Troubled vote may tie Liberian president's hands

AP News
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Posted: Nov 15, 2011 12:39 PM
Troubled vote may tie Liberian president's hands

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appeared at her final campaign rally last week with the man named No. 1 on the government's list of "most notorious perpetrators" of violence during the country's civil war.

Ex-warlord Prince Johnson and Sirleaf, who a month earlier had won the Nobel Peace Prize, stepped out of the campaign bus together and remained side by side until they waved goodbye to the crowd. Two days later, Sirleaf won re-election in the presidential runoff. Some are now wondering, at what price?

The 73-year-old Sirleaf helped stabilize Liberia after a vicious civil war but faces questions about whether she will make concessions to the very people that dragged the country into war.

Among them is Johnson, who gained notoriety for being videotaped as his men tortured Liberia's deposed ruler Samuel K. Doe in 1990. The image of Johnson drinking Budweiser as his men cut off the ex-president's ears is emblematic of the hell from which Liberia is still attempting to emerge. Currently a senator, Johnson was one of Sirleaf's rivals in the October election and endorsed her before the Nov. 8 runoff between Sirleaf and former United Nations diplomat Winston Tubman.

Sirleaf has pledged to reach out to her opponents, including all 15 opposition parties that ran against her in the first round of the vote last month.

That sounds good over the airwaves, but it could cause Sirleaf to make deals with those directly responsible for the nation's ills. Local newspapers reported that in return for his support for Sirleaf in the second round vote, the ex-warlord asked for 30 percent of the positions in her government, financial packages for his home county and immunity from prosecution for alleged war crimes. Though she's denied making any concessions to him, Johnson told reporters last month that he "would not put his support into someone's hands blindly."

Political scientist Robert Blair, a researcher at Yale University and the author of several studies on Liberia, noted that Sirleaf often refers to reconciliation.

"That's a big word in Liberia," Blair said. "There's a risk now that reconciliation will just turn out to mean backroom deals."

Sirleaf's spokesman says she has made no deals with Johnson, who has tried to bury his past as a warlord and draws strong support in his native Nimba County.

"No, she did not make any concessions to Prince Johnson. It was Prince Johnson who declared his support, and she did not seek out his support," presidential spokesman Cyrus Badio told The Associated Press by telephone last week. "If Prince Johnson came to the president and said, 'The people of Nimba County asked me to support you,' should the president say no?"

However, the image of the Nobel Peace laureate and ex-warlord waving in unison as supporters rushed to greet them communicated a different message. They arrived on the same bus, then toured a dirt field together. She was wearing the traditional green color of the ruling Unity Party. He was waving a mini-Unity Party flag.

"It's clear they are trying to send a signal, a not-too-subtle one in fact," that they are now a team, said Africa expert Peter Pham, the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and author of a book on Liberia's civil war. Sirleaf stands to benefit from Johnson's support because his base includes many ex-combatants and unemployed youth, whereas Sirleaf is popular among women and the country's educated elite, said Pham. "I find it hard to believe that Prince Johnson would do anything without a Prince Johnson angle."

In 2009, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed Johnson at the top of its list of people most responsible for the atrocities including "killing, extortion, massacre, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, rape."

Liberia has come a long way since the end of the 14-year war, a conflict that killed up to a quarter-of-a-million people in a country only slightly larger than Tennessee. When the fighting finally stopped in 2003, 80 percent of the country's schools were in ruins and nearly all the roads were impassable, according to a report by the ministry of planning and economic affairs.

In the five years since Sirleaf took office, the country has added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads. Children under the age of 5 are dying at half the rate they were before, and people are earning almost double what they made when she was first elected, according to figures cited in the report.

Still, the country remains one of the world's poorest. Even after doubling their income, Liberians make on average only $260 a year, according to the report.

The administration's gains are not always evident to voters, said Eric Werker, a development economist at the Harvard Business School who specializes in Liberia. He said that jobs in the informal sector went from around 470,000 to 670,000, an increase of nearly 50 percent since Sirleaf came into office.

But the increase amounted to just around 10 percent of the total number of 2 million eligible voters, Werker added, so the impact was not so widely felt.

The Nov. 8 runoff election was marred by opposition leader Tubman's withdrawal, which forced Sirleaf to run unopposed. Tubman had claimed fraud even though international observers said the process was transparent.

Sirleaf led the first round with 44 percent, followed by Tubman with 33 percent and Johnson with 11 percent. Once Johnson endorsed her, it became clear Sirleaf would win the runoff against Tubman.

Several analysts agreed that in order for Liberia to make the next leap forward, Sirleaf must address the country's endemic corruption, an issue that took a back seat during her first term to the immediate challenges of disarming combatants and rebuilding infrastructure.

The question is whether she will be able to tackle reforms at the same time that she is promising a place for each of the 15 opposition candidates that challenged her in the October election.

"It could very well be that the more deals Ellen has to strike now, to keep things calm, the tougher it will be to make those choices later," said Blair.

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Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal.