she spent more than a year in jail at the hands of the military dictatorship of General Samuel Doe and had her life threatened by former President Charles Taylor. She campaigned relentlessly for Taylor’s removal from office and played an active and supportive role in the Transitional Government of Liberia as the country prepared for elections in October of 2005.
President Johnson Sirleaf was a presidential candidate in the 1997 Liberia general election where she finished second in the field of 13. Before that, she served for five years as Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Program as Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and was the first woman to lead the United Nations Development Project for Africa.
She served as the Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission of the National Transitional Government of Liberia until she resigned in March 2004 to accept the nomination of the Unity Party of Liberia as the party’s leader.
In November 2005, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia and became the first woman to lead an African nation. In the elections she defeated popular world-class soccer star George Weah with an impressive 59.4 percent of the vote.
In October 2007, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civil award, for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expanding freedom and improving the lives of people in Liberia and across Africa. And in 2010, as the only female and African Head of State, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was named by Newsweek Magazine as one of the World Top Ten Leaders.
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, thus making her the first woman to hold the position since its creation. In 2017, she became the fifth recipient of the Ibrahim Prize, which recognizes and celebrates excellence in African leadership. The Ibrahim Prize aims to distinguish leaders who, during their time in office, have developed their countries, strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, and advanced sustainable development. In its citation, the Prize Committee praised her exceptional and transformative leadership, in the face of unprecedented and renewed challenges, to lead Liberia’s recovery following many years of devastating civil war. In 2018, Johnson Sirleaf founded the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women”.
In 2019 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was appointed WHO Goodwill Ambassador for promoting global health. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she stepped down from this post to serve as co-chair (alongside Helen Clark) of the WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR). Also in 2020, Johnson Sirleaf was appointed to the Development Advisory Council of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.