Source: AFP
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner as a champion for women's rights, whose steely nerves have been tested at the helm of a deeply divided post-war Liberia.

Africa's first elected female president has won a second term in office, and the 73-year-old grandmother's task is not getting any easier as a disputed election showed her country remains polarised.

Sirleaf's rock star status abroad as a symbol of 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.

"Politics... politics," sighed Sirleaf when faced with these accusations in a meeting with international journalists following a one-woman presidential election after her rival Winston Tubman pulled out of the race.

She has calmly deflected the myriad criticisms against her, returning time and again to the need to reconcile and move forward.

After two months of negotiations, Tubman accepted Sirleaf's win on the eve of her inauguration Monday, saying his party would be incorporated into the government.

When Africa's "Iron Lady" first became head of state of Liberia in 2005, she took charge of a nation traumatised by 14 years of brutal civil war with no electricity, running water or infrastructure.

The sprightly grandmother is equally at ease in flowing robes and headdresses while charming financial institutions, and in a comfortable pair of jeans and a cap on the streets of Liberia.

However, turning around Africa's oldest independent state, where institutions 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 dictator Samuel 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 also admits implementing a report on the country's past has taken time, but says her new mandate would begin with a palava hut, allowing people to come together to talk, make confessions, and seek forgiveness.

"I myself will be one of the first ones to go to the palava hut because I have been named in the report."

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 "broken country."

Half of the roads around Monrovia have been rebuilt and the capital now has running water. Electricity, once non-existent here, 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.

But unemployment is still high and extreme poverty pervasive.

Sirleaf said those investments will soon start creating jobs and in the next year her government will focus on vocational and technical training as most young people do not have sufficient skills to be employed.

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.


Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf poses with her medal and diploma during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo last month (AFP, Cornelius Poppe)

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