Africa's first democratically elected female president, who was honored this week with a Nobel Peace Prize, will face stiff competition at Liberia's presidential polls Tuesday against a fiery opposition candidate and his soccer-star running mate.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, won the country's first postwar election in 2005 by a landslide vote. On Friday, she received a Nobel prize for her efforts to restore peace to Liberia after a brutal 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. She shared the award with two other women, a fellow Liberian human rights activist and a Yemen activist, for their commitment to women's rights in regions where oppression is common.
International supporters called Sirleaf's award "much deserved" for her work stabilizing Liberia.
Sirleaf said she was "pleasantly surprised," by the timing of the award. "It sends a message to the Liberian people that peace must prevail as Liberians go to this critical event."
Her political opponents, however, have questioned the merit of the award and criticized its timing. Following the announcement of the award Friday, opposition candidate Winston Tubman and his running mate, soccer-sensation George Weah, attracted one of the largest crowds in recent memory at their final campaign rally in Monrovia.
Sirleaf faces a total of 15 candidates at the polls Tuesday. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the vote will go to a second round run-off.
She has crisscrossed the nation in the run-up to the poll, and the ruling Unity Party has papered the capital, Monrovia, with campaign materials, including giant billboards that read "When the plane hasn't landed yet, don't change the pilots."
"We have so much that has been achieved; and for us, the Unity Party, we will be running on our records; we will not be running on promises," said the party's secretary-general Wilmot Paye.
The Liberia that Sirleaf inherited lacked roads, water, electricity and a proper army. Sirleaf, a former finance minister, promised sweeping change _ lighting up the capital, bringing back pipe-born water and putting children in school.
During her six-year tenure, Sirleaf has increased civil servants' salaries, secured waivers for more than $4 billion in external debt, and built schools and hospitals.
A darling of the international community, the Harvard-trained grandmother of six nevertheless faces resistance at home.
Critics say that with all the international aid and investment, Liberia's government should have done better in restoring services and rebuilding the infrastructure ravaged by years of war in the West African nation. Liberians also say that progress has not been fast enough.
Evidence of the savage war still remains. The country's main energy plant which was destroyed in the fighting has yet to be rebuilt. The country's main highway is in deplorable condition. Few people in the capital have electricity, running water or proper sewage. Unemployment hovers at an alarming 80 percent.
"We need jobs in this country," said 37-year-old night watchman and phone card seller Wilson Willie, sporting a laminated badge bearing Tubman and Weah's photos. "We need change, a change that will give us reason to think we are living in our country."
Tubman, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former United Nations envoy to Somalia, placed fourth in the 2005 elections, while vice-presidential-candidate Weah placed second. Weah has boosted the popularity of their ticket, especially among the country's burgeoning youth population.
"Mrs. Sirleaf has had almost six years now to demonstrate what she can do inside Liberia for the Liberian people," Tubman told The Associated Press. "I often wonder whether it is the popularity of our ticket or the unpopularity of the incumbent that draws the crowd to us."
Pervasive corruption, criminality and the slow progress of national reconciliation have undercut her support on the home front, critics say.
"She has failed to reconcile the nation; reconciliation is a word Ellen does not use anymore," said Charles Brumskine, a former senator and presidential candidate for the opposition Liberty Party.
Sirleaf also sidestepped last year's recommendations from a South-African-styled Truth and Reconciliation Commission that said she should be banned from public office for 30 years for her early financial support of former rebel leader Charles Taylor. Taylor is currently awaiting judgment from the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.
"The Supreme Court came out and said that ban was unconstitutional, but there are still a lot of people that feel that she, and other people who were involved in the war need to face some kind of consequence," said Titi Ajayi, West Africa fellow for the International Crisis Group.
Hundreds of international observers will be on hand Tuesday for the vote, including the Economic Community of West African States, headed by Nigerian elections chief, Attahiru Jega.
Liberia continues to depend heavily on the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) to maintain a tenuous peace. The International Crisis Group says the illegal circulation of arms and mercenaries continues to undermine security, a problem aggravated by the recent conflict in neighboring Ivory Coast.
At the request of UNMIL, the U.N. Mission in Ivory Coast has sent 150 police and 100 soldiers to Monrovia to bolster Liberia's 8,000-strong peacekeeping force ahead of elections. The U.N. missions have also boosted security along the border, said the U.N.
Associated Press writer Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
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