Liberia's long wait for freedom

War-ravaged African country with ties to Maryland goes to the polls this week with something it has rarely enjoyed: a real choice


The citizens of Maryland will cast ballots Tuesday in perhaps the most important election in their history.

Don't worry if you haven't arranged a ride to the polls - this Maryland is in Liberia, and the vote is for the president of that African land, which was settled in the 19th century by freed slaves from the United States and has been torn apart by years of warfare.

"It is really the first opportunity that the Liberian people have had in more than 150 years to have a free and democratic election," says J. Peter Pham of James Madison University.

This runoff between the top two vote-getters in the Oct. 11 election that featured 22 candidates is a fascinating contest between contrasting candidates, each with an undeniable appeal.

The safe bet for Liberian voters is Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, 66, long hailed as a voice of integrity in Liberia during the many years of political turmoil in her native land. Harvard-educated, she is a veteran of service with the World Bank and the United Nations.

"They call her the Iron Lady." says Siba Grovogui, an Africa expert in the political science department of the Johns Hopkins University. "Everybody has tried to destroy her, but she's been indestructible."

But many think that Liberians instead will gamble on George Weah, 39. Though little known in the United States, he is probably the most famous Liberian on the planet.

Weah made his name playing soccer for some of the top teams in Europe. He was named World Player of the Year for 1995 while starring for the Italian team AC Milan. In Liberia, he is known as King George.

"If you just look at the logic of the situation, Ellen has prepared herself, more than just in her education but through all of her experience," says D. Elwood Dunn, a native Liberian on the faculty at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "The country faces serious problems and needs an experienced hand to handle those."

But the uneducated Weah is the favorite going into Tuesday's vote.

"He has the wind in his sails," says Breytan Breytanbach, the South African writer and political activist who is now part of the Goree Institute in Ghana.

Weah's appeal goes far beyond his athletic stardom. For one, he could be living in comfortable retirement in a place like Monaco but instead is back in Liberia, trying to take on a job that seems to define "thankless."

For another, he has developed a reputation for generosity during his years of stardom, spending perhaps $2 million to keep the national soccer team, the Lone Star, alive during the years of turmoil. He also constantly hands out smaller amounts of charity to people in his hometown, Monrovia, Liberia's capital, which he continued to visit even when his life might have been in danger.

Weah led the first round of voting with 28 percent. Sirleaf got just under 20 percent.

Grovogui says the presence of both candidates is a sign of hope in a country that has seen few of those in the last 15 years.

"For the first time in years, the so-called Americo-Liberians, the business class of the country, is actually going back and implicating themselves again into politics," he says. "Their candidate is Ellen. They had been driven away, many of them living in the United States. Their presence is crucial, obviously, if the country is going to be put back together."

Weah's appeal, Grovogui says, is equally important. "All those punks who are likely to fall for the thugs, the warlords, are the ones behind George Weah," he says. "He is bringing them a different message."

Pham says Weah brings the possibility of fresh winds of change. "He is not formally educated and lacks experience, and all of that certainly raises a lot of questions, but no one can accuse him of corruption; no one can accuse him of being part of any establishment," he says. "Even Ellen served with Doe and tried to make deals with former President Charles Taylor."

Crucial to a successful Weah administration would be whom he brings into a government and how successfully he fends off the pressures of corruption.

"He has said all the right things, put out all the right messages to the international community," Pham says.

Grovogui, who is from neighboring Guinea, says he would vote for Sirleaf-Johnson if he were casting a ballot, but he thinks a Weah win would bring Liberian youth into the political process.

"It is really going to drain the pool of young people available for these idiotic warlords," he says.

The warlords are the ones who tore Liberia apart, starting on the last day of 1989, when Taylor led a small group of rebel soldiers across the border from Ivory Coast. Various other factions popped up - their violence fueled by armed young men who were given a license to kill and plunder - fighting Doe's government and each other.

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