Global Politics

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — 'Ma Ellen' — and her Liberian Presidential Re-election Bid

By Bonnie Allen

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The West African nation of Liberia will go to the polls on October 11th. That's still a big deal in a country recently emerged from a brutal civil war that destroyed the economy and the country's infrastructure.

Liberia made history in 2005 by electing Africa's first female president, largely due to the overwhelming support of women voters. Now, that president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is trying to woo the women's vote in her bid for re-election.

As the 72-year-old Sirleaf criss-crosses Liberia on the campaign trail, marching bands and traditional drum groups welcome her, and large crowds wait for hours on the side of the road just to catch a glimpse of her.

She's known here as "Ma Ellen"; her most loyal supporters are usually women. One supporter in the capital told me, "I'm voting for Ma Ellen because I want her to finish what she has started. She's developed our country, built roads, clinics."

When Sirleaf was elected in 2005, more than half of her support came from women. She's counting on that again.

"The women have always played a big role," Sirleaf said. "They played it in the 2005 election, and it's going to be one of the essential elements of my victory, if I have victory. I have worked for them. I expect them to vote for me in appreciation."

Sirleaf is a Harvard-educated economist, who's won international acclaim for her work in Liberia, a country devastated by 14 years of civil war. She's negotiated nearly $5 billion dollars in debt relief, and another $13 billion in committed foreign investment.

She's also dramatically increased government revenues. Sirleaf said when her government took power, the annual budget for the country was a "paltry" $80 million. "It's still small, but at least, today it's $516 million, so that's a huge increase, and the economy is just opening."

Sirleaf is working on fixing roads, rebuilding schools and restoring health services. But not all of those who supported her appreciate what Sirleaf has done in her six years as Liberia's president.

At a small cookshop in Monrovia, Saybah Jallah, a mother of five, stirs a pot of bubbling soup. Jallah voted for Sirleaf in 2005, "because she was a woman. I voted for her so our life can be improved."

But Jallah said she won't vote for Sirleaf again.

"My husband, he's not working. My children are not going to school. I struggle."

Another past supporter, Mamie Folay complains that the price of rice is too high — about $50 a bag. That's enough for her to switch her allegiance.

Sirleaf has also been criticized for not being tough enough on corruption, after declaring it a "major public enemy" at her inauguration ceremony.

In a sit-down interview, Sirleaf said she inherited a government system that had "lost all of its morality." She conceded that she should have been faster to crackdown on those who "abuse the public trust." Still, Sirleaf said people need to understand that it takes time to turn things around in a country like Liberia.

"They figured there would just be a quick fix, a magic wand, and everyone would have a job, everyone would be wealthy," Sirleaf said. "It took us awhile to mobilize the resources, it took us awhile to fix the infrastructure, it took us awhile to get our institutions functional. Now we've done it. The hard work is over. We just have to tell them, be patient."

If re-elected, Sirleaf has vowed to create 20,000 new jobs every year, open technical and vocational training colleges across the country, pave more roads, and restore Liberia's hydroelectric dam.

Sirleaf faces tough competition in the October 11 election. Her main opponent is the Congress for Democratic Change presidential candidate, Winston Tubman, who is also Harvard-educated, a lawyer, and a former United Nations official. His running mate is soccer star George Weah, who beat Sirleaf in the first round of voting for president in 2005. Weah's rags-to-riches story and native ancestry resonates with poor Liberians, who historically reject the more elite, Americo-Liberian descendents.

The Tubman-Weah tickets have been endorsed by an influential Senator Jewel Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor – Liberia's former president who's currently being prosecuted for war crimes in the Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. In 2005, Jewel Taylor threw her support behind Sirleaf, but not this time.

"Somehow the gains made by Liberia, major corporations coming into Liberia, they're not transmitted into tangible benefits for Liberians, especially for the provision of jobs," Taylor said.

Still, Sirleaf remains a formidable campaigner, one who delivers fiery speeches. As she commands the microphone in a packed church, she reminds women here that she's kept the peace, in a country that can't afford another war.

That may be her most powerful argument.

Sirleaf needs more than 50 percent of the vote on Oct. 11th to win outright. Anything less would require a run-off between the top two contenders. With 16 presidential candidates, and a history of regional and tribal loyalties dividing the vote in Liberia, it's uncertain whether any candidate can win in the first round.

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    Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (Photo: Bonnie Allen)

  • Mamie-Folay.jpg

    Mamie Folay isn't voting for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf this election because of the high price of rice. (Photo: Bonnie Allen)

  • Saybah-Jallah.jpg

    Saybah Jallah switching her vote away from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf due to poverty and unemployment. (Photo: Bonnie Allen)