When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s president—and Africa’s only female head of state—in 2005, she inherited a country decimated by years of violence.
Between 1989 and 2003, two horrific civil wars had killed as many as 250,000 of Liberia’s 3 million people, and displaced thousands more; more than 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers were deployed on the ground to maintain a fragile peace.
At the time of her election, Sirleaf—who held positions at the World Bank and the U.N. before her political run–told NEWSWEEK, “I’m most concerned with being a mother to Liberia. I want to heal the deep wounds of this nation.”
Now, five years later, fewer than than 8,000 U.N. troops remain in Liberia. The country has boosted school enrollment by 40 percent, restored power and running water to urban centers, and turned its timber and diamond industries into thriving—and legitimate—trades. Sirleaf has also slashed Liberia’s external debt from $4.9 billion in 2006 to $1.7 billion today. Under her leadership, Liberia is a country rebuilt and reborn.