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Profile: Nobel Peace Prize winner Johnson Sirleaf runs for re-election

Africa's first female president faces stiff opposition her run for a second term in Liberia.

Liberia johnson sirleaf election 2011 10 5Enlarge
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is running for a second term in the Oct. 11 election in which she faces 15 challengers. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

MONROVIA, Liberia — Just days before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stood on a makeshift stage at the jam-packed Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia. She launched into a rousing campaign song. 

Singing “Ellen’s got the Mansion Key” to cheering supporters, Johnson Sirleaf appeared confident that she would win a second term as Liberia's president in Oct. 11 elections.

Johnson Sirleaf has reason to celebrate. She has won international acclaim as Africa’s first female president. And on Oct. 7, the Norwegian Nobel Committee granted her its most prestigious honor in recognition of her contribution to women's rights and democracy.

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Yet this election may prove to be the race of her life. Johnson Sirleaf faces stiff competition from 15 other candidates in the poll, including former warlord Prince Johnson and international football star George Weah.

Opposition parties charge that her administration has been marred by corruption because she has not prosecuted members of her government accused of misusing public resources. Others allege that Johnson Sirleaf has not been effective in improving the lives of ordinary Liberians.

One of her major policy objectives as president has been poverty reduction, but a majority of Liberians continue to live at or below the international poverty line. Johnson Sirleaf says she inherited a broken country, destroyed by a 14-year-long bloodbath that killed 250,000 people. Economic development that reaches the grassroots takes time, she argues.

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”It took us a while for us to open up the economy, for us to get the investments, because the government cannot employ everybody ... So we have to bring companies in here. Now we have done that, we are satisfied now that you go all over the country you see different companies are now operating; they’re starting to do their work, so we will be able now to create more jobs," said Johnson Sirleaf in a meeting with ex-combatants and deactivated Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers in September.

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Her administration has attracted nearly $19 billion in foreign direct investment, but the developments in mining and agriculture are not employing enough of the young Liberians who missed out on education because of war. The IMF warns the country could experience economic "growth without development."

The president used her international fame and experience as a former Citigroup economist to convince the IMF and World Bank to waive $4.6 billion of the country's debt. But such fiscal accomplishments mean little to most Liberians. They want to see tangible improvements in their lives.

In Monrovia, new structures rise alongside the bullet-ridden, burned out buildings. The potholed streets have been paved over. But Dew Mayson, a one-time ally of Johnson Sirleaf now contending for the presidency on the ticket of the National Democratic Coalition, says the president has only achieved piecemeal infrastructure development.

“Her star status as the first female president of an African country has hoodwinked a considerable section of the international community into believing that the president is running a progressive regime,” Mayson told the Nigerian daily newspaper The Nation.

Johnson Sirleaf became a symbol of women's empowerment when she became Africa’s first female president. She has supported adult literacy programs for market women and created a special court to try rape cases. The government has instituted a free and compulsory primary education program, with mixed results.

"The first thing Ma Ellen did was to send me to next level school through Gender Ministry," says Mary Siah Varney, who sells dried meat in the Rally Time Market near central Monrovia, one of the markets renovated through the private Sirleaf Market Women Fund. "The ministry trained us to go to school and pay us on top of it. Ma Ellen open our eyes,” says Varney.

The rising price of commodities, including the Liberian staple, rice, has driven off some of Johnson Sirleaf's supporters in this busy market. Nevertheless, Varney says she is still going to cast her vote for Johnson Sirleaf to help her win a second term. “She did a lot of good things for us. She made us to know our right as a woman, so I am praying that she goes