Liberia's iron lady

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is poised to become Africa's first elected female head of state.

Published November 11, 2005 10:00PM (EST)

While Americans adjust to the idea of female leadership by watching Geena Davis play the president on TV, Liberians are embracing the concept by actually electing a woman to their country's highest office. As you've probably heard, the Liberian-born, Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf edged ahead in the polls during Tuesday's presidential election, and has received a decisive 59.4 percent of the votes counted so far. If she's inaugurated, Johnson-Sirleaf will be Africa's first-ever elected female head of state.

Johnson-Sirleaf is a veteran of Liberian politics -- her vocal opposition to the country's military regime during her 1985 Senate campaign landed her in prison, and she courageously -- though unsuccessfully -- ran against notorious warlord Charles Taylor in the country's 1997 presidential election. (Taylor rewarded Johnson-Sirleaf's chutzpah by charging her with treason.)

Her current opponent, a rags-to-riches soccer player named George Weah, claims the election was rigged. (International observers have called the election fair, but the country's National Elections Commission is still investigating Weah's claims.) And while Weah's supporters, including about 100,000 ex-combatants and warlords from Liberia's 14-year civil war, have mostly been voicing their objections peacefully, U.N. peacekeepers fired tear gas at pro-Weah protesters on Friday after the protesters threw rocks at police.

Of course, the last thing war-torn Liberia needs is more fighting. An estimated 200,000 citizens died in the war, and the country's capital, Monrovia, has been without electricity and running water for over a decade.

Provided she's not guilty of any election-related misdeeds, Johnson-Sirleaf's smarts could be the cure for what ails Liberia. As her supporters point out, who better than an economist to help resuscitate the country's depressed economy? We're less enthusiastic about her supporters' claim that Liberia needs a woman's touch after being ravaged by a series of male dictators. But while it's not clear what a woman's touch means in governmental terms, exactly, it seems unlikely that Johnson-Sirleaf will spend her first term baking cookies: Her nickname is the Iron Lady.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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