The Complicated Legacy of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was seen as bright-eyed and full of optimism, but also widely viewed as unflinching, and hailed as the country’s “Iron Lady” who shouldered the responsibility of a nation racked by years of brutal civil war.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in the nation’s capital Monrovia, Liberia in 1938, and politics ran her blood. She was the daughter of the first Indigenous Liberian to serve in the country’s legislature.

It’s important to mention that during this time there was a divide between the Indigenous population of Liberia and former slaves, called “Americo-Liberians” who had settled in Monrovia. The Americo-Liberians created a hierarchical society that suppressed the Indigenous population, denying them basic rights. Sirleaf was thrust into the middle of this divide.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf studied in the United States before returning to Liberia to begin her government career at the Treasury Department. In the early ‘70s, she worked as Assistant Finance Minister for then president William Tolbert.

Throughout the ‘70s, and despite her critiques of Tolbert’s policies, Sirleaf rose through the ranks to become the first woman Finance Minister in Liberia. But shortly after, violence would decimate the government.  

In 1980, President Tolbert and 27 other government officials were murdered in a coup, staged by military leader Samuel Doe, who would go on to become the first Indigenous leader of Liberia.

Sirleaf was one of four ministers who were spared. She later fled the country.

And there’s a lot more to Sirleaf’s story than the traditionally rosy Western media narrative. Watch this piece to find out more about her legacy.

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