Georgetown will host Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at Riggs Library on December 6. In anticipation of her discussion with Steven Radelet, director of the Global Human Development Program, The Caravel reviews her most significant achievements, and her impact on Liberia and Africa at large.
Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s twenty-fourth president in 2006 after the conclusion of the country’s second civil war, instigated by a coup against warlord and former-President Charles Taylor. She was Africa’s first democratically-elected female head of state and a darling of the international development community. Domestically and internationally, her leadership was seen as the first step towards recovery for a country mired in poverty and healing from a staggering, 14-year conflict.
Now, as the president is preparing to pass the baton to a successor in Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power since 1944, circumstances have changed. While her international popularity has not waned, popular support within her own country has diminished to the extent that her vice president has purposefully distanced himself from her in his election campaign.
Sirleaf’s fall from grace can be attributed to a devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014 and lackluster improvements in poverty, corruption, and health when massive strides were expected. In part, these expectations were out of Sirleaf’s control—her characterization as a democratic, female powerhouse left large shoes to fill—but she did little to abate them.
That’s not to say that there have been no improvements. Under her presidency, Liberia has seen a dramatic drop in rape, child soldier recruitment, and warlord activity. Rape became a criminal offense for the first time ever in Liberia in 2006, at Sirleaf’s order. Overall, she has been a champion of women’s rights and female empowerment in a country where 70 percent of women had been raped at the time she assumed office. For these strides, Johnson was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Liberia has also experienced a period of relative peace since Johnson came to power, notable for a country which had spent over a decade trapped in brutal civil war.
On the other hand, her administration has been hounded by accusations of corruption and nepotism, including from fellow Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee. Two of her sons hold senior public roles, and there is evidence of financial ties to Taylor.
Despite criticism of Sirleaf’s leadership, however, it is undeniable that her time in office has been highly consequential.