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Sirleaf: The Making of Africa’s First Female President

Author: BOLADE OMONIJO, Deputy Political Editor
Posted to the web: 11/14/2005 6:50:54 AM

UNTIL the breathtaking performance of Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the run up to the Liberian presidential elections held last month, only a few analysts could have dreamt of the possibility of the emergence of a woman on the political hot seat in any African country. A continent bogged down by cultural, legal and political prejudices against the women folk, where even appointment as ministers is a rare occurrence, was considered ill-prepared for the election of a woman president.
But that has changed. From the most unlikely of quarters, Africa has joined the league of those countries in the world that have opened the democratic space for women participation at the highest level. Liberia is war-weary, poor and one of the least developed in the world. It is thus regarded as one of the least to be considered if revolutionary steps such as election of a woman president were to be considered. And, to attest to this, in a field of 22 candidates who contested the October 11 presidential election, there was only one woman - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
At first, she was regarded a non-starter. Many regarded her as one of those who would be dropped at the first attempt. The factors against her included participation in past governments including the Tolbert, Doe and Taylor regimes. All of them were considered to have pushed the country off the precipice. At the time of the election, the Liberian capital, Monrovia which used to be a beautiful town had been without water for years. All social infrastructure had collapsed and the succeeding governments following the brutal civil war had failed to fix the problems. The task before the Liberian people was to pick the person considered best qualified to put back smiles to the faces of the people, especially the young ones, and the women.In the pack of 22, three emerged serious contenders. First was a soccer star who had proved over the years to be concerned about the fate of his country. George Opong Weah, the man dubbed king by his supporters had a wide appeal to the youth constituency. He was considered a fresh face, one who was not in any way connected with the rot of the past and one who had demonstrated that patriotism is not totally unavailable on the African continent. If there is any Liberian who was considered a unifying force, it was George Weah. At 39, he had done so much to hoist the Liberian flag on the world soccer world that the instant support that his candidacy attracted was unprecedented, even if not unexpected. When the country’s national football team needed support in order to compete at the continental level, Weah made the difference. Where others sought to profit from the national till, Weah was satisfied wiping tears from the faces of the underprivileged. At the end of the first round of voting which was declared free and fair by the large community of international observers, Weah came tops. He was followed by Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, with a lawyer, Charles Brumskine in the third place. But the support for Weah was inadequate to translate his appellation “king” to a reality. He polled 29 per cent of the votes, 21 short of the simple majority constitutional requirement. His rival, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf even fared worse. She was a distant second with less than 20 per cent of the votes polled. The Electoral Commission fixed a run off, as dictated by the Election Guidelines and the constitution for last Tuesday, and, from the official results so far released, Sirleaf would, come January 2006, be installed the first woman to be entrusted with political power in Africa. The run off: At the time of going to press last Friday, the final result had not been declared. However, the Electoral Commission had announced the results from 2,787 out of the 3,070 polling stations in the country. The tally showed that Sirleaf was comfortably in the lead with 443,870 votes to Weah’s 302,595 votes. By the tally, Sirleaf had 59 per cent of the votes to Weah’s 41 per cent. With only about 10 per cent of the votes being awaited, the direction in which the pendulum was swinging was all too obvious, thus spurring Sirleaf to claim victory Weah’s complaint: Meanwhile, it was a disappointed Weah who faced the international press on Wednesday to complain that the polls were riddled with irregularities. He complained about ballot stuffing by his opponents and appealled to the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African Countries, ECOWAS, and Nigeria to overturn the results or order a fresh election. According to the soccer star, “we are preaching about transparency and democracy, but in this case I found that the election was fraudulent. There were a lot of irregularities.” But, in a swift reaction, Mrs. Sirleaf called on her opponent to accept the results as declared. She said the trend was obvious and irreversible.  Allan Doss who represents the United Nations Secretary general in the country reacted: “I witnessed a run off election that was conducted in a peaceful and transparent manner. Other observers from the United States, including the Carter Centre promised to release their preliminary reports. However, the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Centre described the election they witnessed as “generally positive. The West African sub regional body ECOWAS was less restrained. Headed by Nigeria’s former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, ECOWAS monitoring group said the run off was “generally peaceful, free, fair and transparent.” There is no doubt that Weah is the idol of many young men, many of whom tasted battle and would not hesitate to pick up their weapons once again if only their leader would give the order. At the time of going to press, the soccer star-turned politician had fixed a crucial meeting of his party for the capital to decide on the way forward. Keen observers of the political scene have, however, suggested that he would have no choice but to accept the official results as released by the Electoral Commission. The making of President Johnson-Sirleaf: How did the 66-year old grandmother emerge Liberia’s 23rd and first female president? After the first round of elections on October 11 which showed that no candidate had the support of up to a third of the electorate, it became obvious that the race was very open. Sirleaf decided to deploy all her assets in pursuit of victory at the run off. She consistently drew attention to her educational qualifications and warned that an illiterate should not be allowed to ascend the throne in her motherland in the 21st century. She reached out to all those who had worked with her in the political establishment over the years and pointed out the danger in allowing an outsider have his way. In one of her messages, she said: “This is not the time to come and learn on the job. This is the time to come and do it; the time to perform and achieve.” The woman popularly called Iron Lady by her supporters has come a long way. Born 1939, she got married at a very young age of 17 and later went on to get the best of education. Responding to those who had referred to her as belonging to the class of oppressors locally called “Congo” or Americo-Liberians, the newly elected African leader said she considered herself a bridge over cultural, economic and ethnic divides. She pointed out that her mother hailed from Sinoe county in the South East while the father was from Bomi in the West. She recalled her childhood, pointing out that both her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather were very poor and uneducated. The Harvard educated Masters degree holder explained that being a woman predisposed her to understanding the plight of women and being generally sensitive to the challenges of giving hope to the young and the poor. Her words in an interview with Aspire: “Women are the ones who truly have heart to care and to serve, perhaps because of the role that nature has bestowed on us. A woman is naturally crafted to take care of the children and keep the home together and our constitution is patterned towards selfless service.' Facts have emerged that she supported the Taylor invasion of 1989. Again, this has been explained as her own contribution to the removal of Doe who had become a vampire and a dictator. She used her connections in the United States of America to raise funds for Charles Taylor who was a key member of the exiles from the Liberian dictator’s brutality. As soon as it became obvious that Taylor was a mere pretender after power for its sake, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf opted for political divorce and when she did, it was public. She publicly condemned Taylor’s human rights abuses and was one of the few who had the courage to confront him at the polls in 1997. She was a poor second in that election where the Liberian people, realising that the only way to achieve some form of peace was to install the rebel leader in power. The Sirleaf agenda: If anything, what Liberia urgently needs today is healing of wounds. This can only come through a Government of National Unity. The election of October 11 proved it when the person with the highest votes had only a little more than one quarter of the votes cast. The election of November 8 has gone further to make this imperative since the man who won the largest number of votes in the earlier election lost out to a broad coalition of forces. Realising this, Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged to bring every political group on board. Speaking with journalists shorly before the run off, she pledged: “My policy is to adopt the system of inclusion. The leaders of the various factions/parties would be included in the reformation of Liberia. It will not be one-party, one-man system of government. There will be equal opportunities for all. There is no point in intimidating the people or political opponents. I believe we need one another for a holistic development in order to maintain peace and stability.” Why Weah lost: The soccer star had hinged his campaign on the need to have a clean break with the past. The election proved that the only way of having a total break from the past is by revolution. Fidel Castro proved this in Cuba in 1959. Cu,mulative experience Otherwise, under an existing order, experience is cumulative. It was indeed inconceivable that politicians who had worked together, had moments of their disagreement and shared ideas, hopes and aspirations would all of a sudden bow to a young man who was a toddler when they started the game. This is especially so when the man in question has little by way of experience of running any organisation. The only man who protested the conduct of the October 11 polls was Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party. He could not accept the fact that Weah, despite the noise, could be considered more popular than a Harvard-trained lawyer who was not new to contesting the presidential seat. Amos Sawyer, himself a veteran politician, one of those revered by the progressives in Liberia, a former interim president and a thorn in the flesh of Tolbert, Doe and Taylor’s regimes had this to say: “If Liberians elect Ellen, her economic know-how and her ability to unify the country will shorten the wait-and-see attitude the international community often subject new regimes to.” Reacting to the denigrating remarks on his qualification, Weah said, “with all their education and experience, they have governed this nation for hundreds of years. They have never done anything for the nation.”

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