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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
It's rare to identify a politician as a hero -- winning and keeping power always involves trade-offs, compromises, and confrontations that force the honest writer to balance shades of gray.
Which brings us to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Though she suffered more hardships that most people experience in a lifetime, she didn't just survive, she thrived, elevating a nation along with her.
Johnson Sirleaf overcame an abusive husband, exile from her homeland, imprisonment, two violent civil wars, and the ingrained sexism that has limited women's achievements for much of humankind to become Africa's first female Head of State as president of her native country, Liberia, a nation founded in the early 1800s by freed American slaves.
Johnson Sirleaf was born in 1938 in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Upon divorcing her abusive husband of five years in 1961, she relocated to the US to complete an interrupted bachelor's degree. After obtaining a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University, she returned to Liberia to work in the government, serving as Deputy Minister of Finance. But a military coup sent her into exile, back in the US, in 1980.
The coup d'état launched nearly two decades of social unrest and violence that traumatized Liberia and landed Johnson Sirleaf- in prison for a time on charges of "sedition" -- conduct or speech that incites people to rebel against government authority. She'd openly criticized the military government of Samuel Doe, charging it with strangling Liberia's economic advancement by allowing corporations to hoard profits or send them overseas.
In the late 1990s, after two decades of civil war and bloodshed, a peace movement led by women and supported by peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brought an end to the violence. Thanks to her international profile and connections from working with both the World Bank and United Nations, Johnson Sirleaf emerged as a viable candidate for public office. She stood for president on the Unity Party ticket in 2005 and won Liberia's first free and fair election.
Her most urgent task was stabilizing the nation's finances to enable rebuilding from two civil wars that killed an estimated 250,000 people and devastated her country's economy. She persuaded international lenders to forgive more than $5 billion of debt, improved relations with neighboring countries, and ordered that education be made free and compulsory for all school-aged children, even girls.
Days before the 2011 elections, Johnson Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two other women activists: Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman. The three were honored for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the Nobel committee said.
That proved to be a high point for Johnson Sirleaf. By the end of her second term, she was fighting off accusations of corruption and the disappointment of followers who had hoped she would do more to improve the lives of women. Her second term was also marked by a deadly Ebola outbreak -- a horrible, incurable disease -- that some say she failed to manage. She also had to fire her son from a high government post due to questions over his honesty.
After her two six-year terms, however, Johnson Sirleaf's greatest achievement might be the fact that a new Liberian president emerged in a free and fair election, and was able to take office without a single shot being fired. Stability had come to Liberia at long last.
Johnson Sirleaf was first elected President of Liberia in 2005 and re-elected six years later in 2011. She brought stability and calm to her nation, setting up the first peaceful transfer of power in decades. Along the way, she won the Nobel Peace Prize and the admiration of such world leaders as Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and Angela Merkel. For all these reasons, we are thrilled to include her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Susan Greig of Nairobi, Kenya, Brooklyn, New York, and Paris, France for nominating her for the BLAST.