Liberia's president and 'Iron Lady'

  • Updated: October 7, 2011 - 10:06 PM

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president and the first woman ever to be democratically elected to lead an African nation, reflects a rare success story in a country where years of civil war devastated the economy and the social structure.

Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist, worked her way through Harvard by mopping floors and waiting tables. Jailed at home and exiled abroad, she lost to warlord Charles Taylor in elections in 1997 but earned the nickname "Iron Lady." A rebellion forced Taylor from power in 2003, and Sirleaf -- widely seen as a reformer and peacemaker -- emerged victorious in a landslide vote in 2005.

Even on a continent long plagued with violence, the civil war in Liberia stood out for its cruelty. Taylor's soldiers ate the hearts of slain enemies and decorated checkpoints with human entrails. The conflict had a momentary lull when Taylor ran for office in 1997 and was elected president. Many say they voted for him because they were afraid of the chaos that would follow if he lost.

Johnson Sirleaf has won previous international plaudits for her governance: The Economist said she was arguably the best president Liberia had ever had while Newsweek named her amongst the 10 best leaders in the world in 2010. But Sirleaf also has critics who say she hasn't done enough to restore roads, electricity and other infrastructure devastated during the civil strife.

But international luminaries welcomed her honor. Many had gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday to celebrate Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday. Tut, who won the peace prize in 1984, said: "She deserves it many times over. She's brought stability to a place that was going to hell."

U2 frontman Bono called Sirleaf an "extraordinary woman, a force of nature and now she has the world recognize her in this great, great, great way."

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