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LOOKING FORWARD: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf earned the nickname "Iron Lady" as an opposition leader who didn't flinch in one of the world's most treacherous political landscapes. She fearlessly criticized Liberia's fiscal management, even when that meant house arrest and, in one case, prison.

But Johnson Sirleaf could not be broken. In 2005 the people of Liberia made her Africa's first elected female head of state. She inherited a country ravaged by civil wars that left 250,000 people dead.

The 71-year-old, Harvard-educated grandmother said she was most concerned with being a "mother" who could heal the nation's deep wounds. But Johnson Sirleaf — who had held financial positions with the UN, the World Bank and Citibank — also promised to get Liberia's financial house in order. "We know expectations are going to be high," she said at the time. "The Liberian people have voted for their confidence in my ability to deliver … very quickly."

More than five years later, Johnson Sirleaf has increased Liberia's annual budget from $80 million in 2006 to $350 million and wiped clean a $4.9 billion debt. Girls' school enrollment has shot up, as has the proportion of women in legislative seats, making Liberia the 2010 winner of the Millennium Development Goal award for gender equity. In naming Johnson Sirleaf one of the world's top leaders last year, Newsweek wrote: "The country has boosted school enrollment by 40 percent, restored power and running water to urban centers, and turned its timber and diamond industries into thriving — and legitimate — trades … Under her leadership, Liberia is a country rebuilt and reborn."

Of course it will be the Liberian people who determine whether Johnson Sirleaf wins a second term. Johnson Sirleaf, who promised to tackle corruption, has admitted those reforms have been slower to come. She recently fired her information minister, who was charged with pocketing fake salaries. And she forced out her own brother — the internal-affairs minister — after he was accused of embezzlement.

Once again, the pressure is on. And so is Africa's "Iron Lady."


Every time I got into trouble it became a challenge for me to survive that, and every challenge became an opportunity for me to move higher and to take a better position and to take a leadership role... that's been the story of a long life.

- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

SOURCES: 1 "Liberia’s Iron Lady," BBC News, Nov. 23, 2005. 2 McLure, Jason, "The Rebuilder: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf," Newsweek, Aug. 16, 2010. 3 "Another Round for Africa’s Iron Lady," The Economist, May 22, 2010. 4 O’Connor, Anahad, "Cracking Under Pressure? It’s Just the Opposite, for Some," New York Times, Sept. 10, 2004. Photo Credit: Antonio Cruz/ABr.

© Antonio Cruz/ABr