Liberians go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new president and lawmakers in the second key elections since the end of the civil war in 2003. The incumbent leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa's first democratically elected female president — was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, but her opponents say she deserves neither the award nor re-election.
Liberia's election campaign has been enthusiastic, as 16 rival presidential candidates have wooed voters. Almost 2 million Liberians are registered to select their new leader, with 81 legislative and 15 senatorial seats on offer. This West African nation, settled by freed American slaves back in the 19th century, is the continent's oldest republic. But Liberia suffered deeply destructive, back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003. It's still recovering, and prevailing peace and stability are top priorities.
"We want peace, no more war," women chanted as they greeted their two freshly anointed Nobel Peace Prize winners in the shabby capital, Monrovia, over the weekend. Johnson Sirleaf, 72, was a joint recipient of the Nobel award, along with Yemeni democracy activist Tawakkul Karman, and Liberian peace and women's rights campaigner Leymah Gbowee.
Gbowee says she's endorsing the president.
"I cannot be a hypocrite. My work has always been about women — women in peace, women in politics," she said. "Who else [would I endorse]? She's done a great job. Yes! ... We've seen the changes [since she was elected in 2005]. Why not now?"
But not all Liberians are backing Johnson Sirleaf — who has been in office for six years — despite her impressive international and financial credentials. Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained former finance minister and former U.N. and World Bank executive, is facing stiff competition.
"We Liberians can't see any reason why she should be given this honor," Winston Tubman, a fellow Harvard grad who is running against her, told the BBC. "It's undeserved. She doesn't deserve this honor."
Tubman, a former senior U.N. diplomat, questioned both the merit of the Nobel Peace award and the timing.
"She has brought war here. She is a war-monger. She didn't stop the war at all," he said. "I did more to stop the war than she did. Now that the war has stopped, she wants to stay on top of the country as if she's some liberator — she's not."
He says Johnson Sirleaf, a darling of Western donors, has assiduously courted the outside world, using Liberia's money to swan around the globe to boost her ego and image on public relations stunts, instead of focusing on the priorities of her own postwar nation.
Liberia's president is swift to respond that, while she is honored to be a joint Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she's aware that's not what Liberians will be judging her on. Johnson Sirleaf says her record since she was first elected in 2005, and maintaining peace and promoting reconciliation — and not the Nobel — will be factors in the vote, though challenges remain.
"At the end of the day it will not have any effect on our elections, because the Liberian people will choose who they want to choose on the basis of the many years of knowing who we are and what they have done," she said. "That's how they will choose. They will not choose because of any Nobel Peace Prize."
Johnson Sirleaf said she is optimistic about setting Liberia up for a better future. "You cannot rebuild a broken country in six years. This country was totally destroyed — dysfunctional institutions, destroyed infrastructure, no laws," she said. "So it took us time to rebuild, and we've made a lot of progress. ... We still have things to do, to consolidate the gains, to preserve the peace, to keep bringing the development. And who can do it better than someone who has the experience to do it?"
After 14 years of civil war and eight years free of armed conflict, Liberians are still protected by United Nations peacekeepers. Despite all the international aid and investment, critics say, progress has been sluggish under Johnson Sirleaf. The peace dividend aside, Liberians are still waiting for the delivery of past election campaign promises, including jobs and basic services — a steady supply of electricity, running water, proper health care and improved education.
And an end to rampant corruption, says Aaron Weah, a leading member of civil society.
If no one candidate wins an outright majority in Tuesday's first-round election, Liberia's presidential vote goes to a runoff.
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