President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia

Program Date November 6, 2010


Internationally known as Africa’s “Iron Lady,” President Sirleaf is the continent’s first elected female president and a leading promoter of peace, justice and democratic rule. She has lead her war-torn nation of Liberia in the restoration of peace and freedom, while enacting economic, social and political change. In 2009 she chronicled her journey, from an abused young wife to a powerful political figure, in the memoir This Child Will Be Great. President Sirleaf will be the first-ever sitting head of state to address The Richmond Forum.


When Ellen Johnson was just a baby, an old man in the neighborhood pronounced, "This child shall be great." Although she and her siblings would often giggle as the story was recounted, the words proved prophetic. Young Ellen grew up to become the African continent's first elected woman president, indeed the world's first elected female black head of state.

The struggles of her amazing life--from abused wife to political prisoner to exile to leader--mirror the struggles of her nation and the African continent as they search for their place in the 21st-century global, political and economic landscape.

Liberia was founded and colonized by freed American slaves under the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society. Between 1820 and 1865, more than 20,000 African Americans, including 3,700 from Virginia, emigrated to Liberia. In 1847, Liberia was founded as the first African republic, and in 1848 Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a freeborn African American from Petersburg, Virginia, became the nation's first president. President Sirleaf herself has spent time in the Commonwealth, living in Northern Virginia while working for the World Bank in the 1980s.

While Liberia's first president was a member of the so-called Americo-Liberian minority elite that would lead the nation for many years, President Sirleaf is a descendant of Liberia's indigenous tribal people. Mutual mistrust and hostility between the "Americans" along the coast and the "natives" of the interior was a recurrent theme in the country's history, culminating in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a bloody military coup in which the Americo-Liberian president was assassinated and 13 members of his cabinet executed. Sirleaf was a member of that cabinet, but her tribal blood and popularity enabled her to narrowly escape the same fate. She was, however, imprisoned twice for speaking out against the abuses of ensuing governments, and she ultimately fled into exile to save her life. Mounting conflict in Liberia led to 14 years of brutal civil war that would arm the nation's children, claim hundreds of thousands of lives and decimate the nation's infrastructure, economy and world image.

Under mounting international pressure and charges of "crimes against humanity," President Charles Taylor, who had overthrown Doe in another coup, finally resigned in 2003.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned from exile and successfully campaigned for president on a vision of peace and national renewal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush attended Sirleaf's inauguration in 2006 as she took over leadership of one of the world's poorest nations, with 85% unemployment, a crippling national debt, and a seeming hair trigger that could plunge the nation back into bloodshed.

In November 2007, President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom saying, "When tyrannies fall, it's often the prisoners and exiles who are called forth to lead their people."

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called Sirleaf "one of Africa's most inspiring and visionary leaders."

In August 2010, Newsweek included President Sirleaf in its list of ten global leaders who have "managed to win serious respect," dubbing her "the Rebuilder."

Since taking office, she has preserved the peace while working aggressively to restore Liberia's world image and secure forgiveness of the overwhelming international debt that would otherwise prohibit the rebuilding of the nation. Sirleaf's leadership style is reflected in the two affectionate nicknames given her by the Liberian people: "Iron Lady" and "Ma." Earlier this year, she announced that she will seek a second term in 2011.

Her 2009 memoir, This Child Will be Great and is dedicated to "all the people of Liberia who have suffered so much and now look forward to reclaiming the future."

President Sirleaf will be the first-ever sitting head of state to address The Richmond Forum. This will be a thought-provoking evening as she shares her perspective on the challenges and promise of a 21st-century Africa.

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