5 things Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will be remembered for

We look at some of the highlights of Africa's first elected female president and Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Liberians are going to the polls today to choose a successor to Africa's first elected female president and Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The main candidates to succeed her are Vice-President Joseph Boakai, representing the ruling Unity Party, and former football star George Weah.

Sirleaf has presided over a period of peace and economic revival, secured nearly $5 billion in debt relief, and looks set to peacefully transfer power to another elected leader; something that hasn't been done in Liberia in seven decades.

We look at some of the highlights of her 13-year stint as Liberia’s President:

  • Foreign policy

Soon after being elected to office, Sirleaf made her first foreign trip as President to neighboring Ivory Coast, meeting with the then Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in an attempt to repair relations between the two countries following Côte d'Ivoire's support of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia during the Second Liberian Civil War.

Sirleaf has also forged relations with the USA, Liberia’s traditional ally. While at the 2006 Unites States Congress, she asked for American support to help her country "become a brilliant beacon, an example to Africa and the world of what love of liberty can achieve."

Sirleaf has also strengthened relations with the People's Republic of China, reaffirming Liberia's commitment to the One-China policy.

  • Debt relief

By the time Sir Leaf was elected to office in 2006, Liberia’s national debt stood at approximately US$4.9 billion. She vowed to make reduction of the debt a top priority for her administration.

The United States became the first country to grant debt relief to Liberia, waiving the full $391 million owed to it by Liberia in early 2007. In September of that year, the G-8 headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided $324.5 million to paying off 60% of Liberia's debt to the International Monetary Fund, crediting their decision to the macroeconomic policies pursued by the Sirleaf administration.

In June 2010, the country reached the completion point of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, qualifying it for relief from its entire external debt. That same month, the World Bank and IMF agreed to fund $1.5 billion in writing off the Liberia's multilateral debt. On 16 September, the Paris Club agreed to cancel $1.26 billion, with independent bilateral creditors canceling an additional $107 million, essentially writing off Liberia's remaining external debt.

She vowed to prevent unsustainable borrowing in the future by restricting annual borrowing to 3% of GDP and limiting expenditure of all borrowed funds to one-off infrastructure projects.

  • Domestic policy

On 26 July 2007, Sirleaf celebrated Liberia's 160th Independence Day under the theme "Liberia at 160: Reclaiming the future." She took an unprecedented and symbolic move by asking 25-year-old Liberian activist Kimmie Weeks to serve as National Orator for the celebrations, where Weeks called for the government to prioritize education and health care. A few days later, President Sirleaf issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children.

On 4 October 2010, Sirleaf signed into law a Freedom of Information bill, the first legislation of its kind in West Africa. In recognition of this, she became the first sitting head of state to receive the Friend of the Media in Africa Award from The African Editor's Union.

  • Administration and Cabinet

Sirleaf pledged to promote national reconciliation by bringing in opposition leaders into her administration. And while she had planned on appointing an all-female cabinet, she had been unable to find qualified female candidates for every position.

With regards to fight in corruption, Sirleaf promised that she would impose a "zero tolerance" policy on corruption within the government. Critics have however argued that corruption still thrives in her administration. Sirleaf has alluded to this while at the same time denying claims that she has failed to fight corruption, pointing to the establishment of the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission and the restructuring of the General Auditing Commission.

  • International image

In 2006, Forbes magazine named Sirleaf as the 51st most powerful woman in the world. In 2010, Newsweek listed her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, while Time counted her among the top ten female leaders.

It was also in the same year when The Economist called her "arguably the best president the country has ever had." Sirleaf in 2012 attracted international attention for an interview regarding LGBT rights. In 2010, Sirleaf released her first book, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President.'


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