Liberians vote on record of 1st female leader

AP News
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Posted: Oct 11, 2011 1:07 PM
Liberians vote on record of 1st female leader

Even as she basks in praise from abroad after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is facing an election at home that she may lose. She's credited with stabilizing Liberia after civil war but most of the people voting in Tuesday's election have not been able to find a job since she took office nearly six years ago.

Voters camped out overnight and formed lines that were dozens of people deep. Their faces were wet from the early morning downpour, yet they patiently waited their turn, huddled in groups of twos and threes under candy-colored umbrellas for a chance to either re-elect Sirleaf, or choose from one of the 15 opposition candidates who claim they'll do a better job than her.

The 72-year-old Harvard-educated Sirleaf is credited with luring donors and helping restructure the country's debt. The United States alone has poured in more than $600 million since Africa's first democratically elected female leader took office, encouraged by her track record as a former World Bank economist.

And under her watch, an estimated $5 billion of the country's external debt was wiped clean, allowing Liberia to re-establish a sovereign credit rating, a pre-requisite for issuing its own bonds.

She has succeeded in lifting timber and diamond embargos, and her government negotiated contracts with oil exploration firms in the hopes that Liberia could soon start pumping its own oil.

These accomplishments mean little, however, to the 80 percent of adults who are currently unemployed in this country, where a 14-year cycle of horrific violence only ended in 2003. And the nation only has inched up two spots since she took office from 164th to 162nd place on the 169-country index used to track development by the United Nations.

"There are some minimum standards that should have been attained after six years in office," says George Wah Williams, who heads Liberia Democracy Watch and who is voting for the opposition despite having supported Sirleaf in the 1995, 1997 and 2005 elections.

"We understand that growth and development take time. That Liberia was shattered, but as a former government official, we trusted her. Even basic things like health services are nonexistent. We don't need billions of dollars of grants to do that," he says. "I'm not talking about building skyscrapers."

Her opponents _ led by soccer star George Weah, who came in second to Sirleaf in the last election _ have tried to paint her as aloof and removed from the country's problems. Weah has made repeated references to the fact that he was born in a slum, unlike Sirleaf who is Americo-Liberian, the country's elite who are descended from American slaves that returned to Africa to create a new colony.

Since winning the Nobel four days ago, Sirleaf has gone to lengths to appear close to the people. She held a private reception and tried to downplay the award, which the opposition is using to prove that she is more in touch with the West than with her own impoverished people.

And on Tuesday, she made a point of waiting in line in Bomi County, the home of her ancestors located 40 miles (70 kilometers) outside Monrovia.

"I don't expect to lose, but if I were to lose, I will accept the results _ I will respect the Liberian people's choice," Sirleaf told The Associated Press by telephone as she drove back from the polls.

"I went to vote as a candidate in a blue jeans suit and a clean, common hat. I stood in the line and was waiting until the (electoral commission) officials came and said there was a line for the elderly," said the leader who is also a grandmother. "They considered me an elderly person. They put me on that line and that enabled me to cast my vote a bit quicker than I would have done."

In the Kendeja neighborhood of Monrovia, the 45-year-old Weah, who is running as the vice president on a ticket with technocrat Winston Tubman, arrived in a convoy that included a Hummer. He was wearing a crisp, white African robe. He did not stand in line, but when he entered the polling room inside an elementary school, he waited patiently as the voter inside the voting booth finished casting their ballot.

Weah, one of Africa's soccer sensations who played for AC Milan as well as Chelsea, is widely believed to have lost the election five years ago because of his limited schooling. This time around he is running as the No. 2 alongside Tubman, who like Sirleaf is Harvard-educated.

Both Weah and Tubman have given interviews and speeches arguing that Sirleaf's education and her former posting at the World Bank has done little to help the Liberian people.

Michael Jallah, 19, arrived at a polling station in Monrovia at 4:30 a.m., holding a Barcelona umbrella in wet weather, the reference to the Spanish soccer club acting as a clue to his political affiliation.

"This is the day we have all been waiting for," he said. "I support Winston Tubman and George Weah. We want a real change in this country."

Although Sirleaf's government has built schools, roads and hospitals, even her supporters acknowledge that her greatest achievements are intangible _ peace, security, investor confidence.

"This country has come a long way under Ellen, people may not see, but you have to be blind not to see what's she doing," said Comfort Rogers, 34, as she wiped rain water off her face and waited to vote at a polling station in downtown Monrovia.

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Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal.