Johnson-Sirleaf declared Liberian president
David Fickling and agencies
Wednesday November 23 2005
The Guardian

Former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was formally declared the winner of Liberia's presidential election today, making her Africa's first democratically elected female head of state and her country's first elected leader after 14-years' brutal civil war.

The 67-year-old grandmother, who worked as a waitress to fund her way through Harvard University and was imprisoned for her opposition activities in the 1980s, won nearly 60% of votes a fortnight ago in a runoff poll against former AC Milan and Chelsea footballer George Weah.

Liberia's elections commission confirmed her victory after two weeks of uncertainty in which Weah supporters claimed voting irregularities. Foreign observers said the election was free and fair, although the electoral commission is still investigating some complaints lodged by the Weah camp.

"I feel very fine. I am happy about my election and I thank the Liberian people for their support," she told reporters after the official announcment.

"Go to school, go to school, don't play football!" her supporters chanted, mocking Mr Weah's sporting background.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf is a respected technocrat, but she has an uphill battle ahead to bring stability and basic levels of services to a country devastated by decades of underdevelopment, tyranny and civil conflict.

Monrovia lacks mains electricity and water, and the road network linking the country's three million people is unusable over vast areas, while the threat of tribal or factional violence remains close to the surface.

"Ellen has a heavy load and needs to work hard. She has to meet the needs of her nearly three million children [Liberia's people]. Her children are hungry and anxiously awaiting for her to bring food," market seller Dorothy Kolubah told Reuters.

Alan Doss, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia, described the election win as "a historic moment not only for Liberia, but for the continent as a whole".

"The road ahead will not be an easy one but she begins her journey with the support of the Liberian people and the goodwill of the international community," he said.

More than half of Liberia's registered voters are women, and analysts said Ms Johnson-Sirleaf's gender may have played a key role in attracting support from people tired of the confrontational and headstrong style of the men who have ruled Liberia since its founding in 1847.

At campaign rallies in Monrovia before the election, thousands of supporters sang: "We tried all the men. No Way! Now's the woman's time!"

The country was established as a haven for freed US slaves and became Africa's first independent republic. But quickly it became into an oligarchic colony in which the US-Liberian descendants of slaves became the overlords of the indigenous population.

Liberia's first indigenous president, Samuel Doe, came to power in a coup in 1980 and ruled the country with an iron first until 1989, when the country descended into a civil war that killed 250,000 after brutal warlord Charles Taylor invaded from neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Ms Johnson-Sirleaf's supporters at first feared that her extensive political experience would prove more of a hindrance than an advantage, after Mr Weah chose to run on a "clean hands" platform.

Partly descended from the still resented US-Liberians, she served in the last US-Liberian government in the 1970s and made a brief alliance with Taylor in the late 1980s before he revealed his true colours as a leader.

She has promised a radical plan to reform land laws, rebuild all levels of government, and devolve power to regional parts of Liberia that are already largely autonomous as a result of the country's poor infrastructure.

She will also need to deal with international embargoes on the trade in timber and diamonds. The restrictions, imposed during the civil war, lock up the country's most viable earners of foreign exchange.

But she has promised to use the experience gained from her work with international agencies to bring in financial aid.

"Our own resources will be inadequate for the enormous task at hand," she told Reuters in a recent interview. "We will be working with all those many private companies and investors that I met during the course of my professional life."

"We are not going to be able to do everything right away. Even if we had the financial resources, our capacity would be limited.

"My own personal passion is that I am going to do something for market women, who I met travelling around the country on my campaign," she said.

"My being at the top seat is the first big hope for them, because now there is a women who understands their issues."

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