Former warlord turns over a new Sirleaf

A former warlord has announced he will support Nobel peace prize- winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia’s run-off election, boosting her campaign to win a second term as the country’s president.

The move marks the latest stage in Prince Johnson’s transformation from war crimes suspect to political power broker in a country still reeling from a 14-year civil war.

Results announced on October 17 showed that Sirleaf, Africa’s first freely elected female head of state, had won 44% of the vote, ahead of her main rival, Winston Tubman, who received 32.2%.

Johnson, who had previously announced that he would support Tubman, said on October 18 he would back Sirleaf as the “lesser of two evils. I am one of the most powerful forces in the country. They thought I was irrelevant and now I’m the kingmaker. It’s great.”

Johnson was infamously filmed in 1990 drinking Budweiser beer while his men tortured and killed former president Samuel Doe.

He later fled to Nigeria, where he reinvented himself as a born-again Christian and, in 2005, he was elected a senator in Nimba, the country’s second-largest county.

In 2009, Johnson was among 50 people who Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended should be banned from public office for 30 years, but the commission’s findings were ruled unconstitutional by the country’s supreme court and Johnson won 12% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election this month.

Now Johnson portrays himself as a man forced to extremes in order to remove a dictator.

“Senator Johnson of yesterday in combat against Doe is not the Senator Johnson now. He’s a born-again Christian. He’s an evangelist. He’s a man of God,” he said.

Dressed in traditional African cloth and a red fez, Johnson still commands fear and subservience from his followers.

“Turn off your phones!” he shouted at the men crowded around him, listening to every word. “Can’t you see I’m doing an interview?”

But he counts on fierce loyalty from the people of Nimba, where the memory of Doe’s scorched-earth tactics is still fresh.

On October 16, Johnson, Tubman and several opposition parties announced they were withdrawing from the election over allegations that officials had rigged the ballot count in favour of Sirleaf. But Tubman has since confirmed he will participate in the run-off on November 8.

Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist, has earned international praise for maintaining stability in the country and reducing Liberia’s colossal national debt. But at home she faces criticism over her failure to improve the economy and increase employment. —

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