NAIROBI, Kenya — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is frequently lauded on the world stage, most recently when she was named part-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, but at home in Liberia she is facing a tough challenge in the election race to win another six-year term as Liberia’s president.
Today Liberians will go to the polls in what is predicted to be a close-fought election, only the second since the end of a brutal 14-year long civil war in which around 250,000 people were killed and which wrecked the country’s infrastructure and left its economy plundered and in tatters.
Last week’s announcement that Johnson Sirleaf had won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside a Liberian activist and a journalist from Yemen angered the opposition coming just days ahead of the vote.
At weekend campaign rallies Winston Tubman, the 70-year old leader of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and Johnson Sirleaf’s main challenger, described the Nobel award as a “provocative intervention” and described his opponent as a “warmonger” not a peacemaker.
Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) named Johnson Sirleaf, 72, on a list of people who should be barred from public office for their role in the country’s long and bloody civil war.
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Johnson Sirleaf has admitted giving former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor political and financial support in his early days of power before she became a prominent opponent.
“In Liberia everybody is connected and nobody is perfectly clean,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs and a former United Nations investigator in Liberia.
“She probably is the best person to run Liberia but she is a very pragmatic player in realpolitik and that means making alliances with people who are corrupt or have been violent,” said Vines.
Liberia’s conflict plumbed the depths of depravity. Teenaged gunmen donned women’s wigs and skimpy dresses, got high on a cocaine-gunpowder mix called ‘brown-brown,’ and became the war’s defining image.
They killed civilians, raped girls, disemboweled pregnant women, used human bones, skulls and entrails as roadblocks and sometimes ate their enemies.
A special "Small Boys Unit" served as Taylor’s personal bodyguard. Another rebel commander styled himself General Butt Naked and would live up to his name in battle.
During a lull in the fighting in the mid-1990s Taylor won an election using the campaign slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him”.
Taylor is now on trial in The Hague, though not for any crimes committed in Liberia but for his alleged support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.
The legacy of Liberia’s violent power struggle is still visible in Monrovia’s bullet-pocked buildings and crumbling infrastructure. The price of peace has been that many of those involved in the war are now in leadership positions.
Among 16 candidates for president is Prince Johnson, a warlord and one-time Taylor ally. In 1990 he presided over the videotaped torture and murder of former President Samuel Doe.
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Despite being filmed cooly sipping a beer while Doe’s ear is sliced off Johnson has reinvented himself as a political leader.
Internationally Johnson Sirleaf is praised, often seen as a female Nelson Mandela in West Africa, but within Liberia she faces criticism for her failure to create jobs, foster reconciliation and tackle corruption, and for reneging on a promise to serve just one term as president.
“There’s a gap between what she means at home and abroad,” said Jonny Steinberg, author of "Little Liberia." “There has been a century and a half of people using the state as a private resource, you can’t change that overnight.”
“She runs a government where there is substantial corruption, but I’m not sure anyone else would have done any better,” Steinberg said.
Other observers agree that while more could have been achieved the task of country rebuilding was immense.
“Johnson Sirleaf inherited a failed state and has effectively used her time to bridge ethnic divides and begun institution-building, but she has given insufficient attention to addressing key rule of law and human rights issues,” said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Liberia’s economy is largely based on the extraction of rubber, iron ore and timber and these industries have been revived under Johnson Sirleaf’s.
She also persuaded international donors to write-off a $4.6 billion debt. Yet despite modest economic growth unemployment remains sky high, especially among uneducated and unskilled young men who fought in the war. Their frustration and disappointment has set in.
“There were high expectations in 2005 that could never have been matched,” said Vines. “Unfortunately post-conflict growth is slow and doesn’t respect electoral cycles.”
“The election on Tuesday is going to be the challenge of Johnson Sirleaf’s life, it’s going to be really close and may well go to a second round,” he said.
Leading challenger Tubman has two key advantages: a name that carries weight (the Tubmans are the Kennedys of Liberia) and a wildly popular running mate in George Weah.
In his first foray into Liberian politics in 2005 the former AC Milan striker and FIFA World Player of the Year beat Johnson Sirleaf in the first-round before losing in a run-off that he claimed was rigged.
With hopes that offshore oil exploration might turn Liberia into the next Ghana, a country whose economy has been boosted by huge oil finds in recent years, there is plenty to fight for in Tuesday’s vote, not least the hope that a clean and peaceful election will help Liberians consign their violent past to history.
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