Africa

Liberia's Premier Iron Lady — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (left) inspects members of the Liberian police after taking the presidential oath of office on Monday. (Photo: Jim Watson / AFP-Getty Images)

Liberians went to the polls in October 2005 to let off political steam that had been building since the dawn of the presidential campaign in that war-torn nation. In a highly contested election between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an erudite politician who adopted the popular moniker "The Iron Lady," and George Weah, a world soccer star turned politician, Sirleaf triumphed.

Weah led in the polls initially, but fell short of the 51 percent needed to win the election, necessitating a runoff election a month later. In the runoff, Sirleaf won a 60 percent majority to secure for herself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female president in Africa.

Sirleaf is a 67-year-old Harvard-educated economist and a seasoned politician with a political stature dating back to her days as a finance minister under William Tolbert's paternalistic rule. Decades of trials and tribulations under the draconian rule of Samuel Doe, together with a wealth of administrative experience at the United Nations, where Sirleaf worked during almost 20 years of exile, having escaped the ruthlessness of Liberia's recently expelled warlord, Charles Taylor, prove Ellen is up to the task.

Her political rival, Weah, accused her of election fraud in the aftermath of the election. The National Elections Commission, after an exhaustive investigation found no evidence of fraud, chose to certify the results, and declared Ellen the bona fide president-elect. The international community including former president Jimmy Carter also endorsed the elections as "free, fair and transparent." But Weah at first refused to let go, hanging on to his claim that the election was rigged. He threatened to take the matter to the Supreme Court. His series of rabble-rousing insinuations only led to rioting in an already volatile capital city Monrovia. "I am president of this country, whether you like it or not, it will not change. I told President Mbeki this. I repeat that I was cheated in the elections," he said. Many people were left pondering whether his motives had been misguided by members of his inner circle, many of whom are disarmed rebel combatants. However, plans had already been made to carry on with the presidential inauguration on January 16, 2006. "One cannot have an inauguration in January when the case we are pursuing is not resolved. The whole world needs to know this. We are seeking justice and there cannot be peace without justice," Weah said. Last month, however, Weah conceded the election, dispelling the specter of renewed conflict.

These endorsements, on the other hand, do not mean Sirleaf is an entirely innocent states-woman. She helped finance the invasion of Liberia, which led to the execution of Samuel Doe. Liberia has endured many coups and has a long turbulent history of violence and bloodshed. However, she is a resilient woman who genuinely seems ready to bury the hatchet and offer an olive branch, unlike the previous blood for blood political campaign that once tainted her. She has promised to install a government of national unity that will include her opponent, Weah.

Among her preferences is a foreign policy that articulates to communicate amicably with her close West African neighbors, once plagued by warfare and instability. She offers the olive branch to Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Taylor was once incessantly at war with his immediate neighbors. Sirleaf is committed to establishing peace in the region. Charles Taylor jailed her for treason and almost executed her.

The election is a component of many pieces of a puzzle that puts together this disjointed society ruined by war. Liberia, war-torn and destitute, is a reservoir of challenges and setbacks that will require the help of the international community. Africa's oldest autonomous Republic, it was once a settlement for freed American slaves known as Americo-Liberians. But indigenous Liberians militated against this small minority group from the West that once ruled their land in a paternalistic manner, which led to the execution of William Tolbert. What remains to be seen is how Sirleaf will spend the political capital she has earned and unite this fragmented nation.

Weah is a popular star who connects effectively with the youths. In fact, he demonstrated his patriotism by helping to build Liberia's national football team, spending his own money on its welfare. The government lacked funds to support it. He came to politics without any political baggage, unlike Sirleaf, who many people argue has blemished hands from the politics of the gruesome past. In the campaign leading up to the elections, many people said they would vote for the millionaire star footballer.

"He no kill ma pa: he no kill ma ma, I will vote for him." The reason why many people agreed to vote for Weah was he had not killed their parents. His hands had no bloodstains on them. In retrospect, this song is the complete opposite of the rhetoric that brought Charles Taylor to power in the first postwar election. Taking an objective look at the two candidates, Sirleaf brings a wealth of experience and leadership skills to the executive mansion, unlike Weah who has little education and political muscle. Liberia has had leaders with little or no management skills; some later proved ruthless or reckless. Liberia was not willing to take dangerous bait. Today the legacy of Taylor still haunts an already battered nation.

As Liberia was engulfed in civil war, the symptoms of a failed state were very visible. The most rational and bloodless ploy to reverse its demise, was to expel Charles Taylor to Nigeria. It was not very easy to convince him to accept this deal. Rebels had already taken over most of Liberia including part of the capital Monrovia. Sirleaf has a lot of work to do to re-connect Liberia with the international community, and to get Taylor to stand trial in Sierra Leone for his role in supporting the reign of terror campaign, and for his crimes against humanity. She visited Freetown to mend the broken chords of love and friendship. The nucleus of the talks included arrangements to get Taylor to face charges before the U.N. Special Courts. U.S. Representative Ed. Royce has fervently demanded the handover of Taylor to the U.N. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who provided asylum to Taylor, stated that he would only hand over Taylor to Liberia's democratically elected leader.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will soon meet with Sirleaf to discuss matters of mutual interest to both countries. The issue of Charles Taylor will definitely form part of their discussion. His expulsion to Nigeria was a very bitter pill for Taylor to swallow. Despite the numerous problems plaguing Liberia, he was often meddling in the internal affairs of his neighbors: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

On the Web

Sirleaf's Inaugural Address, AllAfrica Global Media (Content service provider), Mauritius, Jan. 17, 2006.

A pre-condition for ailing Liberia to receive developmental assistance is to surrender Charles Taylor to the Special Courts in Sierra Leone. The European Union has clearly stipulated their terms for aid assistance. Definitely, Liberia needs urgent and tremendous assistance. It is most likely Sirleaf will eventually comply. But she has to be very cautious to ensure that this move does not snowball into unrest in Liberia. Taylor still has grass-root support at home that could help to generate a political nightmare for Sirleaf.

Africa and the rest of the world are cautiously optimistic that Sirleaf's feminine charm and long experience will bring a renaissance of peace and dignity to Liberia. To help this fractured nation regain its past glory as Africa's "Little America." But Liberians are disappointed about the composition of the personalities named for positions in the transition government. There is genuine fear of a return of the old order: and a restitution of "failed politicians or disappointees." Ellen now faces her initial challenge at home. A return to cronyism and a new breed of recycled politicians would be a terrible mistake that could paralyze the fragile peace now held by a thin strand of thread.

Liberia languished because it lacked good leadership. Anxiously, the world has waited for the ushering in of a balanced leader with the charisma and tenacity to set Liberia on a new path: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated on Monday outside the capitol building. Among those in attendance were Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and George Weah.

Roland Bankole Marke is the author of "Teardrops Keep Falling," "Silver Rain and Blizzard," and "Harvest of Hate." His work has appeared in several publications, including online journals.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Roland Bankole Marke.

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