Red-Letter Day!

The Analyst (Monrovia)
November 23, 2005
Posted to the web November 23, 2005

Liberia, Africa's oldest independent republic, is today making history as it did a number of times in the past. From its daredevil declaration of independence on July 26, 1847 in spite of imperialists growling to fielding the first female president for the UN General Assembly, to overwhelmingly electing a warlord in 1997, Liberia has been the nerve center of African innovation. Today, Liberia is marking another red-day with the affirmation of the overwhelming election of a woman head of state - the first even in Africa.

The world is excited about this coup, which is only marched by the German Bundestag's inauguration of its first female chancellor, and many across the Continent are looking up to the adaptation of the Liberian coup. But this process, though unanimously declared free, fair, and transparent by more than 4,000 election observers representing hundreds of credible local and international institutions and governments, is not without its share of protests akin to elections in Africa. NEC has got no prohibition from the courts of law and is therefore pressing ahead despite the protest. But the question is, "Will this affirmation stand out as the dawn of a new era in Liberia following more than a decade of bitterness?" The Analyst's Staff Writer puts what is expected to go down in history as the "Red-Letter Day" into perspective.

Just as the German Bundestag was swearing in the first female ever elected chancellor, Angela Merkel, 51, yesterday, Liberians were gearing up for the affirmation today, of Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 66.

Though a political coincidence of the rarest breed, the two incidents represent the dawn of a new era for women in politics and for governance across the globe, political commentators said.

Angela Merkel, a conservative member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and former communist, took over from Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in a coalition that comprises CDU, SPD, and CSU or Christian Social Union.

"Dear Mrs. Merkel, you are the first democratically elected female head of government in Germany," parliament president Norbert Lammert said. "That is a strong signal for women and certainly for some men, too. I wish you strength, God's blessing and also some enjoyment in your high office." Perhaps these words from the president of the German parliament will resound throughout Liberia and beyond the borders, sweeping the continent and whooshing across the oceans to the Americas, Asia, and the Caribbeans, according to one observer.

"[I] dedicate my strength to the welfare of the German people," Ms Merkel said as she took the oath of office for the next four years.

Schroeder, the former chancellor whom she defeated in the parliamentary vote of 397-202, with 12 abstentions, was the first to walk over and congratulate the smiling Merkel after the vote was announced.

The Germans may not be walking towards democracy with some 15,000 UN peacekeepers separating them from deep distrust and war, but they have as much stronger a reason to opt for a traditional male chancellor as most Liberians felt from the onset of the electoral process. But they too realized that politics know no gender where tougher decisions for national good are required.

"For that we require a strong chancellor," Peter Struck, defense minister under Schroeder, told The Associated Press. "The foundation stone will be set with the election of Ms. Merkel." Merkel has vowed to resuscitate the economy -- once Europe's motor but now one of the most sluggish in the 25-nation European Union -- and cut unemployment that hit post-war highs under Schroeder.

Merkel also wants to repair relations with the United States, strained by Schroeder's vocal opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Back in Africa, another female several oceans away seems to have similar burdens when she takes office in January next year.

Like Merkel, Madam Sirleaf will have to lay the foundation stone for a new Liberia, beginning with the resuscitation of the Liberian economy which has been assailed by years of war, corruption, neglect, and mismanagement.

Mrs. Sirleaf has even tougher job: she will have to erase the deep-seated suspicion of governance in this country before moving on to patch the economy, win international confidence, and reconcile the people who are divided along several lines including economic, security, and tribal.

Unlike Ms. Merkel, Mrs. Sirleaf will not only repair relations with the United Sates strained successively by William R. Tolbert, Jr., Samuel K. Doe, and Charles Taylor, but she will have the colossal task of mending fences with neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire.

"I am humbled by the awesome challenge but I think it represents a victory for women. A woman is finally breaking the barriers and entering this club, this male bastion. I think that Liberian women and African women will all be better off," she says.

And outside Africa she will be convincing the donor community that Liberia is now a country to do business with while seeking to convince the United Nations that the sanction regimes imposed on Liberia during the Taylor era no longer hold water.

Ms. Merkel's clinical, almost shy approach has been mocked in the German media, but some commentators, Reuters says, believe it is tailor-made for a coalition that bridges right and left and requires delicate handling.

"Her dislike of the theatrical in politics, of the show and big words, fits with the new sobriety of Germany's younger generation," the German daily newspaper Handelsblatt said in an editorial on Tuesday.

The UP's irony lady has similar approach to similar call for delicacy in the runoff. When it became clear that her campaign team was running too aloft of the electorates, she boarded a rented helicopter, enabling her to land in remote villages of rural Liberia and provincial cities to meet the old and the young that make up 65% of Liberia's electorates.

"My people, I come to meet y'all, to tell y'all that we all are the same people. No konkor, no contry.

Myself, I contry woman," the Ivy League scholar told villagers in local patois in District #4 in Grand Bassa County during one of her campaign trails.

Madam Sirleaf's tough stands against corruption, impunity, and criminalization of governance were rendered lukewarm in the runoff, perhaps to endear herself to former officials of Taylor's failed regimes, former warlords, and ex-combatants who had thought all along that she was out for their heads.

"I want to make sure that nobody will ever again feel so affected that they will have to resort to violence," Madam Sirleaf told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks in an interview recently.

Where she stands on the extradition of Charles Taylor who is indicted on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges in an UN-backed special court in Freetown is not clear, but media reports suggest she would not have outright response prior to holding close consultations with West African leaders and key members of the international community on the matter.

Some say the idea of a national referendum may be toyed with, but even that is being rejected in many circles including amongst legislators-elect in the just-ended presidential and legislative elections.

Whatever the magnitude of the burden that faces Madam Sirleaf, the fact remains that she is out to make history today, which will forever change the political chemistry of Liberia and perhaps all of Africa.

When ECOWAS and AU heads of state and government sit in their grandeur to decide the fate of Africa, Africa's oldest independent republic, Liberia, will be represented a female.

Polls in Germany show that many Germans are unconvinced Ms. Merkel's leadership will last a full four-year term because of the tough coalition deal she had to strike with the SPD.

Mrs. Sirleaf has six years after which she pledged to step down for "the young people to take over".

Whether she too will run the full course of that term remains a question beyond doubt given the status of the woman as the "Iron Lady" of the Unity Party.

But one thing that is clear though, according to analysts, is a new political era has dawned and those protesting its advent may have to back down in grace while there is still time.


Liberia: Weah Facing Heat to Concede Defeat

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
November 22, 2005
Posted to the web November 22, 2005

Pressure is mounting on George Weah, the former international football star and runner-up in this month's presidential race in Liberia, to think of his country and concede defeat.

"For the sake of peace and moving Liberia forward, it is about time that Ambassador Weah accepts the election results and congratulates the winner," said Sekou Damate Conneh, a presidential candidate in the first round of the elections, who subsequently threw his lot in with Weah for the runoff vote.

"This country has to move on," the rebel leader turned politician told reporters on Tuesday.

Last week, unofficial results of the second round poll indicated that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would become Africa's first female elected head of state after earning close to 60 percent of the votes.

Despite the international community's assessment that the elections were free and fair, Weah cried fraud, claiming that some poll workers had stuffed the ballot boxes.

Weah, a former UN Ambassador also nicknamed 'King George', filed a complaint with the elections commission and his supporters staged three days of protests in the streets of the capital Monrovia.

The commission has begun looking into the case but still intends to declare the official election results on Wednesday as planned.

Meanwhile, there are calls for the former world footballer of the year to show the kind of sportsmanship he displayed as a striker for Chelsea and AC Milan.

"Weah is a professional footballer and on the field, once you are defeated, you should be able to accept defeat and I appeal to Weah to concede to the victor," Lewis Zeigler, the head of the country's Roman Catholic bishops, said on local radio on Monday.

Even some of Weah's supporters have joined the chorus, asking their man to give in for the sake of peace in a country devastated by 14 years of fighting that only ended in 2003.

"We know that the results will not be overturned just because we filed a lawsuit," said Daniel Cole who makes a living selling earrings and was still wearing his 'Weah for President' t-shirt. "It will be an honourable decision for our first partisan, Ambassador George Manneh Weah, to abandon the fraud case and accept the results for the good of Liberia."

But for the time being, Weah's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party is not backing down.

"As far as the CDC is concerned, we have not been defeated and we maintain that the election was fraudulent and we will not accept any results by the National Elections Commission," the party's secretary general, Eugene Nagbe, told IRIN on Tuesday.

Nagbe, who is currently a minister in the power-sharing transitional government that is expected to hand over power mid January, said his party would explore all their legal options in order to have their complaints addressed.

Weah has called on his supporters to avoid violence but security was tight in Monrovia on the eve of the official results announcement and both Liberian and UN security officials held meetings on Tuesday to plan for every eventuality.

Alan Doss, the head of the UN Mission in Liberia has said repeatedly that international peacekeepers are prepared to deal "robustly" with any post-election violence.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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