Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the head of state of the nation of Liberia, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other women - Leymah Gbowee, 39, a social worker and a peace activist and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist. She is the first woman to be the elected head of state of an African nation. She was awarded this coveted prize for her undaunted efforts to bring peace to her once troubled homeland.
Liberia of all contemporary African nations has a unique history tied intimately to the existence of slavery within the United States. Slaves were first brought into the American colonies in 1670 and the institution of slavery flourished within the United States for 270 years. The practice of slavery was not addressed by the "founding fathers" and no reference to it was made in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States at the nation's inception. As an institution, it was not abolished until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Slavery was finally completely outlawed following the additions of Amendments XIII and XIV of the United Sates Constitution – 1865 and 1868, respectively.
The Abolitionist Movement that sought to end slavery was particularly strong amongst the Quakers. Among them was an influential maritime businessman by the name of Paul Cuffee. Cuffee believed that the best solution to end the blight of slavery would be to help establish these slaves in their own homeland in Africa. He, therefore, both financed and led, as captain, a journey to Sierra Leone by ship. A group of American-Americans came along with him with the purpose of beginning a colony of African-Americans in the hopes that they would be able to, "rise to be a people" and thrive in a way they would be unable to do as slaves in the United States. Cuffee had an image of a prospering black trade implemented by ex-slave who could utilize the skills they had learned in captivity. Cuffee died in 1817; his plans were never fully realized.
In 1817, well-known Americans such as Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Justice Bushrod Washington became members of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The purpose of the ACS was to encourage African-Americans to settle in Africa if they wished to do so. Many were wary of this new organization, however, because it denied blacks membership.
The ACS sent its first immigrants to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. This initial attempt was met with some major setbacks that involved serious illness and death. As a result, a member of ACS was authorized to purchase land further north that might be more hospitable to the new settlers.
Ultimately, on April 25, 1822 those who survived the initial settlement arrived at Cape Mesurado and began their settlement. Eventually, after initial disputes with the ACS governing authority, a constitution, government, and system of laws were created that helped usher in the current-day nation of Liberia. In this new country, both slavery and participation in the slave trade were forbidden. Initially, the settlement was called Christopolis and was renamed Monrovia after the American president, James Monroe. Eventually, it was called Liberia.
Once Liberia was established, the slave states in the United States saw the opportunity to free themselves of their African American populations who were no longer slaves. These states included Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi. In 1838, the colonies established by the Virginia Colonization Society in addition to those established by a Quaker group and the ACS merged as the Commonwealth of Liberia and appointed a governor.
It was not until 1847 that a Liberian Declaration of Independence was formally adopted and signed. The government of the new state of Liberia then proceeded to charge the United States with injuries to its people who had previously been enslaved and denied their civil rights. The new government called upon other governments to recognize the statehood and independence of Liberia. Not surprisingly, Great Britain was one of the first nations to do so. The Liberian Constitution was ratified in 1848 and the first elections were held. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the state of Liberia.
Ironically, as the new nation developed, a two-tier social system evolved in which the native black population of Liberia was not afforded the same rights as the transplanted African-American population. By 1869, the so-called True Whig Party was founded and became the dominant political force in the country until the coup of 1980. At the end of World War I, Liberia was one of the first sovereinties to accept the legitimacy of the League of Nations. By 1946, the right to vote and to participate in elections was finally extended to the native population.
Liberia's first republic abruptly came to an end in 1980 with the assassination of the then President Tolbert and the insertion of the leader of the military coup, Samuel K Doe in the leadership position. Civilian rule was reaffirmed in 1985, and a new constitution was adopted that established the second republic of Liberia leaving Doe in power. This state of relative peace did not last long, however, for in 1989 Charles Taylor toppled the Doe government. This threw the nation into an era of civilian unrest. With international assistance, peace was restored and by 1997, Charles Taylor became the elected president of what came to be the third republic of Liberia. Sirleaf campaigned against Taylor in the 1997 election and received 10% of the vote and was subsequently charged with treason.
The essential cause of the civil strife that plagued the relatively new country was the apparent and divisive social and economic inequalities that existed between the dominant Afro-American population and the indigenous peoples in Liberia.
Sirleaf was born on October 29, 1938 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia; she is a direct descendent of African-Americans who first helped settle the territory that would eventually become the nation of Liberia. She received education in economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia and was married to James Sirleaf when she was seventeen years old. Eventually she received a masters degree in public administration at Harvard University in the United States in 1971. Upon her return to Liberia, she immediately entered into the political arena working for President Tolbert's administration. She served as Minister of Finance between 1972 and 73, leaving over a policy dispute in regards to public spending. She witnessed the horrific and unsettling coup of 1980 as mentioned previously and subsequent execution of President Tolbert. This was followed by a brutal purge of the government orchestrated by Doe. Sirleaf recognizing the danger of her situation, fled to Kenya where she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi from 1983 to 85. As conditions improved in Liberia, she returned to participate in the 1985 elections against Doe. She was immediately placed under house arrest and sentenced to ten years in prison. Her prison sentence was subsequently commuted provided she agreed to leave the country; she chose to return to Kenya where she continued her career in banking.
During her hiatus, she was an Assistant Administrator and, ultimately, Director of the UN Development Program in the Regional Bureau for Africa. During this time, civil strife continued in Liberia, and, finally, elections were held in 1996 due, in part, to the presence of West African peacekeepers.
As mentioned earlier, Sirleaf took part in this election, but was defeated by Charles Taylor. The leadership of Taylor was disastrous, resulting in a state of civil war. On August 11, 2003, Taylor finally relinquished power and a peace accord was reached that signaled a new round of elections to choose a new leader. In the election of 2005, Sirleaf became the new President of Liberia – a post that she retains until this day.
As President she sought to restore basic services, such as water and electricity, to the capital of Monrovia in keeping with the preservation of the Commons. In addition, she has sought to place an emphasis on agriculture with the goal of bringing back food independence to the people of Liberia. She has also sought to utilize her skills as an economist to repair the damage done to the nation's economy and infrastructure as a result of many years of civil strife.
In a speech she delivered in 2006 at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall she said, "Across Africa and around the world, we must show that freedom can deliver prosperity and peace. Failure to do so will be more costly than we can contemplate and in Liberia that failure could be catastrophic."
"Our children are beginning to smile again with faith in the future," she said. "I tell you there is one thing that bores down on us very, very hard and that is a sense of urgency. We have got to deliver fast to be able to keep that hope alive and to have that hope build on a solid foundation."
Finally as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2001, she uplifted the role of women in securing a more peaceful world in her acceptance speech, "… in the universal struggle for peace and social justice in the following way, In its selection this year, the Nobel Committee has brought here three women linked by their commitment to change, and by their efforts to promote the rule of law and democracy in societies riven by conflict. The fact that we – two women from Liberia – are here today to share the stage with a sister from Yemen speaks to the universality of our struggle.
The enduring spirit of the great women whose work transcended gender and geographical boundaries is in this room with us. From Baroness Bertha Felicie Sophie von Suttner of Austria, honored for promoting the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, to Jane Addams of Hull House fame; from the American activist Emily Greene Balch to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan of Northern Ireland; from Mother Teresa to the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Rigoberta Menchu, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Wangari Maathai: these our forebears, these women who are Nobel Peace Laureates, challenge us to redouble our efforts in the relentless pursuit of peace…"