Liberian Nobel winners confronted thugs, killers

October 7, 2011 - 10:15 AM
APTOPIX Liberia Nobel Peace Prize

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf waves at her home in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, Friday, Oct 7, 2011. Africa's first democratically elected female president, a Liberian campaigner against rape and a woman who stood up to Yemen's autocratic regime won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the importance of women's rights in the spread of global peace. The 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award was split three ways between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee from the same African country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen - the first Arab woman to win the prize. (AP/Photo Abbas Dulleh)

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee used different tactics to confront thugs and killers in war-ravaged Liberia, with one challenging a feared warlord for the presidency and the other taking to the streets to denounce armed rapists who were preying on women.

On Friday, their brave deeds were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize, which they shared with democratic activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. The prize committee in Oslo, Norway, cited their work on women's rights, describing it as fundamental to the spread of peace around the world.

"This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation," Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia after hearing of the award. "Liberians should be proud."

Sirleaf, 72, became Africa's first democratically elected female president in 2005, after earlier losing to notorious warlord Charles Taylor in 1997 elections. She is running for a second term on Tuesday against stiff opposition, and the Nobel could give her a needed boost.

Critics say that with all the international aid and investment, Liberia's government should have done better in restoring services and rebuilding the infrastructure ravaged by years of war in the West African nation.

Bineta Diop, founder and executive director of Women Africa Solidarity, says the Nobel prize recognizes Sirleaf's "passion and commitment" to her people and the rebuilding of her country.

"Monrovia has begun to breathe again," Diop said. "Ms. Sirleaf has worked to fight corruption that existed before and during the war, establish laws to protect women from sexual violence, give jobs to child soldiers, and rebuild roads, hospitals and schools."

Fellow Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu also said Sirleaf deserves the prize "many times over."

"She's brought stability to a place that was going to hell," he said Friday.

While Sirleaf has led in the political arena, Gbowee often took to the streets leading a group known as the "women in white."

Gbowee's assistant, Bertha Amanor, described her as a "warrior daring to enter where others would not dare."

That fearlessness was evident on a November day in 2003 when Gbowee led hundreds of female protesters through the battle-scarred capital Monrovia, demanding swift disarmament of fighters were raping women and girls of all ages. Fourteen years of near constant civil war had ended in a peace deal three months earlier, but the rapes continued. Gbowee led the women, whose white attire symbolized hopes for peace, straight to Monrovia's City Hall.

"We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed," she shouted. "Our children and grandchildren will not be used as killing machines and sex slaves!"

Two months earlier, she confronted a rebel official in another march that called on rebel and government forces to halt violence and looting.

"You're supposed to be our liberators, but if you finish everyone, who will you rule?" Gbowee asked rebel official Sekou Fofana at his headquarters.

In 2009, she won a Profile in Courage Award, an honor named for a book written by John F. Kennedy, for her work in emboldening women in Liberia.

Gbowee works in Ghana's capital as the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa. The group's website says she also won a 2007 Blue Ribbon Award from Harvard University and was the central character of an award-winning documentary called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."

She was believed to be in the United States on Friday and was not immediately available for comment.

The Harvard-educated Sirleaf worked her way through college in the United States by mopping floors and waiting tables. She has been jailed at home and exiled abroad, and took on the warlord Taylor in elections in 1997. She lost by a landslide but earned the nickname "Iron Lady." A rebellion forced Taylor from power in 2003. His trial in the Netherlands for war crimes ended last March and a verdict is pending.

She emerged victorious in a landslide vote in 2005. At her inauguration ceremony, guests sat on white plastic chairs on the grounds of the Capital Building and cheered, "Queen of Africa!"

The Liberia that Sirleaf inherited in January 2006 lacked roads, water, electricity and a proper army. Sirleaf, a former finance minister, promised sweeping change — lighting up the capital, bringing back pipe-born water and putting children in school.

Evidence of the savage war still remains. The country's main energy plant which was destroyed in the fighting has yet to be rebuilt. The country's main highway is in deplorable condition. Few people in the capital have electricity, running water and proper sewage. Sirleaf, though, is fighting for another six-year term.

"When the plane hasn't landed yet, don't change the pilots," read several of her giant-size billboards.

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Selsky reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.