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Liberia: a lesson for Africa's big men.

After 158 years of independence, Liberia is about to have a woman president, the first in all of Africa. At the time of going to press, the National Elections Commission was investigating allegations of electoral fraud filed by George Weah's party, but in the end Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who won the presidential run-off by a good mile, is likely to be officially endorsed as the new president. Stuart Price and Jarlawah Tonpo report.

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It is a first for Africa. After decades of male domination of politics on the continent. Africans are about to have their first democratically elected female president. With all the votes counted, following the presidential run-off in early November, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had won 59%, while her contender, George Weah, the former Fifa world footballer of the year, garnered a respectable 41%.

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However, the run-off, which had been declared free and fair by the regional grouping Ecowas, the African Union and international observers, was tarnished by allegations of fraud from the Weah camp.

At the time of going to press, Weah's party--the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC)--had filed a formal complaint of vote rigging. As a result, the National Elections Commission had said that until the claims had been fully investigated, the official endorsement of Johnson-Sirleaf as the new president would be delayed.

Weah's supporters, many of whom are young former combatants who fought in the country's 14-year civil war, were urged to remain calm while the allegations were examined. Despite losing the presidential vote, Weah's CDC won more parliamentary seats (15) than any of the other parties that contested. To support his claim of vote rigging, Weah showed ballot papers to journalists in Monrovia which, he said, had been pre-marked for Johnson-Sirleaf and given to election officials to cast. "The world is saying this election is free and fair, which is not true," Weah said, dejectedly. That his iconic status was a draw for many people is without question. But consistent reservations expressed by his opponents on his lack of political experience appear to have struck a chord with voters.

Johnson-Sirleaf's credentials on the other hand, appear to have given her the nod. A former World Bank economist and employee of the US-owned Citibank (she lost the presidential vote in 1997 to former President Charles Taylor), she has held a string of international and local positions, including finance minister under President Samuel Doe, and Africa director at the UNDP.

With such a resume, many Liberians have asked "who better to rebuild the country's shattered economy?" Johnson-Sirleaf answers herself: "We know expectations are going to be high. The Liberian people have voted for their confidence in my ability to deliver very quickly. We know we have to go to work right away."

Her victory, she said, would "raise the participation of women in politics, not just in Liberia but also in Africa." A large section of the population blames Liberia's men for wrecking the country. "People are looking to a woman now to put things in order," said a waitress in the capital, Monrovia. But that is not wholly true as Johnson-Sirleaf's own history shows that she has been actively involved with the political activities of the men, including Charles Taylor, who are now being blamed for destroying the country.

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In the parliamentary poll, Weah's CDC won 15 of the 64 seats in the lower house (House of Representatives), while Johnson-Sirleaf's Unity Party won 8 seats.

The Liberty Party came second with 9 seats, the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL) 8 seats, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy 5 seats, Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Party 4 seats, the New Deal Movement 3 seats, the All Liberia Coalition Party 2 seats, while the National Reformation Party, the United Democratic Alliance and the National Democratic Party won one seat each. The remaining 7 seats were shared by independent candidates. In all, 8 women were elected to the lower house. All elected members, including Johnson-Sirleaf, will serve for 6 years.

In the upper house (the Senate), COTOL won the most seats--7 of the 30 seats on offer. Johnson-Sirleaf's UP won 4 seats, Weah's CDC 3, Taylor's NPP 3, Liberal Party 3, APD 3, NDPL 2, ALCOP 1, NRP 1, and independent candidates 3.

The former first lady, Mrs Jewell Howard-Taylor (wife of Charles Taylor), was elected as a "senior senator". Under the transitional arrangements for elections to the Senate, the first two candidates in each constituency with the most votes cast, become elected. The one with the highest votes becomes a "senior senator" who serves for nine years, and the other a "junior senator" with a 6-year mandate.

Despite the complaints from the Weah camp, Johnson-Sirleaf is likely to be declared winner in the end. She has already promised to bring "motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency" as a way of healing the country's wounds. "This is the last mile of a long road. I have been exiled, jailed and tortured on the way," she said. "I think I have paid the price, I think I have earned it."

Yet the task at hand is nothing short of enormous. Monrovia is still without running water or electricity supply. Johnson-Sirleaf has vowed to bring electricity to Monrovia within 6 months, in addition to a well or a hand-pump in every village nationwide over the next two years. Elsewhere, the condition of the country's road network remains a serious hindrance to economic development and the smooth running of the country. It is estimated that roughly 88% of rural areas are inaccessible by motorised vehicle. Around 400,000 Liberians remain in exile as refugees and are in need of repatriation, while many of the disarmed former combatants are still awaiting reintegration into society.

Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged to work towards reconciliation by bringing her former opponents-if they choose to do so--into a government of national unity. "We are going to reach out and assure them the country is also theirs," she says. Whether this will include what, after all, must be a bitterly disappointed George Weah (after the swollen crowds he attracted during the campaign), remains to be seen. Throughout her campaign, Johnson-Sirleaf said if she won, it would raise the feminine profile and encourage women across Africa to seek higher political office. Her victory should now do precisely that.

Gender representation across the continent is heavily stacked in favour of men, and although the causes of Africa's problems are many, the track record of the "Big Men" has been questionable to say the least. At the beginning of a new century, perhaps the time of the African woman has finally come.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Price, Stuart; Tonpo, Jarlawah
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6LIBE
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:1105
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