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Female Candidate Campaigns Against Warlords in Liberia


In the first post-war elections in Liberia October 11, 22 candidates are campaigning to become the country's first elected-president in two years. One of the top contenders is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This former U.N., World Bank and Citibank official, known as the 'Iron Lady,' has been running a rigorous campaign with the slogan "to rid Liberia of its heritage of failed warlords".

The only woman with a real chance of winning the Liberian presidency, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is confident that Liberian women, fed up with almost two decades of civil war, will vote for her.

"Take an opinion," she said. "You will hear the women say, 'Our country has been ruled by men for over 150 years. This time we want a woman and see if it will make a difference.'"

Known as the Iron Lady, because of her tough style of decision making, the former government minister is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. She is trying to convince Liberians that she will be a different type of politician.

Liberia has a history of leaders using the country's wealth of diamonds and timber to enrich themselves. The current transitional government, led by businessman Gyude Bryant, has also come under criticism for entering into questionable business deals with private companies. Mr. Bryant denies these accusations. He is not allowed by the country's law to run in the October elections.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, who ran in a previous election, is again trying to appeal to supporters by emphasizing her experience as a senior official for the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank.

She says she will take tough decisions and end the monopolies that some private companies have gained, and which have not benefited the Liberian people.

"It's going [to] be whether they think an experienced, matured person who's dealt with development issues, and can take the hard decisions, who will lead them through a period of maybe some short term pain as you try and set the economy right, but one that's going to create a much bigger environment for growth," she said.

Analyst and researcher in the Africa Center of Leiden University, Stephen Ellis says that the international society will be encouraged to invest in Liberia if someone like Ms. Johnson- Sirleaf takes over. But Mr. Ellis says that she faces tough competition from several top candidates, like the lawyer Winston Tubman, who has also had experience working for international organizations.

"I'm pretty sure that international diplomats will be hoping that the successful candidate is somebody who is internationally known and who's got the technical qualifications to run a government and who has a number of acquaintances in the international system," he said. "And there are a number of candidates that fit the bill in that."

Mr. Ellis said that although Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is a strong contender in the election, many Liberians may associate her with past years of failed leadership.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf first entered politics in the 1970s and became the minister of finance under President William Tolbert. When the army's Samuel Doe took power in a 1980 coup, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf became a vocal critic of his regime and was arrested. Eventually she had to flee into exile.

A Liberian expatriate in the United States, George Fahnbulleh applauds Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf for her strong stance against Samuel Doe's repressive regime.

"Liberian people had a choice," Mr. Fahnbulleh said. "We could have chosen to live with Samuel Doe after he stole the election, or we could have chosen to do something. Some Liberians decided to do something. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was one of these Liberians who decided to do something. That something that she did, in and of itself is called leadership."

However, Ms. Johnson- Sirleaf is criticized by many Liberians for her initial support for the warlord and former president Charles Taylor, when he began an insurgency in 1989 against president Samuel Doe.

A researcher on West African security at Birmingham University, Liberian Thomas Jaye says that Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf has not adequately explained her ties to Mr. Taylor. If she became president, he says, Liberia would continue to be governed by a political elite as it has in its past.

"We're going back to the status quo, in which case we're not being provided with an answer to problems in Liberia," he said.

Liberia's civil war, that pitted the forces of warlord Charles Taylor against President Samuel Doe left thousands of Liberians dead and the country in tatters. Mr. Taylor was elected president in 1997 elections. Ms. Johnson- Sirleaf was the runner-up and contested the results. She was forced to flee into exile again, after opposing his government. Mr. Taylor was forced to step down from the presidency in 2003 and is currently living in exile in Nigeria.

In these October elections, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf faces strong opposition. Among her rivals is international soccer star George Weah who is especially popular among Liberian youth. A former ally of Mr. Taylor, Charles Brumskine, has also attracted large crowds at rallies. Some of the warlords who fought against Charles Taylor are also presenting themselves as candidates.

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