Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is running for president

Editor’s Note:

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was declared the winner of Liberia’s election on Friday, Nov. 10. The Associated Press reported that she received 59.1 percent of votes, while her opponent George Weah received 40.9 percent. However, Weah has charged that her campaign stuffed ballot boxes and has not conceded. The vote must still be certified by the National Elections Commission, but Johnson-Sirleaf has become the first elected female leader of an African nation.

MONROVIA, Liberia (WOMENSENEWS)–Twenty-year-old Lydia Boakar laughed loudly as she was shouting over to the two men sitting in the yard next to her modest mud house. The three were residents of the Plumcor camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the war-torn Liberian capital.

“You are confused,” she teased the men.

Then she walked over to an election poster on the wall behind her and proudly pointed to a portrait of presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The two men next door shook their heads disapprovingly, but Boakar enthusiastically defended her choice for the top post in Liberian government.

“I am going to vote for Ellen, because she is wise and she cares for our children’s future,” she said.

The Harvard-educated economist and leader of Liberia’s Unity Party captured enough of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections on Oct. 11 to force frontrunner George Weah into a second round to take place on Nov. 8. While most young Liberians seem to rally behind Weah, a political novice and well-known soccer hero, Johnson-Sirleaf has specifically sought to enlist the support of Liberia’s women.

Strengthening African Women

Johnson-Sirleaf’s camp argues that after more than a hundred years of political mismanagement by male politicians and a 14-year long civil war that all but destroyed the country, it is time for a woman to take the lead. If she wins the election, she will become the first-ever elected woman president in Africa.

 Lydia Boakar supports a woman for president.

So far, only three women have been head of state in Africa. None was elected. Ruth Perry was appointed chair of the Liberian Council of State in September 1996 after the overthrow of dictator Samuel Doe. Sylvie Kinigi acted as president in Burundi following the murder of President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993 and Carmen Pereira acted as head of state in Guinea-Bissau for two days in May 1984.

For a woman to actually be voted in as president of an African country would mean a lot for the role of women on the continent, argues Johnson-Sirleaf.

“Not only in Liberia, but in Africa, because it would open the doors to the one position that has been lacking in terms of women leadership,” Johnson-Sirleaf said in an interview with Women’s eNews in October.

At her election rallies, the 66-year-old grandmother typically dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, and wears a sporty and youthful looking cap against the hot sun. Though she draws a crowd that is generally much less rowdy than that of soccer star Weah, she seemingly effortlessly manages to rouse an enthusiastic and loud response to her campaign messages of reconciliation, development and anti-corruption.

At her large but dilapidated villa in the Liberian capital, she greets visitors in a classic African robe and quietly recounts her long and sometimes difficult political career. Since the late 1960s she has alternated fairly short spells as a public servant in Liberia with longer periods spent in exile abroad. After speaking out against the military regime of Samuel Doe in 1985, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, she was released after just over one year and left the country to take up a position with the World Bank.

“I have invested a good part of my life to the struggle for changing Liberia, for making Liberia what it was meant to be: a model in Africa,” said Johnson-Sirleaf. “I am not going to give up until we achieve the reform that we always needed.”

Devastated by Civil War

If she does beat Weah in the final round of the presidential elections, she will focus her efforts on securing the peace in the country and to bring about some real development. Liberia lost almost a quarter of a million people in the civil war that ended in 2003. There is no electricity or water systems, little education and few health services other than those offered by international nonprofits.

Johnson-Sirleaf said that wherever she went on the campaign trail, her supporters always expressed the same wishes for the future. People want education for their children, jobs to earn a living and an end to the large-scale embezzlement of government funds that previous regimes have committed.

“The message from the people is loud and clear when it comes to those three things,” said Johnson-Sirleaf.

Although many see her as the ideal candidate to rebuild the country, she faces stiff competition from Weah. In the first round of the presidential election he won 28.3 percent of the vote, while Johnson-Sirleaf came in second with 19.8 percent. Weah lacks formal education and political experience, but is viewed as a man of the people and has won approval for his work as a UNICEF ambassador and with the country’s national soccer team, Lone Star. He appeals primarily to the youth of Liberia, who make up a large portion of the electorate. Also, he is popular with voters who have lost their faith in the country’s politicians.

Polishing the Tarnish

At the same time, Johnson-Sirleaf’s image is tarnished by her early support for former president and warlord Charles Taylor, although she later became a critic and ran against him in the 1997 elections. She is also identified with the unpopular Americo-Liberian elite, the descendants of freed slaves from the United States who ran the government with little regard for the country’s indigenous population until a military coup by Samuel Doe in 1980.

The two contestants might still end up in government together. Weah declared prior to the first round of elections that he would be willing to bring Johnson-Sirleaf into the cabinet with him, and Johnson-Sirleaf does not seem adverse to the idea of taking him along if she beats him at the ballot box.

 Lydia Boakar (left) and Zinah King want a president who cares for their children's future.

“We have been talking to Ambassador Weah and his people and recognize that he has certain talents that could contribute to the development of the nation,” she said, suggesting that perhaps he could become minister of sports and youth in her government.

Whatever the outcome of the election, Johnson-Sirleaf has already inspired confidence in some of Liberia’s women. In the dusty Plumcor camp for displaced people, Boakar and her friend, 32-year-old Zinah King, were taking their lead from the “mother of the nation,” as her followers sometimes refer to her.

“My husband is going with me. He is voting for Ellen,” said King resolutely.

Anna Koblanck is the Africa correspondent for the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter and a freelance writer. She is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.