Saturday November 11, 2005
By Wilfred Leeroy Kabs-Kanu , Editor of COCORIOKO
Africa , a continent plagued with male chauvinism , got her first woman President ever yesterday when Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was declared winner of the runoff by the National Elections Commission ( NEC ) . Sirleaf, who was trained at the prestigious Harvard University as a Public Administrator , was in the throes of jubilation when she also called the BBC to declare that she had won.
Mrs. Sirleaf , who served as Minister of Finance in the overthrown government of the late President William R. Tolbert jnr , has promised to form a government of national unity , which will include her opponent, George Oppong Weah, the ace football maestro who won the first round of voting but failed to get the 51% margin required to be President.
It was a long road to victory for an indomitable woman who endured the desperate and vindictive harassment and persecution of a magalomanic dictator during the Samuel Doe rule .Doe , a military fascist leader who took over through a bloody coup in 1980, hated the guts of Mrs Sirleaf. She was hounded , harassed, falsely accused and detained her twice and also charged her with Treason . Following her release from prison when she was granted amnesty by the same dictator, Mrs .Sirleaf fled Liberia in fear of her life through a private plane that took her to neighbouring Ivory Coast from where she found her way to the U.S. .
Mrs .Sirleaf ‘s next round of troubles was with Liberia’s next dictator, former rebel leader Charles Taylor whom she initially supported when he launched his insurrection to overthrow Doe, but fell apart with him when innocent Liberians started dying in their thousands .Mrs .Sirleaf’s opponents had often sought to villify her for her support of Charles Taylor , but to Ellen’s credit, she did not support Taylor against the Liberian people. She was so determined to see Doe off by any means that she worked along with Taylor who had initially won the support of Liberians as a real redeemer . She withdrew her support from Taylor when the invasion degenerated into tribal killings and when Taylor took office as President, the two became eternal enemies. But Sirleaf also surmounted everything Taylor threw at her.
Weah tried to stave chaos by appealing to his angry supporters : “I can see in your eyes, I can see in your faces that you are crying but there is no need to cry because we have not lost the election …..But the streets of Monrovia do not belong to violent people. Do not, in the name of peace, go on the streets. Please, please, stay in your vicinities. Leave the streets of Monrovia; people are frightened. They want no more war. You can trust me. I will be here with you.”. But it is hard to say whether these appeals will melt the anger away permanently.
However , Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf will face tough challenges once her victory is certified and she enters the Executive Mansion , the seat of power in Liberia. Firstly, she will have to cool down passions not only from the 14-year war that killed 200,000 Liberians and destroyed the country’s infrastructure , but the latest from supporters of her opponent Weah , who staged demonstrations in the capital yesterday , protesting that the elections were rigged. Weah had taken the case to the Supreme Court prohibiting the NEC from continuing counting the votes because of alleged fraud.
Weah tried to stave chaos by appealing to his rampaging supporters : “I can see in your eyes, I can see in your faces that you are crying but there is no need to cry because we have not lost the election….But the streets of Monrovia do not belong to violent people. Do not, in the name of peace, go on the streets. Please, please, stay in your vicinities. Leave the streets of Monrovia; people are frightened. They want no more war. You can trust me. I will be here with you.”.UN Forces had to disperse the protesters with teargas and it is not certain whether his supporters will heed Weah’s frenzied appeals.
The second difficult task Mrs. Sirleaf will face is bridging the so-called Congo Vs. Countrymen divide. The Congos were freed African-American slaves who were shipped to Liberia in the eighteenth century and had been accused of oppressing the original citizens they met in what later became the Republic of Liberia. The Congo/countrymen feud later exploded violently on Saturday April 12, 1980 with the bloody coup staged by soldiers belonging to the “countrymen ” faction . Through successive dictatorships by Doe , “a countryman ” and Taylor , a Congo, the problem had continued to simmer underground and threatened to resurface after the first round of voting when it was thought that the runoffs would boil down to a Congo vs.Countrymen showdown . Mrs Sirleaf’s task will be to unite Liberia under one banner , which other governments had failed to do.
Though her opponent Weah is disputing the polls for now, the general consensus of opinion is that Mrs. Sirleaf’s election is the best thing that could have happened to Liberia for a long while , given the enormous tasks that the post-war government will face to unite, rehabilitate and reconstruct the nation. It is believed that Mrs .Sirleaf is the better candidate to accomplish these goals , given her level of education, international respect as a former UN and World Bank official and her clout as the “Iron Lady” of Liberia , in comparison to Mr. Weah’s modest credentials .
However, Mrs. Sirleaf should try to appease Liberians by injecting young blood into her cabinet , rather than repeating the mistakes of past governments which studded their cabinets with old, recycled and failed politicians. The very reason that Weah is such a phenomenal character among Liberian voters is that the people of Liberia are sick and tired of old, recycled politicians who have failed them miserably in the past. The idea that only well-educated citizens were capable of rescuing Liberia from her present dismal socio-economic and political straits also does not cut ice with the Liberian people anymore. They infact believe that it was the “Book People” who plunged the country in its present mess.
One mitigating factor is the fact that Mrs.Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a proven no-nonsense, hardworking, efficient and principled woman who could make a difference if given the chance. The prayer of anyone who loves Liberia is that peace and prosperity should at last return to the land .This is attainable, if all Liberians decide at last that now is the time to put aside all their differences, jump onboard and work for the good of their beloved nation.