Africa’s first female president and Nobel laureate awarded $5m 2017 Mo Ibrahim leadership prize

Liberian ex-president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has broken another “glass ceiling”, as she becomes the first woman to receive the 2017 $5 million Mo Ibrahim Foundation Award for Achievement in African Leadership.

Also known as the Mo Ibrahim leadership prize, the Award celebrates excellence in African leadership, as the $5 million prize is awarded to a former Executive Head of State or Government who has “demonstrated exceptional and transformative leadership” while serving their country.

Having made history in 2006 as the first elected female president in Africa, the Nobel Prize Laureate took on a country ripped apart by 14 years of civil war, with the aim to help Liberia recover from the ravaging war that led to the death of over 200,000 people.

“My calling was to first ensure there was peace in the country because we could easily have gone back to war”, Sirleaf noted.

Despite coming under fire for cronyism and corruption during her tenure, Sirleaf made use of her international cachet as a Harvard-trained economist, former finance minister, and an executive at the World Bank to get a massive chunk of Liberia’s debt written off in 2007.

The ex-president was able to negotiate settlements, rebuild infrastructure, and lift sanctions. Her administration attracted investments in the mining, agriculture, and forestry sectors and offshore oil exploration.

“Apart from her leadership in her country, she has always been a champion for Africa. Her success is Africa’s success and testament to the power of exceptional leadership” the prize committee stated in a released statement.

In June 2016, she became the first woman to be elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) since its formation.

Distinctively lauded for her impact towards women empowerment, Sirleaf was also considered a strong proponent of equal rights for women. During her tenure a new, tougher rape law came into force but was then amended.

Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside two other winners for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work in 2011.

However, critics noted that the Sirleaf administration certainly did not focus on women during her 12 years in power, as women agenda expectations were not met.

Acknowledging that she had left some stones unturned, Sirleaf wrapped up her 12-year presidency with an Executive Order to protect women against domestic violence and abolishing female genital mutilation (FGM) against girls below the age of 18.

Speaking at a function organized to appreciate her leadership and the great improvement the country witnessed during her administration, Sirleaf said: “We would have liked to have done much more; our agenda was much bigger than what we finally accomplished. But thanks to your strength, commitment and hard work, we have come a long way.”

Leaving behind a legacy which Forbes describes as “fragile gains”, the featured most powerful woman in the world, handed power to former international footballer and newly elected president George Weah, signifying the West African country’s first democratic transfer of power since 1944.

Involving an independent Prize Committee composed of eminent figures, including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the prestigious Ibrahim Foundation Award for Achievement in African Leadership was first presented in 2007 and only presented when there’s a worthy recipient. It was not awarded in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, for lack of a suitable candidate as determined by the prize committee.

Previous awardees include Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique, who received the inaugural Ibrahim Prize in 2007, Festus Gontebanye Mogae from Botswana (2008), Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires from Cabo Verde (2011) and Hifikepunye Pohamba from Namibia (2014).