Liberia's Sirleaf to battle for legitimacy

2011-11-10 20:29

Monrovia - Still basking in her Nobel Peace Prize, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been dealt a blow to her glowing image as she was poised on Thursday to win a poll sullied by violence and her alliance with an ex-warlord.

Tuesday's presidential run-off was a gloomy one-woman show after opposition challenger Winston Tubman pulled out of the race. While votes are still being counted, there is little doubt as to the outcome.

But with polling stations largely empty as the boycott and pre-poll violence discouraged voters, analysts say Sirleaf is set for a pyrrhic victory and faces a gargantuan task to establish legitimacy in a nation more divided than ever.

"If it turns out to be that indeed there was low turnout I see a serious legitimacy question hanging over the government," said Dan Saryee, director of the Liberian Democratic Institute.

Liberia's population has remained polarised eight years after the end of a long and savage civil war, pitting a dizzying array of ethnic groups and warring factions against each other and leaving some 250 000 dead.

This second post-war election raised considerable criticism of Sirleaf's handling of reconciliation in the anguished nation.

She ignored it, her detractors say, because of her own shady past and ties to former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, which led a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to suggest she be banned from public office.

John Campbell, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York told AFP that focus on her past and on her "rather embarrassing negotiations with Prince Johnson" in this election could sully her image.

Notorious ex-warlord

Johnson, who came third in last month's first round, is a notorious ex-warlord who captured and presided over the torture and murder of military dictator Samuel Doe at the beginning of the country's 14-year civil war.

Johnson aligned with Sirleaf in the run-off, even accompanying her on the campaign trail after admitting he felt confident that with her in office, he would not face charges of war crimes.

Saryee said Sirleaf faces serious questions: "How does she reconcile being the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize while embracing a warlord on the basis of providing a sanctuary for impunity" for him.

Another blow for Africa's first female president was her riot police opening fire on an opposition rally on the eve of the election. Journalists saw two bodies with gunshot wounds to their heads but Tubman says up to eight are dead.

"The police brutality has only compounded the legitimacy crisis of the elections. It partly accounts for the low turn-out," Lansana Gberie, a west African analyst with Security Council Report, said.

"I don't blame Sirleaf for it. The Liberian police is hopelessly ill-trained, and it was very poorly vetted by the UN," which has an 8 000-strong peacekeeping mission in the country.

The civil war shattered Liberian institutions and Sirleaf is the first to admit there is much to do to rebuild the "broken country".

But if her first term at the helm of this west African nation was tough, the second is likely to test her 'Iron Lady' moniker even further.

Crackdown on the media

Sirleaf's government has also been criticised for a crackdown on the media, shutting down three radio stations and four television stations for propagating hate messages after Monday's violence.

John Campbell said the key issue is whether poll results are largely accepted or not, and what Tubman decides do next as he still commands huge support.

His rejection of the results would "make the task of rebuilding Liberia more difficult because instead of coming together as a result of the elections, the elections would have driven people further apart".

Analysts agree that throwing herself into the long neglected reconciliation efforts, while targeting poverty and massive unemployment of up to 80%, will be the best way forward for Sirleaf.

"Considering her track record I think she will reach out to each and every Liberian. Liberia has been through so much and there is so much at stake for the people. You can't afford to do things on your own," said Joe Pemagbi of the Open Society Initiative West Africa.