Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President, Liberia 2006-2018

As Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf 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. In 2011 she won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Public Career

Ellen Johnson 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.

Ellen Johnson 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 re-election 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. 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.

Activity after Public Service

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is U.S. educated and holds a master’s 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.

She has written widely on financial, development and human rights issues, and in 2008 she published her critically acclaimed memoir, This Child Will Be Great.

In addition to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the recipient of many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the United States’ highest civilian award—and the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur – France’s highest public distinction. In 2017 she was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which celebrates excellence in African leadership.

Sirleaf is the Chair of the African Transformation Leadership Panel which inter alia focuses on opportunities for women and young people in its efforts to reform Africa’s economies.  

In 2018 she was appointed to a policy advisory group for the IMF to work on the IMF’s 2020 Comprehensive Surveillance Review (CSR), is a periodic review which seeks to explore the IMF’s effectiveness in monitoring global economic developments and delivering policy advice to its 189 member countries.

In 2019 she was appointed WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Health Workforce.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation since 2018. 

Memberships and Affiliations

  • Chair of the African Transformation Leadership Panel
  • Co-Chair of WHO Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response
  • Board Member of Mastercard Foundation
  • Advisory Board Member of Bloomberg
  • Advisory Board Member of Brenthurst Foundation
  • Member of The EU-Africa High-Level Group of Personalities
  • Member of End Malaria Council
  • Member of Club de Madrid
  • Member of The Elders