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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

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Interviewed November 2010

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia. She was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sirleaf served as minister of finance in Liberia until the 1980 coup d’état by Samuel Doe. She left the country and served in senior positions with the World Bank and later Citibank.

Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 and was arrested and imprisoned by the Doe government. After her release, she went into exile in the United States where she remained throughout a brutal Liberian civil war between the Doe government and a rebel group headed by warlord Charles Taylor. Following a peace agreement ending the war, Sirleaf returned home to run unsuccessfully against Taylor for the presidency. Taylor’s election has been attributed in part to a fear by the Liberian public that he would restart the war if he lost.

Following a second Liberian civil war, Taylor was exiled in 2003. Sirleaf again sought the presidency and was elected in 2005, the first woman democratically elected to serve as a head of state in Africa.

In 2008, Sirleaf published her memoir, “This Child Will Be Great.” 

Every time there's a challenge and one is able to overcome the challenge, I think you get stronger. And sometimes the difficulties you face are themselves character building and courage-enhancing. So when I went to prison, I came out stronger.

It's humbling to know that there are so many others that go to prison you know, that nobody remembers, that nobody pays attention to because you live in a different world and all of a sudden you're faced with that, and it begins to show you the great imbalances that exist in the world. But also you have a time to know what it is to be just like the common person and to be deprived of certain things like you're accustomed in your elite world to so many meals a day, accustomed to the comforts of whatnot, and those things aren't there. But they strengthen you, I think.

So an African prison is nothing to write home about. You know, the conditions are harsh. You get a meal a day and there is not much to that meal and there are not too much sanitation facilities and sleeping facilities. You know, they´re meager, so it´s tough.

You know, I grew up in a Christian home. My mother was a pastor and a teacher, so I think faith was a great thing that one knew that, you know, you had a good – you´d done the right thing. You had not done anything wrong, your conscience was clear, you were standing up for the things you believed in, and there was a God out there who was going to see you through.

That´s one thing, but again, like I said – you also know that it´s more than survival. If I get out, I will begin to continue to do the things that I know need to be done to change our society.

Liberia is a multiparty constitutional democracy in West Africa, with a population of approximately 3.5 million people. Its largely resource-based economy is made up of mining, oil, and exports of commodities such as rubber and timber. Liberia’s current president is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist and prisoner of conscience, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, but the majority of the population was and continues to be members of indigenous ethnic groups. The nation modeled itself on American principles and adopted a constitution similar to the United States. Indigenous groups were excluded from citizenship until 1904 and frequently clashed with the Americo-Liberian settlers.

Americo-Liberians dominated politics for most of the country’s history. The True Whig Party was de facto the only political party for much of the 20th century. In 1980, Samuel Doe led a military coup d’état that overthrew and killed President William Tolbert, who had been in power since 1971. The Doe regime was characterized by widespread human rights violations and was challenged by armed insurgencies consisting of members of other ethnic groups.

After a long and bloody civil war during which Doe was executed by a rival group, a peace agreement among the warring factions led to the election of guerrilla leader Charles Taylor as president in 1997. Under Taylor, the government continued to be characterized as brutal and corrupt. Taylor sponsored an insurgent army in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone that killed and injured thousands.

Taylor left the country in 2003 and was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in 2012. A broad-based transitional government ruled Liberia until 2005 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected. Sirleaf called for the extradition of Taylor and cooperated with the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Her government established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to deal with issues arising from the war. Since 2005, the human rights situation in Liberia has improved, although international watchdog groups continue to express concern over aspects of the judicial system and other issues.

President Sirleaf was elected to a second term in a November 2011 election that was characterized by international observers as free and fair.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013 report, Liberia was rated as “partly free.” The country earned a rating of three in political rights and four in civil liberties, with one being the most free and seven being the least. Liberia faces serious issues of corruption, which affect the functioning of the bureaucracy and judicial system. 

More on this theme from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Strength Through Adversity Sirleaf recounting her imprisonment by the government of Charles Taylor.

Other videos from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: International Support in Prison The powerful role of women human rights defenders in Liberia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Gender Perceptions The role played by women human rights defenders in Liberia’s democracy movement. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Courageous Women The powerful role of women human rights defenders in Liberia. More +