Meet Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf first African woman President

27 Nov 2005

Africa has something that many other continents and countries cannot boast of and this time it’s not its natural resources, wild animals or beautiful landscape. It comes on the form of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's 67-year-old, Harvard-graduate, former World Bank official, former Finance Minister, and now President. She has entered the history books as the first elected female leader, not only in Liberia, but also in Africa. There are only a handful of women in that position world wide. Many women throughout the continent and in other countries are celebrating her historic victory.

After winning the polls, Johnson-Sirleaf, who heads the Unity Party, took over governing a country that has only recently emerged from 14 years of civil war. Her victory was formally announced by the Liberian Electoral Commission on 23rd November 2005 following the 2005 election. She outpaced millionaire soccer star George Weah and became Africa ''s first female leader. She took 59.4% of the vote in elections earlier this month, compared to 40.6% for Weah.

I hope young girls will now see me as a role model that will inspire them, Johnson-Sirleaf said an interview with The Associated Press at her Monrovia villa late Monday. “I certainly hope more and more of them will be better off, women in Liberia, women in Africa, I hope even women in the world.”

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of

Many news agencies are already giving her nicknames including the "Iron Lady" and focusing on the fact that she is a grandmother, while others are headlining her past jobs including one as a waitress. However her resume shows that she is up to the task. The widowed mother of four, who also has eight grandchildren, was born in 1939 and she earned a masters degree in public administration from Harvard University. Although it was not easy for her to climb the career ladder in a male-dominated world, she did just that. Among many roles, she served as a Vice-President Africa Regional Office, Citibank, Nairobi, Senior loan officer, World Bank, President, Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, Minister of Finance, Liberia and a Director, UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa among many things. She had this so say about her corporate and political climb.

If you're competing with men as a professional, you have to be better than they are … and make sure you get their respect as an equal.  It's been hard. Even when you gain their acceptance, it's in a male-dominated way. They say, ''Oh, now she's one of the boys.”

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf understands her role and the fact that it will not be easy. She has a huge job rebuilding the war-shattered nation. Already she is facing challenges from her opposition Weah, a former FIFA footballer of the year who won most of the votes in the first round of the two-round ballot, and who is reiterating his claims of "massive fraud" in the run-off. But she has faced greater challenges. She was finance minister when an illiterate army sergeant launched a 1980 coup that saw a dozen other ministers executed. Though spared, she was jailed twice - once for seven months and her captors threatened to kill her. Then she took on the country's most feared and powerful warlord, Charles Taylor, in the 1997 elections. Though she lost by a landslide she rose to national prominence, earning the nickname of "Iron Lady".

Johnson-Sirleaf is offering to resolve the first challenge by offering Weah a Cabinet post, and wants to bring in other rivals to form a government of inclusion. Also on her agenda is urging donors and international monetary organizations to cancel the country's crippling debt, which she said was $3.5 billion. The country''s national budget is just $80 million. She will also have to deal with disaffected, disgruntled political leaders, warlords. She has promised that there will be no witch hunting. Another item of importance is making sure that tens of thousands of ex-combatants, who laid down arms last year, are in school, in training programs, or employed. The jobless rate is estimated at 80 percent. She has also vowed to stamp out corruption.

Women have always been the backbone of Africa , economically and in every other circle. They are the ones who do the farming, ensure that the home is provided for and that there is food security and even surplus for sale. But their role today should also be on the battlefront against corruption, illiteracy, poverty and gender discrimination. An African woman elected president, or mayor, or chancellor is a woman contributing to the management of her country. Hopefully other African countries will learn from Liberia and give women more authoritative jobs. Let us hope that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf leaves a differrent, hopeful and uplifting legacy as an African leader.

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