Liberia's 'Iron Lady' charts course away from violence

The candidate aspiring to be Liberia’s first elected woman president is canvassing for votes among a crowd of young men who make their living washing cars.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wonders aloud why no women or girls are with them.

“Because this is a very hard job,” shouts one man.

“Women are not able to do it.”

Incredulous, imperious, the Harvard-trained 66-year-old wheels on a group of girls watching from afar, telling them sternly what might well stand as her own campaign slogan: “Women, don’t sit there! Do something positive together with men!”

Johnson-Sirleaf is among 22 candidates vying in October 11 elections to replace a caretaker administration set up to govern Liberia after the August 2003 end of 14 years of nearly uninterrupted civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf is among a handful of frontrunners and the only woman with a real chance. She hopes to put lessons learned as a World Bank and United Nations official to work in Liberia, where warlords and despots—all male—caused tens of thousands of deaths and flushed the lush, once-prosperous West African nation down the drain.

If she were to win, Johnson-Sirleaf would be among few women heads of state or government anywhere in the world. High, elected female officials are rare across Africa, although male leaders are increasingly naming women to their Cabinets.

South African President Thabo Mbeki appointed a woman, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as his deputy president in June. Mozambican President Armando Guebuza

appointed a woman, Luisa Diogo, as his prime minister in February. To be sure, most Liberian voters say gender is hardly their main concern. Their votes will go to whomever they deem most able to get municipal electricity and water running again and create work in a country with 85% joblessness.

Johnson-Sirleaf stresses her long management resume, but does hope her gender will help her stand out in a country with a history of male-led fighting that saw rampant sexual violence against women.

“I have operated, succeeded and excelled in a men’s world—in every area or profession that I have been in,” Johnson-Sirleaf told the Associated Press in an interview.

“Women can be as strong as men and we’ve got good examples throughout this world of strong women that have brought equal competence, strength and courage to everything that they do, in the UK, Pakistan, India,” said Johnson-Sirleaf, whose supporters have dubbed her the “Iron Lady”.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s rivals include one other woman, a former warlord, Alhaji Kromah, other local luminaries and most intriguing for many Liberians, one-time Fifa World Footballer of the Year George Weah.

Weah portrays himself as the populist candidate, who learned to dribble the soccer ball in Monrovia’s slums and booted himself to world stardom as a striker for AC Milan and other top European clubs.

Weah, who has little formal education, says what Liberia needs is national unity, not finely honed managerial skills.

Johnson-Sirleaf doesn’t completely agree.

“I have the capacity and the competence to be able to carry out a development and reform agenda,” she said.

Johnson-Sirleaf is a full-fledged member of Liberia’s political elite, having held a top Cabinet post in an administration that was ousted by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in a 1980 military coup.

For many Liberians, her long, involved history may be her greatest drawback. She briefly urged on ex-warlord and former President Charles Taylor as he launched his seven-year insurgency in 1989, seeing him as the only way to end Doe’s repressive regime.

Taylor’s insurgency led to the death of tens of thousands—some say as high as 200 000—and left Liberia in tatters. The charismatic Taylor won elections in 1997—taking over from a woman, Ruth Perry, who had served as the unelected interim president from 1996. But the fight wasn’t over.

Rebels, including many former Taylor allies, took up arms against him in 1999 and drove on the capital, Monrovia, in mid-2003. Under heavy international pressure, Taylor stepped down and left for asylum in Nigeria.

Many Liberians say Johnson-Sirleaf’s experience in development and international banking would greatly help Liberia. They laud her devotion to the country and history of public service.

Others, though, associate Johnson-Sirleaf—rightly or wrongly—with years of failed leadership.

“Mrs Sirleaf, Taylor and others chose the path of war and destruction as a way of addressing the political crisis that had developed in Liberia,” said Fatu Massaquoi, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of a top Johnson-Sirleaf rival.

“She can’t boast of being a clean-handed person and the right one to lead.”

Sam Harris, a member of Taylor’s former ruling party asks: “How can a destroyer boast of being a builder?

Johnson-Sirleaf said she would steer Liberia away from violence.

“I am going to be a leader and a president who happens to be a woman. But I am glad to be a woman because I think I will bring an extra dimension to the task,” said the mother of four.

“That’s the dimension of sensitivity, respect for human beings—which is something that comes from motherhood.” - Sapa-AP

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