November 23, 2005

‘Iron Lady’ elected Africa’s first woman president

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's "Iron Lady," former Finance
Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, became Africa's first elected
female head of state on Wednesday when she was declared the
winner of a presidential run-off.

Liberia's electoral commission said official results from
the November 8 run-off showed the Harvard-trained World Bank
economist beat soccer millionaire George Weah by winning 59.4
percent of the valid votes, compared to Weah's 40.6 percent.

Hundreds of cheering, singing and dancing supporters of the
woman Liberians call "Iron Lady" and "Mama Ellen" celebrated
outside Johnson-Sirleaf's home and the headquarters of her
Unity Party (UP), bringing traffic to a standstill.

"Mama Ellen ... is now the President. I'm happy," said
58-year-old Amos Nangde, wearing a paper hat made from a
Johnson-Sirleaf campaign poster.

Liberia's electoral authorities confirmed Johnson-Sirleaf's
win by a wide margin even though they were still investigating
a formal complaint from Weah that the polls were fraudulent.

"Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, having received more than 50
percent of the valid votes cast from November 8, is hereby
declared the winner of the presidential election," NEC
chairwoman Frances Johnson-Morris announced at a ceremony in
the capital Monrovia.

"I feel very fine. I am happy about my election and I thank
the Liberian people for their support," the 67-year-old
president-elect, who wore a maroon African robe and headcloth,
told reporters. Weah, who is 39, did not attend the ceremony.

Supporters of the former AC Milan striker, who has a strong
following among mostly young Liberians, staged street protests
last week, some of which turned into clashes with police.

International observers had praised the elections, the
first since the end of a 14-year civil war in the West African
state, as free, fair and peaceful. Foreign observers and 15,000
United Nations troops and police supervised the polls.

Weah's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party said it
would continue to contest the election result. "We have asked
all our supporters to remain calm as we pursue the legal
channel," CDC chairman Cole Bangaloe told Reuters.

U.N. peacekeepers backed by armored vehicles guarded
checkpoints in Monrovia around the Centennial Pavilion building
where the final election results were announced.


French President Jacques Chirac sent a letter of
congratulation to Johnson-Sirleaf.

"Liberia is today embarking on a new page in its political
history ... I am certain that under your leadership, it will
find the path to national reconciliation, institutional
consolidation and prosperity," Chirac said.

Johnson-Sirleaf's supporters celebrated with chants of "Go
to school, go to school, don't play football!" a reference to
her blue-chip professional qualifications, which include past
jobs with the United Nations, World Bank and Citigroup.

This compares with Weah's rags-to-riches career in which he
rose to be FIFA's World Player of the Year after being brought
up in a Monrovia shantytown and dropping out of high school.

Alan Doss, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in
Liberia, described Johnson-Sirleaf's election win as "a
historic moment not only for Liberia, but for the continent as
a whole."

"The road ahead will not be an easy one but she begins her
journey with the support of the Liberian people and the
goodwill of the international community," Doss added.

He also praised Weah's "participation in the democratic

Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged she will use her technocratic
skills to rebuild Liberia and reconcile its people after the
devastating civil war that killed a quarter of a million people
and left its infrastructure in tatters.

Although the conflict ended two years ago when former
warlord and President Charles Taylor went into exile, Monrovia
and other cities do not have running water or mains

"Ellen has a heavy task and needs to work hard. She has to
meet the needs of her nearly three million children (Liberia's
people). Her children are hungry and anxiously waiting for her
to bring food," said Dorothy Kolubah, a market seller.

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Monrovia and
Sophie Louet in Paris)