Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has captured the Ibrahim Prize for distinguished African leadership. She is the fifth recipient of the prize since it was first presented in 2007.
Johnson Sirleaf, who stepped down last month, was praised for her work rebuilding the nation after civil war and leading a process of reconciliation. She served two six-year terms after becoming president in 2005.
The committee awarding the prize cited her “exceptional and transformative leadership” when confronted with unprecedented challenges. Liberia had been devastated by nearly 15 years of civil war that claimed an estimated 250,000 lives, during which hundreds of thousands of women were raped and most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.
Over the course of her two terms, much of the country’s $4.6 billion debt was erased by the IMF and World Bank, $18 billion worth of investments arrived in her first term, and an economic recovery was in the cards until falling commodity prices and a devastating Ebola outbreak in 2013 derailed those efforts.
She is credited with restructuring the military, which, like rebel groups, committed atrocities during the civil war and had even once imprisoned her. She also reformed the police and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Johnson Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, shortly before she won a second term. She was faulted, however, for having appointed her two sons to high-level government positions and failing to tackle graft and corruption. She agrees. “On reflection,” she said recently, “I should have been more careful.” She was also expelled from her party for failing to sufficiently support her party’s candidate for president, Joseph Boakai, who was defeated in a landslide.
The last Ibrahim Prize, named for Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecommunications billionaire and philanthropist based in Britain, was given to Namibia’s former president, Hifikipunye Pohama, in 2014.
With the presidency firmly back in the hands of a male majority led by President George Weah, at least one of her last acts—toughening the rape law—has been modified, allowing accused men to apply for bail and be released from jail.