President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been a trail blazer all her life. In 1979, she became the first woman to serve as Finance Minister of Liberia at a time when there were very few women in high office anywhere in the world.
After the 1980 military coup that toppled the government of William Tolbert in whose cabinet she had served, Sirleaf was among the first Liberians to mount a serious opposition to Liberia’s military dictator, Samuel Doe. She led the founding of the Liberia Action Party, one of the few organized opposition to Doe and, as a result, paid a heavy prize, twice being imprisoned by Doe.
Bent on ridding Liberia of the Doe regime, which she described as composed of “idiots,” Sirleaf affiliated herself with various efforts to forcibly removed Doe from office, including an abortive coup attempt in 1985 and later the Charles Taylor led armed incursion that ultimately resulted in the killing of Doe in 1990.
Several interim governments ruled Liberia following Doe’s death until the country held elections in 1997. Sirleaf ran for the presidency in those elections but placed a distant second to her former ally, Taylor, who was subsequently forced out of office under international pressure in 2003. Once again, the various warring and political factions chose an interim government to rule the country pending elections.
Sirleaf contested those elections in 2005, this time under the banner of the Unity Party, after she lost control of her former party, the Liberia Action Party. She came second to former international soccer star George Weah in the first round, but then pulled a stunning upset to win the second round and claim her long sought prize: The Liberian Presidency, becoming the first democratically elected female leader of an African country.
After taking office in 2006, she faced the difficult task of rebuilding a war-ravaged country. The country is certainly better off than it was before she took the helm, but immense problems-high unemployment and an endemic culture of corruption-marred her first term, leading many to believe that she would face a difficult time winning re-election.
However, on the eve of the elections in October 2011, Sirleaf got a serious boost with the surprise announcement of her selection along with two other women-Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen-as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The 73-year old Sirleaf placed first in the first round of the ensuing elections and easily coasted to victory for a second term when the George Weah led opposition decided to boycott the second round, claiming widespread fraud by the election commission.