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For Liberia's 'Iron Lady,' Toughness Part of Territory

Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with one of her campaign posters in the background, wrapped up a nine-day U.S. visit yesterday.
Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with one of her campaign posters in the background, wrapped up a nine-day U.S. visit yesterday. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

In the early going of the campaign someone started calling her Iron Lady and it stuck.

Nearly two dozen candidates vied in the first round of elections, leaving Sirleaf and Weah in a runoff. Weah had earned respect among the Liberian populace through years of philanthropy to his countrymen. Many thought he might win, given that Weah is just 39 and more than half of Liberia's population of 3.2 million is under the age of 35.

In addition, Sirleaf was once a supporter of former president Charles Taylor -- who has been indicted by a war crimes tribunal and now lives in exile in Nigeria -- and some thought that baggage would hurt her at the polls.

"I haven't spoken to Charles Taylor in seven years or so," Sirleaf says, going on to add that Taylor is no longer welcome in Liberia. "We supported Taylor's movement in the early days when he challenged the military regime" of President Samuel Doe, she says. "Then, when we saw him go off course, we led him into exile."

Human rights groups have cited Taylor not only for starting a civil war that has claimed more than 150,000 lives, but for recruiting soldiers as young as 10 to fight in it. Taylor, who assumed the country's presidency in 1997, has also been accused of stealing millions.

The West African country has deep links to America. Black Americans -- both free and former slaves -- began making pilgrimages to the country in the mid-1800s. Their descendants referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians.

The capital, Monrovia, was named after American president James Monroe, and the country's currency has long resembled America's.

In the 1960s, many black Americans ventured to Liberia, believing it a kind of oasis. But its wars have shocked much of the world, and in recent years there have been scenes of U.S. Marines rescuing citizens from Monrovia.

Many credit Sirleaf's victory to shrewd politicking: Before the runoff, she dispatched buses throughout the country to ferry voters to polling places. Weah's supporters grew complacent, says Riva Levinson, who was accompanying Sirleaf on her rounds and who served as an adviser to Sirleaf when she ran against Taylor in 1997.

"She's a very strong lady," says Elwood Dunn, who served in the administration of Liberian president William Tolbert along with Sirleaf, and who now teaches political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "She's always been focused and politically ambitious since the 1970s."

Dunn does not envy the task ahead of Sirleaf. "She will, without hesitation, walk into a political firestorm," he says. Her background -- including stints with the World Bank and United Nations -- will serve her well, he says. "The attentive part of Africa knows her well."

Liberia has flirted before with bouts of peace, only to have the country plunge into chaos. "There is one big difference this time," Sirleaf says. "These elections represent the first time Liberians voted in an atmosphere of freedom."

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