Our woman hero of October is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf! She is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was the first elected female head of state in Africa. Sirleaf was listed as the 83rd-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2016. In 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, while Time counted her among the top ten female leaders. That same year, The Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had.” In 2010, Sirleaf released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born on 29 October 1938 in Monrovia, capital city of Liberia. She attended the College of West Africa, a preparatory school, from 1948 to 1955, and later married James Sirleaf when she was seventeen years old. Sirleaf traveled with her husband to the United States in 1961 to continue her education at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin. After divorcing in 1961 because of James’ abuse, Sirleaf returned to college to finish her bachelor’s degree.
After gaining a Master of Public Administration, Sirleaf he returned to Liberia to work in the administration of President William Tolbert, where she was appointed as Assistant Minister of Finance from 1972 to 1973. She resigned after a disagreement about government spending. Subsequently, she was appointed as Minister of Finance a few years later, serving from 1979 to April 1980.
Master Sergeant Samuel Doe seized power in a military coup on 12 April 1980. He ordered the assassination of Tolbert and execution by firing squad of all but four members of his Cabinet. Sirleaf fled the country in November 1980 after publicly criticizing Doe and the People’s Redemption Council for their management of the country.
In 1981, Sirleaf moved to Nairobi, Kenya to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank. She resigned from Citibank in 1985 and returned to Liberia to run for Vice President under Jackson Doe in the 1985 elections. However, Sirleaf was placed under house arrest in August 1985 and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition, as a consequence of a speech in which she insulted the members of the Samuel Doe regime. Following international calls for her release, Samuel Doe pardoned and released her in September. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on 12 November 1985, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on 13th November by Doe’s forces. She was released in July 1986 and secretly fled the country to the United States later that year.
In 1997, Sirleaf ran as the presidential candidate and placed second after Charles Taylor in a controversial election. After controversy about the results and being accused of treason, Sirleaf left Liberia and went into exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. After the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, Sirleaf stood for president in the 2005 general election. She was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country’s next president on 23 November 2005. Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16th January, 2006. Sirleaf was re-elected in 2011. In June 2016, she was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to hold the position since it was created.
During her presidency, Sirleaf issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children. On 4 October 2010 she signed into law a Freedom of Information bill, the first legislation of its kind in West Africa. In recognition of this, she became the first sitting head of state to receive the Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor’s Union. She also successfully reduced the national debt, and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating more than 20 years of civil conflict in the country.
In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Sirleaf was also conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on 12 September 2013.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf inspired us that woman can be a great leader, politician and president. She also taught us the important things to establish a great country, which are education improvement, economic empowerment, strong relations with other countries, and most important of all, a national dialogue that bring all different parties and ethnicities in the country together to reconcile and create peace.
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