Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the first elected head of state, not only of her country, but of the African continent as well. This divorced mother of four, grandmother of six children; is known to her supporters as the Iron Lady. She has earned this nickname by surviving 30 years of Liberia’s tumultuous politics.
She was born October 29, 1943 in Monrovia. She is a descendant of the Americo-Liberians, the original colonist of Liberia. The original colonists were former African American slaves, who enslaved the local people. They modeled their society on the plantation slave system of their former slave masters in the United States.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf studied economics at the College of West Africa. At seventeen she married and traveled to the United States with her husband. She continued her studies, receiving a master degree in public administration from Harvard. She then returned to Liberia and began working for the government as the Minister of Finance. During the nineteen seventies the Liberian government became more polarized to the benefit of the Americo-Liberian elite. In 1980, The Peoples Redemption Council seized power during a military coup, placing Samuel Doe into power. During the purge of government Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf escaped, choosing exile in Kenya. When Samuel Doe declared himself president and un-banned political parties in 1989, she returned to Liberia. During the 1985 election she campaigned against Samuel Doe, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. She served only a short time before being allowed to go into exile again.
In 1990, Samuel Doe was assassinated by a splinter group of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. In 1997, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the office of president against Charles Taylor; she came in second. In 2003, Charles Taylor handed power over to his deputy, Moses Blah. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf served as head of the Government Reform commission for the interim government. However, she resigned that position to protest the transitional government inability to eliminate corruption. In November 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president. First Lady, Laura Bush and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice attended her inauguration. She has pledged as president to revisit the land tenure system that is the source of so much strife between the ethnic groups within country. Local chiefs primarily control Liberia’s land. President Johnson-Sirleaf has said she will bring a “motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency” in order to heal the war wounds of her country.