Nobel in hand, Liberia's leader seeks re-election
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — She may have won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, but even that may not be enough to persuade voters in this nation with 80 percent unemployment to re-elect President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Tuesday.
The 72-year-old Harvard-educated leader suffers from a rare paradox: She is lionized and her star has continued to rise, even as her popularity at home has waned over claims that she has done too little to alleviate the nation's crushing poverty.
"One out of every three Liberians cannot feed themselves. They live in abject poverty. And they couldn't care less about the Nobel prize," said 60-year-old Charles Brumskine, one of 15 opposition candidates facing Sirleaf in Tuesday's election.
"There's a disconnect between how she is seen abroad and how she is seen here. Ellen will be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote in tomorrow's election."
Few dispute that the nation Sirleaf inherited five years ago was one of the most broken, its social fabric irreparably damaged by a 14-year civil war that left the countryside dotted with mass graves. Some towns were so hard-hit you could walk for blocks and not find one building that had been spared. Years later, judges still preside over courtrooms that have holes in the walls and nurses tend to patients in wards with blasted-out doors.
Sirleaf's achievements include getting $5 billion of the country's international debt wiped clean, allowing Liberia to establish a sovereign credit rating, a precondition for issuing bonds. Her government has built clinics, schools and roads, though her critics say she has built too few. And despite the deep wounds inflicted by the civil war, she is credited with maintaining peace.
In Oslo on Friday, the Nobel Committee awarded her and two other female activists the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, citing their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women.
Even those who support Sirleaf say the problem is that her accomplishments are mostly intangible and Liberia remains deeply impoverished, with only one in five people able to find work, according to a 2008 U.N. report.
Only some 8,000 customers receive piped water in Monrovia, the capital of 1.5 million. There isn't even running water in the building that houses the state water utility.
"My feeling has been from early on that Liberians had unrealistic expectations of what anybody could do," said West Africa expert Mike McGovern, an anthropologist at Yale University.
"The country has been pulverized by the war — the health system, the education system, the roads, everything was so destroyed that even an influx of money the likes which we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have fixed everything. And frankly the amount of money that has gone to Liberia has been a few drops in the bucket by comparison," he said.
Sirleaf was elected in 2005, becoming the first African woman to be democratically elected. She defeated soccer sensation George Weah, who came in second and who lost the race in part because of his lack of formal education.
Weah, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, is again her main contender. However, in a move intended to silence critics he has agreed to run as the No. 2 on a ticket alongside presidential candidate Winston Tubman, who like Sirleaf was educated at Harvard. Weah also recently earned a business degree from DeVry University in Miami.
"It's good that we have another Harvard graduate who is going to be in the race, but what is important is not where you went to school," Tubman told The Associated Press. "It's what you are doing. And Mrs. Sirleaf has had almost six years now to demonstrate what she can do."
It's not difficult to point to problems in this nation of 3.8 million. More women die in childbirth here than in almost any other nation. So do children under 5. Despite the flow of aid and eight years of peace, Liberia has only inched up two spots from the bottom of a United Nations index tracking development. Liberia ranks 162nd on the 169-country index — up from 164th a few years ago.
Another criticism of Sirleaf is her alleged role in the nation's civil war. In front of Liberia's truth and reconciliation commission, Sirleaf acknowledged having given money to warlord Charles Taylor, whose rebels invaded in 1989, marking the start of the 14-year conflict. She argued she stopped financing Taylor when his ruthless tactics became clear.
Human rights experts have described Sirleaf's role in the conflict as minimal, but opposition candidates lambasted the Oslo Committee for awarding her the Peace prize. Tubman accuses the president of bringing wars and hardships to Liberia instead of peace.
"But there is another way to look at it," Tubman said. "Mrs. Sirleaf is about to leave power. She's about to be voted out of power by her people. So it is good that she has a consolation prize."
Associated Press staffer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that index contains 169 nations, not 168.)