Twenty-two Liberian presidential candidates have kicked off their campaign for the October 11 elections, with a political insider and a soccer star among the favorites. In a series of recent debates on national radio, some of the front runners have outlined their policies and sought to separate themselves from the rest.
More than one-million Liberians are expected to vote in October elections, and restore their country to full democracy after more than a decade of civil war.
One of the favorites in the presidential race, especially among Liberian youth, is 38-year-old George Weah. A former international soccer star, Mr. Weah is anxious to present himself not as a footballer but as a credible candidate who will lead his country responsibly. "You say world footballer, I do not want to use that, because I am a professional person. I have chosen a career that make me develop my people. Next you are going to ask why a lawyer wants to be president. The presidency is not only about a lawyer or janitor, the presidency is about who is going to work in the interests of the people who care about the people, who have touched people's lives," he says.
The National Electoral Commission recently cleared Mr. Weah to stand as a candidate, dismissing a complaint over his citizenship. Opponents, some of them lawyers, believe he might have also been a French national.
During a recent radio debate, Mr. Weah was up against one of the other main presidential candidates Winston Tubman, a lawyer and former U.N. ambassador to Somalia.
Mr.Tubman's last name is well known in Liberia, as his uncle, William Tubman, was president and governed for more than 20 years. During the debate, Winston Tubman was asked whether people would trust him, as he is associated with a past autocratic president, and Liberia's problematic political history. "I was not part of the problem. The problem is not going to be solved once and for all suddenly. It will require all of us focusing on what the problems are. For instance take my case, why am I in the National Democratic party of Liberia? People always ask me that question, they are part of the problem. Tell me which government we had that was not part of the problem. Not only the governments were part of the problem, we were all part of the problem," he said.
One of the other well known presidential contenders, and one of the two women running, is Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson. An economist who has worked for the U.N. Development Program and Citibank, one of the issues around which Ms. Johnson is building her electoral platform is development in Liberia. "Liberia is not a poor country. Liberia is rich in resources, mineral resources, and agricultural resources. It has been a question of the management of these resources that has got our country so poor. If we manage it properly I believe we can respond to the basic needs of the people," she says.
A veteran of Liberian politics, Ms. Sirleaf-Johnson served as finance minister during the 1970's. She has in the past been seen as supporter of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. In the last election, she finished second to the former rebel leader.
Mr. Taylor has been accused of crimes against humanity committed during Liberia's long civil war as well as the conflict in neighboring Sierra Leone, when he was president in Liberia. He is now in exile in Nigeria.
Ms. Sirleaf-Johnson has disassociated herself from him, and says that her experience, as well as her commitment to her country, would make her the best president out of the candidates running. "I have paid the price, I have earned my stripes, I have gone to prison for being in political activity and I have stayed consistent in my policies and principles and I am not in this thing for any long time. I just want to lead the team that will put the country on course and then I want to go into sweet retirement," she says.
Some of the so-called warlords who fought former President Taylor are also presenting themselves as presidential hopefuls. Sekou Conneh, the leader of the main rebel LURD movement, is running for the Progress Democratic Party that he formed earlier this year. Alhaji Kromah, who led the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), a past rebel group, is also a candidate.
Liberia now has a transitional government led by businessman Gyude Bryant, which was put in place after President Taylor was forced from power in 2003. Around 15,000 U.N. peace keepers are helping the transitional government oversee polls and ensure security, especially during the electoral process.