Liberia voted in a heated runoff election Tuesday for its first postwar president in a vote that pitted a former soccer star who dropped out of high school against the country's top female politician who was educated at Harvard. Returns were predicted to begin coming in by the end of the week.
With U.N. helicopters buzzing over the bombed-out capital, many expressed hope that the vote would herald an era of peace after decades of conflict that displaced a third of the West African nation's 3.5 million citizens and left up to 200,000 dead.
"We've been killing each other too much. There's gonna be a change in Liberia this time around," Saviour Dixon, a 27-year-old college student, said after voting at a bullet-spattered warehouse.
In a first round of balloting on Oct. 11, George Weah, 39, the former soccer star, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, a former finance minister, won 28 and 20 percent of the votes, respectively. That round weeded out 20 other candidates, including warlords and rebel leaders.
Weah's ascent from Monrovia's slums to international soccer stardom has had great appeal in a poor country short on heroes. Johnson-Sirleaf boasts a master's degree in public administration from Harvard. If successful, she would become Africa's first elected female president.
Alan Doss, the top U.N. envoy to Liberia, declared the vote "peaceful and transparent," though U.N. troops arrested five people for minor incidents.
"Today's runoff election offered the people of Liberia an opportunity to leave behind the conflict that has devastated this country for so long," Doss said.
Weah, escorted by U.N. troops and bodyguards, cast his ballot at a seaside cultural center and was mobbed by reporters. He said his first priority if elected would be to bring unity and cooperation to the war-ravaged country.
Johnson-Sirleaf, voting in a former rebel stronghold outside the capital, said, "All Liberians should go out and vote their conscience. . . . I'm very confident that the Liberian people will vote for me."
Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Africa's first republic was once among the continent's most prosperous. A brutal coup in 1980 initiated years of strife that ended in 2003. Liberia today is a shambles with an unemployment rate of 80 percent.