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Runoff Election Faces Liberian Winner of Peace Prize

| October 24, 2011

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has had an impossibly difficult job as president leading Liberia out of civil war. Now she's fighting for enough time to finish her mission.

It’s been a good few weeks for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

First, on October 7, she won a Nobel Peace Prize along with two other women, one of whom, Leymah Gbowee, helped to put Sirleaf in office as she fought to end the 14-year civil war that ravaged their country.

Then voting began October 11 in Liberia’s presidential election, and Sirleaf led with 44 percent of the vote after 96 percent of polling stations were counted. To win the presidential election a candidate needs a 50 percent majority in the first round.

This means Sirleaf and her closest contender, William Tubman—whose popular running mate, George Weah, is a legendary soccer star—will head to a run-off on November 8. Tubman is the nephew of William V.S. Tubman, who ruled Liberia from 1944 to 1971, the longest a president has ever held office in the West African nation.

Observers are predicting a close race. Sirleaf beat Weah in the 2005 presidential election though many believed his sports star status would be a challenge to her résumé, which includes a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard in 1971 and a stint as minister of finance at the World Bank. As it turned out, voters were unsure whether Weah had the background to be a leader. Over the past six years though, Weah has been polishing his own résumé, which now includes an online degree, presumably to keep critics at bay. Tubman, who also attended Harvard, clearly believes having Weah on his ticket will be a boon for him this time around.

But Sirleaf says she is confident that she will win re-election.

“We have a record before the Liberian people,” she told NPR last week. “That’s how come we’re so far ahead in the polls. And, in the second round, we’re going to work hard. We’re going to make sure that we take our case to the people. And I’m just convinced that the people will stand by us.”

At a breakfast in New York City, Leymah Gbowee echoed Sirleaf’s confidence: “I think President Sirleaf is going to win,” she said, emphatically.

“We can’t go back to where we came from,” Gbowee said, meaning a country where child soldiers as young as eight were forced to murder their families and neighbors and rape was used as a weapon of war. “We have to get a conversation started with the opposition candidates,” to prevent the divisions that the election has brought to the forefront from tearing the country apart.

Gbowee said that in a second round of voting Sirleaf is at an advantage, with or without the support of Senator Prince Johnson, an ex-warlord who, after placing third in the first round of voting, announced that he would endorse Sirleaf. He said she could only serve six more years compared to a potential 12 years in office for Tubman, and he called her “the lesser evil.” Johnson knows evil. He is famous for torturing and murdering President Samuel Doe in 1990, while his soldiers videotaped the act.

Liberia's post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that Johnson should be barred from office for 30 years and charged with war crimes, a course of action some Tubman backers support. The commission had also recommended that Sirleaf be barred from office for raising $10,000 for former Liberian President Charles Taylor—currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone—early on in the Liberia's civil war. During her TRC testimony, President Sirleaf admitted that she raised money for Taylor before she realized he was committing human rights abuses.

Johnson’s endorsement comes after he and nine other opposition parties said they would contest the election amid claims of vote rigging. They also demanded that an independent electoral commission or interim government handle the vote counting, though they gave no proof of vote tampering. But once Tubman realized Sirleaf would not win outright, he agreed to take part in the second round of voting. “The focus must be on the second round," Tubman told BBC's Newshour, "and so we are beginning to rally our people.”

There is still worry whether Liberia's elections will follow the path of those in Ivory Coast and Guinea and explode into violence or whether Ghana’s peaceful transition will be the shining example. A peaceful electoral process could mean more foreign investment for the country, and convince Liberians in the diaspora that the country has turned the corner. An election marred by violence could turn back the clock on Liberia’s progress.

So far the election has run smoothly and relatively peacefully, according to the 800 foreign observers and members of the UN who oversaw the process. Nonetheless, a private radio station owned by an opposition politician was set on fire a week ago as well as Sirleaf’s party headquarters, showing the continuing fragility of the political situation.

Yet, many Liberians have taken President Sirleaf’s first term as a sign of hope for the country’s future. Thirty-seven-year-old Josephine Greaves, program director for Women’s Campaign International in Liberia—an organization founded in 1998 by former Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies—said Sirleaf’s presidency moved her to do more for her country. “Ellen inspired a lot of Liberian women into bringing peace to our country,” Greaves said. “The way she led the country has inspired me to understand that every day of my life I need to build my capacity in order to be more like Ma Ellen.”

Greaves points out that Sirleaf has brought good infrastructure, health facilities, electricity and more classrooms, not just to Monrovia, but all of Liberia.

But Sirleaf’s biggest accomplishment may be how she has built the confidence and ability of women to contribute. Greaves wants Sirleaf to have the opportunity to finish what she started in her first term and pave the way for women to continue to be empowered in the future. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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