Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen. The women were recognized "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."
Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, and studied economics and accounting from 1948 to 1955 at the College of West Africa in Monrovia. She married James Sirleaf when she was 17 years old, and then traveled with him to the United States in 1961 to continue her studies and earned an accounting degree at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1970, she studied at the Economics Institute – an affiliate summer program of the Department of Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Sirleaf studied economics and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1969 to 1971, gaining a Master of Public Administration. She then returned to her native Liberia to work under the government of William Tolbert, where she became the Assistant Minister of Finance. While in that position, she attracted attention with a "bombshell" speech to the Liberian Chamber of Commerce that claimed that the country's corporations were harming the economy by hoarding or sending overseas their profits.
Sirleaf served as assistant minister from 1972 to 1973 under Tolbert's administration. She resigned after getting into a disagreement about spending. Subsequently she was Minister of Finance from 1979 to April 1980. Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, seized power in an 12 April 1980 military coup; Tolbert was assassinated and all but four members of his cabinet were executed by firing squad. The People's Redemption Council took control of the country and led a purge against the former government. Sirleaf initially accepted a post in the new government as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, though she fled the country in November 1980 after publicly criticizing Doe and the People's Redemption Council for their management of the country.
Sirleaf initially moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the World Bank before moving to Nairobi in 1981 to serve as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank. She resigned from Citibank in 1985 following her involvement in the 1985 election in Liberia and went to work for Equator Bank, a subsidiary of HSBC. In 1992, Sirleaf was appointed as the Director of the United Nations Development Programme's Regional Bureau for Africa at the rank of Assistant Administrator and Assistant Secretary General (ASG), from which she resigned in 1997 to run for president in Liberia. During her time at the UN, she was one of the seven internationally eminent persons designated in 1999 by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide, one of the five Commission Chairs for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and one of two international experts selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effect of conflict on women and women’s roles in peace building. She was the initial Chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and a visiting Professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).
While working at Citibank, Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President on the ticket of the Liberian Action Party in the 1985 elections. However, Sirleaf was placed under house arrest in August of that year and soon after sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition as a consequence of a speech in which she insulted the members of the Doe regime. Following international calls for her release, Doe pardoned and released her in September. Due to government pressure, she was removed from the presidential ticket and instead ran for a Senate seat in Montserrado County.
Though the elections, which saw Doe and the National Democratic Party win the presidency and large majorities in both houses, were widely condemned as neither free nor fair, Sirleaf was declared the winner of her Senate race. Sirleaf refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa on 12 November, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on 13 November by Doe's forces. Despite continuing to refuse to accept her seat in the Senate, she was released in July 1986 and secretly fled the country to the United States later that year.
After the end of the Second Liberian Civil War and the establishment of a transitional government, Sirleaf was proposed as a possible candidate for chairman of the government. Ultimately, Gyude Bryant, a political neutral, was chosen as chairman, while Sirleaf served as head of the Governance Reform Commission.
Sirleaf once again stood for president as the candidate of the Unity Party in the 2005 general election. She placed second in the first round of voting behind footballer George Weah. In the subsequent run-off election, Sirleaf earned 59% of the vote versus 40% for Weah, though Weah disputed the results. The announcement of the new leader was postponed until further investigations were carried out. On 23 November 2005, Sirleaf was declared the winner of the Liberian election and confirmed as the country's next president. Her inauguration, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush, took place on 16 January 2006.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Sirleaf four days prior to the election sparked criticism from opposition parties, with Congress for Democratic Change candidate Winston Tubman calling the award "undeserved" and "a political interference in our country's politics." Sirleaf called the timing of the award a coincidence and avoided mentioning the award during the final days of campaigning.
Sirleaf garnered 43.9% of the vote in the first round, more than any other candidate but short of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off. Tubman came in second with 32.7%, pitting him against Sirleaf in the second round. Tubman called for a boycott of the run-off, claiming that the results of the first round had been fraudulent. Sirleaf denied the allegations, and international observers reported that the first round election had been free, fair and transparent. As a result of the boycott, Sirleaf won the second round with 90.7% of the vote, though voter turnout significantly declined from the first round. Following the election, Sirleaf announced the creation of a "national peace and reconciliation initiative," led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, to address the country's divisions and begin "a national dialogue that would bring us together." She took presidential oath for her second presidency on 16 January.
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.
In 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.
On 1 April 2011, Sirleaf told reporters that she planned to charge an opposition candidate with sedition for organizing a rally protesting corruption in the government. Her press secretary later clarified that the remark had been an April Fools' prank.
In April 2009, the government successfully wrote off an additional $1.2 billion in foreign commercial debt in a deal that saw the government buy back the debt at a 97% discounted rate through financing provided by the International Development Association, Germany, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom. The discounted rate was the largest ever for a developing country.
The country was deemed eligible to participate in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative in 2008. In June 2010, the country reached the completion point of the 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. Sirleaf 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.
In their final report, issued in June 2009, the TRC included Sirleaf in a list of 50 names of people that should be "specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty (30) years" for "being associated with former warring factions." The proposed ban stemmed from her financial support of former President Taylor in the initial months of the First Liberian Civil War.
On 26 July 2009, Sirleaf apologized to Liberia for supporting Charles Taylor saying, "When the true nature of Mr. Taylor’s intentions became known, there was no more impassioned critic or strong opponent to him in a democratic process" than she. On 28 August, the Legislature announced they must "consult our constituents for about a year" before deciding whether or not to implement the Commission's recommendations.
During an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010, Sirleaf argued that the implementation of the TRC's recommended ban would unconstitutionally violate her right to due process. In October 2010, the chairman of Sirleaf's Unity Party, Varney Sherman, argued that implementation of the recommendation would be unconstitutional, as Article 21(a) of the Constitution prohibits ex postfacto laws, and Sirleaf had broken no law by financially supporting Taylor that imposed a ban from public office as a penalty.
In January 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Tah, a case brought by another person recommended for being banned from public office in the TRC report, that the TRC's recommendation was an unconstitutional violation of the listed individuals' right to procedural due process, and that it would be unconstitutional for the government to implement the proposed