Source: The New Age
Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner hailed as a champion for women's rights, as well as a shrewd politician who has allied with an ex-warlord to boost her re-election bid.
Sirleaf's rock star status abroad as a symbol of successful post-war reconstruction has not saved her from messy politics at home, where she has faced criticism over failed reconciliation efforts and what some see as a shady past.

Her shared Nobel Peace Prize win just days before a first round of voting was criticised as an unfair boost, but Sirleaf managed to stave off doubts about her popularity at home by coming first with 44 percent in October 11 polls.

Now she faces a run-off against rival Winston Tubman, and has won support from smaller parties including ex-warlord Prince Johnson, who captured, and infamously filmed the torture of, former president Samuel Doe.

But with Johnson holding nearly 12 percent of votes from the first round, Africa's "Iron Lady" has shown she will not shy away from "negotiating with the devil for the good of the country", as one analyst puts it.

When Sirleaf became Africa's first elected female president in 2005, she landed at the helm of a nation traumatised by 14 years of brutal civil war with no electricity, running water or infrastructure.

The sprightly grandmother, who just turned 73, is equally at ease in flowing robes and headdresses, charming financial institutions, or in a comfortable pair of jeans and a cap, queuing to vote under the blistering sun in her home village.

Sirleaf declared corruption a public enemy and set about her goal of institutional reform with the steely determination which saw her thrown into jail twice by military dictator Doe in the 1980s.

However turning around Africa's oldest independent state, which had become rotten to the core, was never going to be easy.

Attitudes cooled to Sirleaf at home when a 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission named her on a list of people who should not hold public office for 30 years for backing warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor.

Sirleaf has admitted to initially backing Taylor's insurgency against Doe's government in 1989 which led to the country's first civil war, but became a fierce opponent as the true extent of his war crimes became apparent.

She has not implemented the report's recommendations, and Johnson a former lieutenant of Taylor who is also on the list says this is one of the reasons he is supporting her and not Tubman, who wants to set up a war crimes tribunal.

Sirleaf initially promised to serve only one term but then changed her mind, saying she needed more time to continue her work in rebuilding the nation. "You cannot rebuild a broken country in six years," Sirleaf told AFP.

"This country was totally destroyed. Dysfunctional institutions, destroyed infrastructure, no laws. So it took us time to rebuild and we have made a lot of progress ... we still have a few things to do and that is why we want to make sure we are re-elected."

Half of the roads around Monrovia have been rebuilt and the capital now has running water. Once non-existent, electricity is available in some parts of the city but the supply is still haphazard.

Sirleaf has attracted investment of more than $16 billion (11 million euros) in the mining, agriculture and forestry sectors, and offshore oil exploration, and has won more than four billion dollars in debt relief, her official biography states.

She also increased the national budget from $80 million in 2006 to more than $350 million in 2010. But unemployment is still at about 80 percent and extreme poverty pervasive.

A Harvard-trained economist, Sirleaf served as finance minister under presidents William Tolbert then William Tubman, before spending decades shuttling in and out of exile. She has also worked for the World Bank.

Sirleaf was married at age 17, and later divorced after the relationship turned abusive. She has four sons and 11 grandchildren.  -AFP


Liberia's Sirleaf, women rights icon and shrewd politician
Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Picture: Reuters
Go to top