Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first African woman to be elected president in a free and democratic poll. In 2005 she took on the difficult task of leading a country which was in ruins. Liberia had just come out of a devastating civil war, which killed more than 250,000 people. One million Liberians, a third of the population, had fled the small country. During the 14 years of war, a whole generation of children was turned into killing machines. An estimated 70 percent of Liberian women were raped.
Hope for a traumatized people
These were desperate times and Johnson Sirleaf represented hope for the whole continent, the person many believed could restore dignity to her traumatized people. She was not part of the Creole elite of the country, composed of descendants of the former American slaves who founded Liberia in 1847. Her maternal grandfather was a German trader who married a Liberian market seller, as Johnson Sirleaf herself likes to tell interviewers.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf married at 17, had four sons and left to study in the United States of America. She had to work hard to get ahead. After getting a degree from Harvard she had a meteoric career. She was appointed to leading positions at the World Bank and worked as a director for Africa at the United Nations Development Program.
Her international contacts came in handy once she was elected president. "She is viewed with great respect in the USA. She is a friend of Hillary Clinton," Alex Vines, director of the African Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told DW. That is why Johnson Sirleaf was able to gain international trust for Liberia, Vines said. She obtained debt relief of 2.9 billion euros ($3.4 billion), secured development aid and invited important investors to the country, among them ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steel producer. The diamond industry, which had played an ignoble role during the civil war, was reformed. In the 12 years of Johnson Sirleaf's presidency, Liberia's gross domestic product (GDP) grew almost fourfold. The fight for a better future for her battered country won her several nicknames, among them "Ma Ellen" and "Iron Lady."
Security before reconciliation
Nevertheless, Johnson Sirleaf is "no saint," says Vines. While she did a lot to restore her country's credibility, peace and security, many Liberians still live in dire poverty, he points out. "Hers was a policy of compromise, because she didn't even have a majority in the Senate." The 2014 Ebola epidemic hit Liberia hard. Many foreign companies reduced their presence in the country to a minimum or left altogether. Plans for big investments were put on hold. The drop in world market prices for commodities like iron ore, raw rubber and palm oil also made for an important loss of revenue.
According to Fonteh Akum from the South African Institute for Security Studies (ISS) the president concentrated too much on peace and security while neglecting reconciliation between antagonistic population groups. "While she provided for more stability after the civil war, she could have done more," Akum told DW. Her government was plagued by corruption and she was accused of nepotism, he said. Johnson Sirleaf appointed two of her sons to positions of leadership, one at the Liberian Central Bank and the other as principal security adviser for the government. "That undermined the trust Liberians have in the execution of public office," Akum said.
In 2011 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for the security and rights of women. But here, too, she did too little, says analyst Akum. Despite the introduction of severe laws, violence against women and girls in Liberia is still widespread. The country is still far from securing equal rights for men and women, he says.
After two terms in office, the president will step down in January 2018. She says it is time for change and a younger leadership. By announcing that she would not run again, she intended to show her intention to respect the constitution, in stark contrast to some other African presidents who have resorted to amending constitutions to enable them to remain in power.
Elections are going to be held on October 10, and 22 candidates are running for the presidency. Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Union Party (UP) promises to create sorely needed employment. Senator Jewel Taylor from the Bong province and the ex-wife of former president and warlord Charles Taylor is also vying for office. Another candidate with good prospects is former professional football player George Weah. President Johnson Sirleaf failed to involve citizens in a meaningful way in the process of societal change, according to analyst Akum. In his view: "That will be her successor's most pressing task."