Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fresh from winning the Nobel Peace Prize, was hoping for an outright re-election victory last week.
But Africa's first democratically elected female leader is facing a runoff election next month. She says she is confident Liberians will vote for her in big numbers, but the first-round voting last Tuesday shows she is facing stiff competition after six years in power.
Dressed in an African print and linen ensemble in pale and navy blues, topped off with her signature turban headwrap, 72-year-old Johnson Sirleaf is gracious during an interview, but looks tired after the election campaign.
That air of weariness vanishes as she defends her record and her promise to rebuild Liberia. She was elected two years after the end of the civil war in 2003.
"First of all, I think you have to look at Liberia's progress in the context of where we were when we started," she said. "This was a broken country — collapsed economy. People were not making anything, $15 a month for civil servants. Today the lowest pay is $100 a month. There was no investment, there was capital flight."
"Today we've mobilized $16 billion in direct foreign investment," she added. "Now it takes time for that investment to translate into jobs, into infrastructure improvement. We have now laid the foundation. All of the things that we now need will come in the next few years, because of what we've done in these past six years."
Corruption Still An Issue
One of Johnson Sirleaf's campaign pledges in 2005 was that corruption would be public enemy No. 1. Her critics and political opponents say instead of zero tolerance, her administration has allowed graft to prosper. Senior government officials have been fired for corruption — but how many have been prosecuted and imprisoned?
"We have done everything to ensure that our fight against corruption is not just going to be one sentimental trial here or there," she said. "But we are going to have prevention, which is a much better way for a permanent cure. I grant you that prosecutions are to come. And they will come. We're coming back to them right after elections."
Johnson Sirleaf also issues a word of warning to Liberia's political opposition, which over the weekend alleged vote count fraud in the president's favor, after the first round of voting.
"What we don't want is for opposition people to try to pre-empt the process by all these false accusations and claims," she said. "Just like they claimed that the first round was fraudulent because they thought we were going to win. Yes, we wanted to win — and we had made projections to win. Now that they have found out that, in fact, it was so free and fair that a runoff is in the making — now they've accepted the results."
Observers are predicting a close race in the Nov. 8 runoff between Johnson Sirleaf and Winston Tubman, a fellow Harvard graduate.
"I've been in close fights all my life and I've won every one of them and this one will be the same," Johnson Sirleaf said. "We have a record before the Liberian people. That's how come we're so far ahead in the polls. And, in the second round, we're going to work hard, we're going to make sure that we take our case to the people. And I'm just convinced that the people will stand by us."
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