MONROVIA: Many pundits agree she was a pride and sensation in national politics long before and during her presidency as Liberia and Africa’s first female democratically elected head of state. Even six years after her 12-year reign, and clocking 85 this Sunday, October 29, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf continues to make her mark in the sand of history on both national and international frontiers. Her ingrained passion for human freedoms, with emphasis on feminist struggle and global peace, makes her a darling of many well-meaning nations and institutions crusading for similar aspirations. As she celebrates next week, perhaps usually quietly, fans, supporters, colleagues and relatives are expected to heap copies and moving eulogies on the former Liberian leader and Nobel Laurent on account of her extraordinary strides in the public and private spheres. The Analyst reports.
Not too many Liberians had God-given privilege to celebrate an 84th birth anniversary. Certainly, despite natural drains that might hit her physique, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains strong not only in her physicals but also mentally and intellectually. That will be the cause to celebrate, to thank God and family and supporters who made the celebrate life trajectory warm and meaningful.
At 84 the ex-President must be looking back to see whence she comes—the rocky road to success and to prominence. Like anybody, she must have envisaged from youth what she wanted to be and where reach in life. But there are “unexpectables” and those might be the events that President must be contemplating today.
As a young woman, her pro-people advocacy got her in jail, submitting her to cruelty. She rose from the cells of Belle Yella, became an international civil servant, an eminent stateswoman, to becoming the first elected female African president, and a subject attraction of an avalanche of national and international acclamation.
What independent observers are unanimous about as the widely acknowledged towering legacy of Madam Sirleaf is that, for nearly twenty years, Liberia was kept estranged from the community of nations. It became to pariah state, but in months when she became the President of Liberia, a plethora of kings and queens of the world began to touch the soil of the country.
The eyes of suspicion and scorn which had greeted Liberians who sued to travel or and stay abroad also gain sobriety as perceptions changed about the country: the perception that Liberians were brutes and blood-thirsty people soon faded to the rise of Madam President to the President.
On the birthday wine table Sunday, October 29, it is expected that the accolades and eulogies will be too many for the President to unload and behold. There will be countless honors and recognitions, amongst them chiefly is the Nobel Peace Prize, of course, which will come out first on the list. And the nation will take over the count the rest.
During her 12 year leadership in Liberia, The Analyst closely followed and reported on this 23rd president of Liberia, and still have it that Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a leading promoter of freedom, peace, justice, women’s empowerment and democratic rule.
As Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state, she led Liberia through reconciliation and recovery following the nation’s decade-long civil war, as well as the Ebola Crisis, winning international acclaim for achieving economic, social, and political change.
Recognized as a global leader for women’s empowerment, President Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011. In 2018, she joined the ranks of Africa’s most admired and accomplished leaders, including Nelson Mandela, as the first woman honored with the Mo Ibrahim Prize, considered the most prestigious award for African leaders.
This Prize is offered to those who have developed their countries, strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, and advanced sustainable development.
Madam Sirleaf is also the recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom—the United States’ highest civilian award—for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expanding freedom and improving the lives of Africans.
President Sirleaf’s many other honors include the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest public distinction, and being named one of Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women in the World.”
Another historically treasured legacy of Madam Sirleaf is that when she in January of 2018, stepped down from the presidency of Liberia, it went into the annals of world history; for there had never before, in the previous 73 years of her country’s war-torn and tumultuous history, had there been a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
President Sirleaf was elected President of the Republic of Liberia in 2005, two years after the nation’s bloody civil war ended.
Her historic inauguration as Africa’s first democratically-elected head of state took place on January 16, 2006.
Prior to the election, she had served in the transitional government, where she chaired the Governance Reform Commission and led the country’s anti-corruption reform. She won her second presidential elections in November 2011.
During her two terms as president, Johnson Sirleaf has focused on rebuilding the country, attracting over $16 billion in foreign direct investment.
She has also attracted more than $5 million in private resources to rebuild schools, clinics and markets, and fund scholarships for capacity building.
Still outstanding in the life achievements is that she successfully negotiated $4.6 billion in external debt forgiveness and the lifting of UN trade sanctions, which have allowed Liberia to once again access international markets.
She increased the national budget from $80 million in 2006 to over $672 million in 2012, with an annual GDP growth rate of more than 7%.
In June 2016, President Sirleaf was elected the first female Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for a twelve-month term.
In May 2012, she was appointed co-chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The panel is tasked with crafting a roadmap for global recovery and sustainable development.
In addition to her Nobel Prize, President Sirleaf is the recipient of numerous honors, including: Mo Ibrahim Prize (2018), The Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace Disarmament and Development (2012), the African Gender Award (2011), Friend of the Media Award (2010), FUECH Grand Cross Award (2009), FAO’s CERES Medal (2008), Golden Plate Award (2008), International Women’s Leadership Award (2008), International Crisis Group Fred Cuny Award for the Prevention of Deadly Crisis (2008); James and Eunice K. Matthews Bridge Building Award (2008), American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2008), National Civil Rights Museum Annual Freedom Award (2007), National Democratic Institute Harriman Award (2007), Bishop T. Walker Humanitarian Award (2007), Gold Medal of the President of the Italian Republic (2006), Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger (2006), National Reconciliation Award (2006), International Woman of the Year (2006), and International Republican Institute Freedom Award (2006).
President Sirleaf has been ranked among the top 100 most powerful women in the world (Forbes, 2012), the most powerful woman in Africa (Forbes Africa, 2011), one of six “Women of the Year” (Glamour, 2010), among the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek, 2010) and top 10 female leaders (TIME, 2010). In 2010, The Economist called her “the best President the country has ever had.”
Early Professional Life
President Sirleaf began her career in the Treasury Department in Liberia in 1965. In 1979, she rose to the position of Minister of Finance and introduced measures to curb the mismanagement of government finances. After the 1980 military coup d’état, she became president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, but fled Liberia that same year, escaping an increasingly suppressive military government. Johnson Sirleaf has also served as vice president of Citicorp’s Africa regional office in Nairobi, as senior loan officer at the World Bank, and as a vice president for Equator Bank.
Prior to her first campaign for the presidency, Johnson Sirleaf served as assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and as director of its Regional Bureau of Africa, with the rank of assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, a post she resigned to contest the 1997 presidential elections.
After coming in second, she went into self-imposed exile in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). While in exile, she established a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs and founded Measuagoon, a Liberian community development NGO.
President Sirleaf has been awarded honorary doctorates by more than 15 institutions, including: Tilburg University (Netherlands), the Nigerian Defence Academy, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Harvard University, Rutgers University, Yale University, Georgetown University, the University of Abeokuta (Nigeria), the University of Minnesota, Furman University of South Carolina, Brown University, Indiana University, Dartmouth College, Concordia University, Langston University, Spelman College and Marquette University.
Born Ellen Eugenia Johnson, President Sirleaf is the granddaughter of a traditional chief of renown in western Liberia and a market woman from the southeast. U.S. educated, she holds a Master in Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also earned a degree in accounting at Madison Business College in Wisconsin and received a diploma from the University of Colorado’s Economics Institute.
President Sirleaf has written widely on financial, development and human rights issues, and in 2008 she published her critically acclaimed memoir, This Child Will Be Great.
She is the proud mother of four sons and grandmother of 11.
Historians and political pundits who are embroiled in debates relative to questions about Liberia’s most history-making presidency ought to settle down on one name: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 23rd President.
Even in her post-presidential era, the world still marvels at this attention-grabbing Liberian leader who did not only successfully walked her way into the male-dominated African political space but who also left indelible marks on her country’s forward match toward sustainable peace, democracy and transformation.
Like any natal-day celebrant, President Sirleaf must by now be feeling extremely festive, needing all the appreciation mankind owes her, first for her advent on Planet Earth four scores of years ago, and second for her quota to humanity.
For most part of her 12-year presidency, she usually kept the celebration of her birthday deliberately low-keyed, perhaps as a demonstration of empathy for a population largely recovering from the stings of war and to see how her people would respond to the doses of remedies her administration was providing.
Out of the Executive Mansion six years ago, her celebration is, and should be, more than acknowledging providence’s wonders that got her a blessing of the world; it is also about celebrating momentous breakthrough in national and international affairs, inspiring a once uninspired people, and rescuing a once ruined and estranged nation into an oasis of hope for a better future.
Tolerance in Political Transition
If all is said and done, both critics and supporters of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will agree on one thing: she’s the first democratically elected president to oversee peaceful transition in over seven decades. This is also totally rare in Africa where intolerance to peaceful transition either produced political dinosaurs or bloody civil conflicts.
There were temptations and somewhat shrewd reasons to the former president to put herself forward for a third term, which some supporters say would have been the actual second constitutional terms.
There were urgings from here and there that the former president should stay on to guard the stability, peace and prosperity fought for and obtained.
It was then said that it would be disastrous for the President to leave the recovering nation with untested politicians, some supporters of hers said then. And they said one more term would have done the trick to keep the nation stable and prosperous.
She ignored the temptation of the trappings of power, not only by remaining nonpartisan even against the wishes of her own former ruling Unity Party but also by insisting that no one exploited incumbency powers to stall the transition.
Tracing the roots
“Ellen was always a subject of discussion from early childhood through secondary and advance studies,” said one aging lady who claimed she followed the rise of Madam Sirleaf but doesn’t want to be named by The Analyst.
She credited this view to what she called an inborn trait and/or to deliberate adventures which she said Mrs. Sirleaf consistently undertook from her adolescent years.
From the College of West Africa in Central Monrovia, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and to other prestigious schools and job experiences she navigated, the anonymous interviewee told Analyst, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s strong desire to excel and be in the first rank of every vocation has made her a source of delight and envy to many, defining while controversy has been an integral part of her life.
Even as she celebrates her 85th birthday, members of the public are divided in their reactions and rating.
Political pundits who followed the former President’s political struggle that culminated into her ascendency to the Liberian leadership in 2006 and later in 2012, the demonstrated support and delight amongst Liberians and other well-wishers for the “Iron Lady” at 85 is due to outstanding achievements made during the 12 years of her leadership and general kindness to ordinary people.
From the days of the True Whig Party, when she began public life as a banker and economic and financial management expert, supporters say they have since admired Madam Sirleaf because she was not consumed by the elitist fervor blowing in those days, but worked as a freedom fighter and a voice of the downtrodden.
Her passion to fight for the weak and dispossessed majority won her acclamation amongst ordinary people, giving her the extraordinary courage to persistently companion the cause of the people. The struggle however left her severally bruised, spending time in jail and forcing her into exile.
Even while in exile, the “Iron Lady” as she came to be known, did not abandon her pro-people advocacy; she partnered with national and international counterparts to confront despotism at home.
She was detested by the ruling elites for her struggle to liberate the impoverished majority of Liberians from the claws of corrupt and totalitarian regimes.