• Raised in one of the most troubled countries in Africa a woman rises to become the world’s first black woman president at age 67.
  • Personal struggles helped shape her attitude to war and violence, that she used to build a country torn apart by civil war.
  • An understanding of history and gender discrimination taught her that women must not be held back and insists they form part of any conflict resolution process.
  • In accepting a Nobel Peace Prize she emphasizes that weapons cannot kill by themselves – people do.

Born into poverty in Africa, getting married at 17 to an abusive husband, facing discrimination as a woman, imprisoned and being forced into exile, separated from your children – these things would test the will of the toughest leader. Yet this is what happened to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and despite insurmountable odds, she is now the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state. Elected in 2006, Sirleaf brought stability to Liberia, a volatile country that had seen two civil wars over a period of fourteen years. As if that wasn’t enough, she also added a Nobel Peace Prize to her long list of accolades in 2011.

Her popular title of the “Iron Lady” of Africa is a pleasant irony as her Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for her non-violent struggle to ensure the safety of women and for insisting that women have full participation in the peace-building process. Sirleaf shared her Nobel Prize with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for realising the great potential for democracy and peace that women can bring. War may traditionally be men’s work, but Sirleaf insists that women have a say in cleaning up the mess and ensuring that it won’t happen again. Her fight against corruption and violence could also be the reason she was voted back as president for a second term in 2011 and why the IMF and donor countries agreed to write off $4.6 billion of Liberia’s debt, based on her sound economic policies, freeing up funds to build new infrastructure.

Sirleaf was born with Americo-Liberian roots and German ancestry and she has qualifications and work experience from American institutions the World Bank, Citibank and the UN Development Programme. Her diverse cultural identity, exposure to global economic infrastructure and big picture thinking have all resulted in a leader who understands that diversity can actually keep things together, rather than tear things apart.

Sirleaf describes Liberia as, “A wonderful, beautiful, mixed-up country struggling to find itself.” The complications stretch back to 1847 when Liberia declared itself a nation, created by freed American slaves shipped back to Africa. They retained the cultures and traditions of the American South and even created a flag that mimics closely the American flag. “The settlers of modern-day Liberia decided they would plant their feet in Africa but keep their faces turned squarely toward the United States,” says Sirleaf. “This would trigger a profound alienation that led to a deeply cleaved society, and ultimately set the stage for the terror and bloodshed to come.”

The 1989-1996 Liberian civil war, one of Africa’s bloodiest, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and further displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Entire villages were emptied as people fled. Child soldiers committed atrocities, raping and murdering people of all ages, including their parents. The war claimed the lives of one out of every 17 people in the country.

The seeds of the conflict can be traced back to leaders who either identified themselves with an Americo-Liberian identity or with ethnic, tribal sentiments. It’s a stark reminder of how political decisions and discrimination from generations ago can suddenly appear to haunt future generations at any time. 

One hundred and fifty eight years later it took a single woman to heal the wounds. Sirleaf refused to accept the limitations of her nation, or her gender, and refused to give up her beliefs despite being jailed and threatened by brutal dictators. She worked for, and ruffled the feathers, of every president she worked for in Liberia over a span of nearly 40 years, until she herself at age 67 became the first woman to be elected president of an African nation.

From left: Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian 'peace warrior' Leymah Gbowee and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf jointly won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

From left: Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian ‘peace warrior’ Leymah Gbowee and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf jointly won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Many people are unaware that Alfred Nobel, after which the Peace Prize is named, was the inventor of dynamite. He was inspired to leaving his vast fortune to the prize that bears his name after a newspaper incorrectly reported his death with the headline: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” It was actually Nobel’s brother that had died, but from that moment he decided his legacy was going to be about peace and human advancement. Sirleaf accepted her Nobel Peace Prize by recounting this story and adding,” Alfred Nobel’s dynamite did not kill people. People kill people, whether it’s with a knife, machete, handgun, rifle, machine gun or explosive device packed with dynamite.”

She is also dismissive of those that assume military weapons are the only devices on which war can be blamed. “We must not forget that some of the most heinous crimes in war have been committed without explosives. Too often brute force has sufficed,” she says. “Rape remains one of the tested and most enduring weapons of war. But there have always been other men, and perhaps even more women, who have committed themselves to the cause of peace,” Sirleaf explains. “These are the people Alfred Nobel wanted to celebrate and have others emulate.”

In her inaugural speech Sirleaf said: “Our recent history teaches us that violence diminishes our nation and ourselves, not just within our borders, but more importantly in our dealings with other nations and people.” Conflict is never confined to a geographical area, especially in the age of globalization, and Sirleaf knows that a true leader sees themselves as a global citizen with a responsibility beyond their own citizens.

Sirleaf’s presidency firmly establishes the importance of women leaders on the world stage and her unique position as a woman with both African and Western roots – genealogically, geographically, and intellectually – signals a new kind of 21st century leadership that has broken gender stereotypes and challenged the idea that historical animosities cannot be healed.

She has also stressed that the tolerance of other viewpoints is crucial for the creation of peace, even when people disagree strongly with those around them. “Our shared values are more important than our individual interests,” she says, explaining how the bigger picture should always be kept in mind before pulling a trigger.