On Monday, Liberia inaugurated a new president and the nation’s first female vice president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ended her presidency the way she began it—shattering precedent. The first woman to be elected president of an African nation has become the first Liberian president in 44 years to yield political power to a freely elected successor.
Sirleaf called for democratic elections after serving two terms as president—the maximum allowed by constitutional term limits. Opposition candidate George Weah defeated her own vice president Joseph Boakai handily in a recent runoff election. Sirleaf’s Unity Party now contends she interfered with the elections and violated a requirement to support fellow party members–charges that Sirleaf refutes.
To understand the legacy of Africa’s first elected woman president, we must go beyond today’s headlines and examine her 12 years in office.
When Sirleaf took office in 2006, the nation had been defined by its 17-year civil war—the mass atrocities, the unbridled greed, the diamonds for guns trade, the repeated rapes of 70 percent of the country’s women and girls and the systematic drugging of child soldiers to perpetrate heinous violence. It had become, as New York Times reporter Helene Cooper noted in her book Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the most dangerous place in the world. More brutal than Somalia. More lethal than Iraq.
Sirleaf had been imprisoned, threatened, defrauded of the 1997 election, and forced to flee. She spent her exile working in finance—but devoted most of her energy rallying the World Bank, the United Nations and West African leaders to reject President-cum-warlord Charles Taylor.
In 2003, violence reached a tipping point. In one July week, grenades and machine guns slaughtered 600 hundred residents of Monrovia. Parents drug the bullet-ridden and dismembered bodies of their children to the US embassy. Market women organized, confronted soldiers and rebels, and traveled to Accra to insist delegates attending the peace conference organize a new government. Taylor fled to Nigeria. A transition government was formed.
Sirleaf wanted to lead that effort. A majority of the delegates voted for her. A special committee, however, rejected that ballot and picked Gyude Bryant as the transitional president.
In 2005, Sirleaf returned home to again run for president. Few believed she could win. Outside observers were certain that a woman nicknamed “the Iron Lady” (for surviving jail) and who campaigned as “Ma Ellen” would surely lose. None anticipated that the market women who had forced the peace could become precinct captains or that women would line up at dawn to vote for her.
Even after Sirleaf won, many wondered how a Harvard-educated woman could govern a country accustomed to semi-literate warlords and populated by former combatants. Liberia, though war-weary, remained a divided nation, devoid of functioning agencies, infrastructure and justice sector; overwhelmed by debt and corruption; and brutally dismissive of its women and children.
Restoring peace and security required rebuilding government and the rule of law. Sirleaf and the market women understood that women were key. Theirs was a formidable alliance that changed their nation and proved how essential women are to reconciliation and governance.
Systematic rape had made Liberia a torture chamber. Rebels, soldiers and peacekeepers assaulted women with impunity. Women were critical to security sector reform. Sirleaf appointed Beatrice Sieh chief of police and the U.N. deployed the first all-female police unit to Liberia. By 2016, Liberia’s police force had become 17 percent female.
Sirleaf turned to women to help her fight corruption and rebuild the Liberian economy. She appointed them ministers of commerce, administration and finance—and some say she should have appointed even more. She created a foundation to educate market women and support girls’ education. She shepherded the Liberian Action Plan on women, peace and security and strove for women’s full participation in recovery, reconstruction and governance.
These efforts, combined with her own skill, convinced the international community to forgive Liberia’s massive debt and reinvest in its development. Over the next decade, the Liberian gross domestic product increased 7 percent a year.
Then Ebola struck, threatening the national consensus she had forged. Liberians balked when Sirleaf’s government said they could no longer touch each other or bury their dead. They denied the disease; destroyed treatment centers; and resisted confinement. Hospitals refused patients. War-level panic returned.
The Liberian infrastructure she so painstakingly rebuilt buckled. Her policies backfired. Political critics pounced. Desperate Liberians begged “Ma” for help. Scientists predicted 1.4 million Liberian deaths.
Sirleaf lobbied the Senate, wrote President Barack Obama and addressed the world via the BBC. Her asks were precise—how many hospitals, public health workers and soldiers Liberia needed to combat Ebola. Her status as a Nobel Peace laureate made it hard to refuse. America and China responded forcefully. Ebola eradicated, business returned.
Challenges remain for Liberia that Sirleaf couldn’t solve. More than half the nation lives below the poverty line. Corruption and nepotism are rampant. Women remain underrepresented in politics and the legislature has yet to advance domestic violence legislation.
But in a continent where leaders don’t have a history of departing democratically, Sirleaf stands out.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Liberian women, once transformed their fragile nation. Sirleaf became the first president to make women and children a government priority. Once more, she is showing the world how things can be done.