October 5, 2005


Liberia's 'Iron Lady' Goes for Gold: Election Would Mark a First for Africa (Lane Hartill, October 5, 2005, The Washington Post)

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." [...]

On many mud walls, there were campaign posters of both Johnson-Sirleaf and her main rival in the field of 22 candidates, retired soccer star George Weah, 39. She acknowledged the two were in a "dead heat," but said she thought her chances were bolstered by the fact that more than half the country's 1.3 million registered voters are women.

"Weah is popular with children. People come out to see him, but are they all voters?" said William Mawolo, 42, the mayor of a town called Bopolu. "Ellen has been with the people a very long time."

There are other differences, too. Weah never finished high school; Johnson-Sirleaf holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard.

Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign pledges to stop corruption and promote development hold appeal for people in Liberia, which emerged in 2003 from 14 years of civil war that left an estimated 200,000 dead and the infrastructure destroyed.

She also has promised to bring electricity to the capital within six months and to launch an ambitious education program that includes rebuilding schools, opening vocational training centers and promoting sports.

Although Johnson-Sirleaf's election would make her the first female head of government in Africa, she is one of a long list of Liberian women who have made their mark on domestic or international politics.

In 1969, Angie Brooks became the first African woman named president of the U.N. General Assembly. In 1996-97, Ruth Sando Perry was Liberia's head of state as leader of the National Transitional Government.

Some observers say Liberian women have always been outspoken and progressive because of their roots in a society founded by freed slaves from the United States.

According to the Rev. Katurah York Cooper, 50, a pastor at the African Methodist Episcopal church here, the founders came with "an empowering idea" that has "affected our people as a whole." Moreover, she said, the civil war put women in charge of households and communities because so many men were away fighting and dying.

Is Liberia enough a part of the Anglosphere to buck the trend of voters rejecting reformists outside of it?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2005 11:52 AM

So I take it you're not endorsing the soccer player, oj?

Posted by: b at October 5, 2005 12:43 PM

Even in the Anglosphere, if she can "bring electricity to the capital" I have to think that would carry her. She also seems to be bringing hope, something our own RR used successfully to cover the presumably bitter taste of reform.

Posted by: paul at October 5, 2005 12:48 PM

Nah, he throws like a girl.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2005 12:49 PM

that was funny.

Posted by: paul at October 5, 2005 12:49 PM