President in Waiting Stays Cool in Liberia

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, leading in unofficial vote tallies after a runoff election, greets parishioners after attending church services in Monrovia.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, leading in unofficial vote tallies after a runoff election, greets parishioners after attending church services in Monrovia. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Lane Hartill
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 14, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia, Nov. 13 -- Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the woman who is all but certain to become Liberia's next president and Africa's first elected female head of state, seems unfazed by her sudden fame and unruffled by her opponent's charges of fraud in last Tuesday's runoff election.

Dressed in eggshell-white jeans, the career economist and grandmother, 67, seems content to wait coolly at home for the National Elections Commission to certify the results, while a sister visiting from New York fields a barrage of phone calls.

Meanwhile, Johnson-Sirleaf is looking ahead to a presidency she says will help bring political unity and economic development to Liberia, a country battered by civil conflict for much of the past two decades.

"A national identity, something that everybody feels that brings them together -- we haven't had that," she said during a relaxed interview in her yard Saturday. "We've always been America's stepchild, never a truly African country," she added. "We've got to find the things that bind."

Johnson-Sirleaf said she was "shocked" that her opponent, former soccer star George Weah, had said the election was marred by fraud. With virtually all the ballots counted Saturday, she had 59.6 percent of the vote to Weah's 40.4 percent. Results were expected to be certified early this week.

On Friday, angry crowds of young men supporting Weah marched through the capital, Monrovia, surrounding the U.S. Embassy and chanting that the election had been rigged. The crowds threw stones but were dispersed by U.N. peacekeepers using tear gas and batons.

"The rest of the Liberian people are quiet," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "They've asked me to get on the streets so they can celebrate."

While Weah, 39, appealed to jobless young men and former militia fighters, Johnson-Sirleaf has said her candidacy benefited from the strong support of women, who made up slightly more than half of registered voters.

But Weah has charged that there were grave irregularities in the election and has demanded a revote. He has shown reporters ballots apparently pre-marked for Johnson-Sirleaf and made a formal complaint to the European Commission, which is part of a team that will investigate his claims.

The history of Liberia, which was settled by former American slaves in the early 1800s, has often been marred by disputed elections and subsequent political uprisings, and Johnson-Sirleaf could take office under a similar cloud.

"Weah could be making legitimate claims here," Thomas Jaye, a Liberian research fellow at Britain's Birmingham University, said in an e-mail. "If these claims are true . . . it means that even if Ellen was approved legally as leader, she would remain illegitimate in the eyes of the Liberian people."

Johnson-Sirleaf said the allegations had hurt her personally, but she blamed advisers to Weah, a political novice with a high school education.


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