I was jailed, exiled for defending Liberians – Former President Johnson-Sirleaf

A former Liberian leader and Africa’s first elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has given an insight into her tortuous political journey


Her political career had ended with her expulsion by her own political party after she had served as her country’s president for 12 years .

“I was jailed twice and sent on exile from my own country because I chose to be a resounding voice for the people,” Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf said on Thursday at the maiden edition of the annual gender equality conference organised by the Kwara State Government.

The conference co-hosted by Kwara State governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, and his wife, Olufolake AbdulRazaq, was held virtually.

Themed ‘Galvanising the Will to Take Actions on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment’, the event featured as speakers, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf; United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed; and Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, among others.

Speaking on the challenges and opportunities for women in politics in Africa, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, 81, took the participants through her journey.

She said she could not remember how many times she narrowly escaped death.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018.

Prior to her emergence as president, she had served as assistant minister of finance between 1972- 1973 under President William Tolbert and later as a finance minister in Samuel K. Doe’s military dictatorship.

She became known for her personal financial integrity and clashed with both heads of state. For that, she was imprisoned twice and narrowly avoided execution.

In the 1985 national election, she campaigned for a seat in the Senate and openly criticised the military government, which led to her arrest and a 10-year prison sentence. She was released after a short time and allowed to leave the country.

The octogenarian said she will always give credit to the doggedness and resilience of Liberian women which contributed to her emergence as the first Liberian and African female president.

“This shows how much difference women can make when they come together for a common cause,” she said.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf took office at the end of a 14-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 Liberians were killed.

Thousands of Liberian women, through mass action, played a pivotal role in ending the conflict in 2003.

They organised sex strikes, until their men put down their arms, according to a BBC report.

These same women also took risks to elect Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf on her promise to sustain peace and make gender equality central to her administration’s agenda.

The conversation reported how some women hid their sons’ voter ID cards to prevent them from voting for Sirleaf’s opponent while others tricked the young men into exchanging their cards for beer.

On Thursday, the former Liberian leader said the COVID-19 pandemic was another opportunity for women to display their remarkable leadership role.

“The leadership roles played by women in many countries during the coronavirus have been remarkable and should be celebrated”, she said.

She however frowned at the high rate of domestic violence experienced mostly by women during the pandemic lockdowns.

She called for action and advocacy towards tackling gender violence and inequality, noting that it is only through proper legislation and the quota system that women can get a better deal in politics.

The former president also gave kudos to the Kwara State government for bringing up such an initiative to galvanise support for more inclusion of women in the governance process.

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