Liberia's 'Iron Lady' Goes for Gold

Liberian presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wades through supporters at a campaign rally in the capital, Monrovia. She is a leader in the field of 22.
Liberian presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wades through supporters at a campaign rally in the capital, Monrovia. She is a leader in the field of 22. (Photos By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Lane Hartill
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of the top candidates in Liberia's presidential election this month, was chatting recently with President John Kufuor of Ghana.

"Do you have a problem with a woman president?" she recalled asking him. Kufuor's response, she said, was: "I don't consider you a woman."

Johnson-Sirleaf said she laughed, but in some ways she agreed with him. Nicknamed the "Iron Lady of Liberia," the 66-year-old economist has often held jobs in fields dominated by men, including finance minister of Liberia and vice president of Citicorp. She has also run for office against one autocratic Liberian leader and gone to prison for criticizing another.

If elected in Tuesday's vote, the first since the end of a long civil war, she would become the first female president in Africa, joining a fraternity whose members are often described as "Big Men."

"My whole life has been in hard areas women are not usually in," she said in a recent interview. Male African leaders "associate me with the types of thinking men normally do. . . . I've challenged men. I've challenged Charles Taylor," she added pointedly.

Taylor is the former warlord who invaded his country with a rebel group in 1989, became president and was forced from power in 2003. He now lives in exile in Nigeria. His exit opened the way for a peace accord and left the country in the hands of a transitional government and a large U.N. peacekeeping force.

Johnson-Sirleaf, after backing Taylor in the 1980s, ran against him in the 1997 presidential election and came in second.

Supporters play up her tough side, and a popular campaign pin reads: "Ellen, she's our man."

Detractors have suggested she is too old to lead the country and past her political prime. She is a bespectacled grandmother of six, and rumors have circulated that she walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair.

But during a recent campaign trip through Gbarpolu County, a few hours northeast of the capital, Johnson-Sirleaf's demeanor was anything but geriatric.

In one village, she danced with supporters as they chanted "We love you, old Ma," and donated a bag of rice and about $40 to the crowd (a common gesture of charity that is not seen here as vote-buying). The back of her car was stocked with bags of candy and posters, which she handed out to children at every chance.

"We don't want to see you sitting around the village. We want to see you in school," she told young people. "What's in your head, nobody can take away from you."


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company