REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG — Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who last week won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, faces a tough reelection challenge Tuesday, with many predicting she could be forced into a runoff against her strongest opponent, former U.N. official Winston Tubman.
Her election slogan, "Monkey still working let baboon wait small," urged voters to let her complete the job she started when she became president in 2005 in Liberia's first election after a ruinous, 14-year civil war ended in 2003.
Tubman, educated as was Johnson-Sirleaf at Harvard, is a member of one of Liberia's prominent political families and nephew of the late William Tubman, the country's longest serving president, who held office from 1944 to 1971.
Tubman's choice of running mate was designed to garner support among young voters: former soccer star George Weah, who played with several top European clubs, including Italy's AC Milan, and is one of the country's most famous figures. Weah won the first round of the presidential election in 2005 but Johnson-Sirleaf defeated him in a runoff.
Tuesday's vote was seen as a key test for the country's emerging democracy, peace and stability. Johnson-Sirleaf faces 15 challengers, including a former warlord named Prince Johnson.
Johnson-Sirleaf inherited a country torn by a savage civil war in which drugged children committed atrocities. Some marched into battle naked, believing that magic protected them from bullets. Others ate their victims' flesh. Nearly a quarter of a million people died.
The president is a former World Bank economist who cemented the country's fragile peace, negotiated the cancellation of $5 billion in debt with international donors and built schools, roads and clinics.
Johnson-Sirleaf's international admirers argue it's unlikely that any of her rivals could have done better ruling Liberia the last six years. But, despite her international plaudits, Johnson-Sirleaf is less popular among an electorate with high expectations of a better life. With just 20% of the population able to get a job, the problems of unemployment and poverty have threatened to derail her. She's also been criticized by opponents for failing to do enough to combat corruption.
Her fellow Nobel laureate, Leymah Gbowee, endorsed Johnson-Sirleaf as president over the weekend. Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, shared the 2011 peace prize with Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman.
Long lines formed at polls in a drenching rain Tuesday and observers praised the election as generally smooth.
"So far, so good. The reports that we are getting up to now show that everything is going smoothly," former Nigerian President Yacubu Gowon, leading the monitoring team of the U.S.-based Carter Center, told Reuters.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.
— Robyn Dixon
Photo: Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is seeking reelection as president, votes at a polling station in Feefee in Bomi County on Tuesday. Credit: Luc Gnago / Reuters