A rebel leader who videotaped himself drinking Budweiser as his men cut off the ears of the nation's former president has finished third in this week's presidential election, according to partial results issued Thursday, thrusting the notorious ex-warlord into the role of kingmaker.
Incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace laureate who is the continent's only female president, may have finished first with 41.7 percent of the vote, according to the partial tally issued by the electoral commission that represents ballots from around one-sixth of polling stations. But with 24.5 percent voting for her challenger, she needs No. 3 Prince Johnson's endorsement to win the upcoming runoff.
Despite being named one of the main actors in Liberia's horrific civil war, Johnson remains popular in his home county, which elected him senator and he is in third place with 12.5 percent of the vote.
"I will be happy to be the kingmaker," Johnson told The Associated Press on Thursday. "And where we will put our support will depend on what our supporters say. ... We will not put our votes into someone's hands blindly."
The Harvard-educated Sirleaf is viewed abroad as one of Africa's reformers, credited with stabilizing this nation of 3.8 million after a 14-year conflict. Just days before this week's election, she received one of the international community's headiest endorsements when she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize along with two other female activists.
Her Ivy League past, and her international image as a peacemaker could not contrast more sharply with the man whose favor she likely will need to seek to secure a second term.
In 1990, the then-38-year-old Johnson led a rebel faction that invaded Monrovia, captured former President Samuel Doe and tortured him in front of a rolling camera. Johnson is seen kicking back in a chair, his feet up on a table, a bottle of beer in one hand. He taunts the former ruler as his men strip the president to his underwear then cut off his ears, as blood streams down his temple. The president later died, and according to one witness' testimony in front of the nation's truth and reconciliation commission, Johnson later showed off Doe's head on a platter.
Around the same time, Johnson executed a relief worker wearing a Red Cross bib after accusing him of profiteering from rice sales. An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the scene reported the crumpled victim briefly lifted his head and asked "Why, why?" before Johnson finished him off with a burst of AK-47 fire.
After the end of the war, Johnson became a born-again Christian and was ordained a preacher, before being elected senator representing Nimba County. The country banned the sale of the Doe torture videotape, which used to be freely available at streetside stalls, and he has tried hard to bury the past.
"Of course, we're sorry that we had to fight to remove a dictator," Johnson said in an interview last year, a reference to the abuses committed by Doe, whose entourage is blamed for numerous massacres. "When two elephants fight, the grass suffers," he added.
In its final report in 2009, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that Johnson be barred from holding public office for 30 years for his role in the civil war.
Country experts had expected the race to go to a second round and had predicted that Sirleaf would have a tough re-election battle. Although she is credited with getting nearly $5 billion of the country's external debt erased, and luring hundreds of millions of donor dollars to rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure, Liberia remains among the 10 poorest nations in the world with eight out of every 10 adults unable to find work, according to United Nations data.
What has come as a surprise is the fact that that Johnson is now poised to play a pivotal role, a throwback to two decades ago when his rebel army controlled a capital stinking of death.
The No. 2 finisher in the race is the party of soccer sensation George Weah, one of Africa's most celebrated forwards who was named FIFA's World Player of the Year. He is running as the vice president on a ticket with politician Winston Tubman and they received 51,771 votes, or 24.5 percent of the 210,573 votes counted so far. Johnson is the only other opposition candidate to have won a significant share of the vote, and both Weah and Sirleaf are expected to bargain hard for his endorsement.
Emotions were mixed in Monrovia as news of Johnson's third-place finish made its way to the street. Some suggested that Johnson's ruthless past could help bring discipline to a country still riddled by corruption.
"His past record is still playing on the minds of the voters ... Many Liberians are still hurt because of the war and his role," said Austin Natee, the president of a worker's union at a plant harvesting rubber for the Firestone tire company.
"But I trust and respect him when it comes to discipline," he said. "During the war, his area was more controlled than that of (ex-rebel leader) Charles Taylor. He's a disciplinarian. He disciplined and controlled his men. Prince Johnson would have a strong command over the military if he was elected president. (Because) he knows military discipline."
He went on to say that the runoff between Sirleaf's Unity Party and Weah's Congress for Democratic Change is bound to be heated. A total of 15 candidates competed against Sirleaf in this week's ballot, and they will be looking to strike deals with one of the two sides.
"While I think Madam Sirleaf is the right person at this time, unless they work harder, her party's chances of winning are slim," Natee said. "The elections are too competitive."
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal.