Liberian President-Elect has Large Challenges, Rich Background
Voice of America, Washington, DC
November 23, 2005

By Deborah Block

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In the West African country of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been certified as the country's new president. The former finance minister will be Liberia's first elected woman president, and the first in Africa. As we hear from VOA's Deborah Block, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf was an easy winner in a run-off election, even though her opponent challenged the ballot results.

"We have the commitment to development and we're going to move Liberia again," Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, won the presidential runoff elections on November 8. The 67-year-old Harvard University-educated economist and banker campaigned against former Liberian football star, George Weah. He had alleged there were voting irregularities, but international observers say the elections were free and fair.

Chris Fomunyoh is with the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organization in Washington that promotes democracy. He knows the newly-elected president well and was one of the election monitors.

Chris Fomunyoh
Chris Fomunyoh
"A lot of young, educated people voted for her, and a lot of women voted for her, because we got a sense in talking to Liberian women that they also saw Ellen's campaign as their campaign, an opportunity for them to have a louder voice in the politics of Liberia," he told us.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf was finance minister twice -- first in 1970, during a military government led by General Samuel Doe, and later under former rebel leader, President Charles Taylor. At first she supported both men, but later spoke out against them.

General Doe accused her of treason, and sentenced her to prison, but soon released her. In 1997, she ran against Mr. Taylor for president, but he won by a landslide. After he was forced into exile, she took over the leadership of his Unity Party.

Liberians living in camps Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf held key jobs for the United Nations and World Bank in Africa. Known as "The Iron Lady," she has an enormous job ahead of her since most of Liberia's infrastructure was destroyed during the country's 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. Buildings are ruined, and there is little electricity or sewage-treatment. Nearly one-third of Liberians are living in relief camps, and less than one-quarter have jobs. Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf hopes to bring all Liberians together.

"We have to go into every party, even into warring factions, and find people who share the same values, the same principles, who are willing to work for the country and for the people,” she said. “We have to find them and bring them together so that every group, every tribe, every religion will feel that they have a stake in the future."

Mr. Fomunyoh says both her skills and personality will be in her favor.

"Her strengths are her education, professional background, experience, and also the fact that she's a nice human being: very funny, she can tell jokes, and you can have a genuine conversation with her and that's a warm feeling that can bring people together," he said.

The new leader has compared the job ahead of her to that of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who won his country's first all-race elections.

"I see myself as a Mandela,” said the president-elect. “I'll take one term, take the hard decisions, get the country on track, get the economy functioning, get our people in schools.

Mr. Fomunyoh says being the first African woman elected head of state, she will have a lot to live up to.

"She's going to probably work harder than most men to continue to maintain the credibility and respect that she's rightfully earned."

Although rich with forests and minerals such as diamonds, Liberia relies heavily on aid from Western nations, which have imposed strict financial measures to ensure the money isn't squandered. And while the new president works to rebuild the Liberian army, thousands of United Nations troops remain in the country to keep peace.

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