Liberian vote a stress-test for fragile gains

MONROVIA Sun Oct 9, 2011 1:03pm EDT

1 of 3. Supporters of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Liberian, who is also presidential candidate of the Unity Party (UP), cheer during her campaign rally in Monrovia, October 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago

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MONROVIA (Reuters) - Still haunted by memories of West Africa's bloodiest civil war, Liberians hope Tuesday's presidential election will shore up peace and lay the basis for prosperity instead of producing the grist for more violence.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize, faces chief rival Winston Tubman and 14 others in the second presidential vote since the end of fighting that killed 200,000 people and left Liberia in ruins.

The economic stakes are high.

Chevron, Anadarko and others are drilling for offshore oil this year, steel giant ArcelorMittal is a few weeks into its first local iron ore production, and Liberia's first gold shipments are due soon.

"We will resist any attempt by anyone to bring war in this country," said Isaac Jensen, a student at the University of Liberia in the capital Monrovia, a sprawl of tattered buildings and tin-roofed shanties on the edge of the Atlantic.

"We are tired of war and if anyone thinks of coming with war, that person will be the first to die."

Rufus Yarmie, a resident of Tappita in Liberia's northeast, said a peaceful vote was more important in a country where average income is around $300 a year than who actually won.

"We are more concerned about peace and acceptability of the results by all parties," he said by telephone.

Citing persistent violent crime, instability in neighboring Ivory Coast and drug and arms trafficking across the region, the U.N. Security Council last month extended the mandate of the 9,200-strong peacekeeping mission UNMIL.

Underlining the fragility of Liberia's calm, mercenaries from Ivory Coast's civil war earlier this year conducted raids on Ivorian border towns in September, leading regional countries to form a joint peacekeeping force.

Reminders of Liberia's own 14 years of fighting, which ran until 2003, are everywhere -- a U.N. armored personnel carrier in front of the Ministry of Foreign affairs, war-wounded begging in the streets, bullet-riddled buildings.

Both Tubman and Johnson-Sirleaf are from the higher echelons of society. Tubman as one of the Americo-Liberians who dominated much of its history after its 1847 founding by freed U.S. slaves. While Johnson-Sirleaf is not Americo-Liberian herself, her mother and father were both raised by Americo-Liberians.

Tubman, a Harvard-educated nephew of former president William Tubman and a former senior U.N. diplomat, is expected by many Liberians to give Johnson-Sirleaf her toughest challenge. His running mate is superstar soccer player George Weah, who lost to Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005.

Tubman vows to accept the results of a free and fair vote, but also says he is "100 percent certain" of victory and that anyone else claiming a win could find it difficult to govern.

"These tens of thousands you have seen in Monrovia and other places demonstrating and clamoring with passion for us, they will not accept being cheated," he said in an interview with Reuters on Saturday.

The Carter Center, a U.S.-based democracy watchdog, described campaigning as "vibrant" but cautioned it had observed opposition parties being refused the use of public facilities and the ruling party using public resources for campaigning.

"If Sirleaf does win, it won't be an easy victory. Violence can't be ruled out, especially considering the tone of the campaigns in recent weeks and reports that opposition parties have been denied access to public facilities," said Titi Ajayi, analyst at International Crisis Group.

NOBEL BOOST

Sirleaf's Nobel Prize could give her a boost at the polls -- and even the absolute majority needed to win in the first round -- particularly if it succeeds in galvanizing the women's vote behind her, analysts said.

"(It) gives her a distinct advantage over her rivals, provided poor Liberians understand what it means and how it affects their lives for the better," said Lydie Boka, head of France-based risk consultancy StrategiCo.

"Johnson-Sirleaf is a symbol in a continent where women are not on the forefront to say the least."

Speaking at a rally on Sunday, Liberian women rights activist and fellow Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee publicly endorsed Johnson-Sirleaf for president -- potentially raising her chances of securing the female vote.

But her critics have said the prize is evidence only of her international fame -- not her domestic record, which includes controversy over her temporary support to a rebellion by notorious warlord Charles Taylor against ex-president Samuel Doe and impatience with the slow pace of reconstruction.

A former Citigroup and World Bank economist, Johnson-Sirleaf became African's first freely elected head of state in 2005, earning support from the United States, and has convinced donors to write off billions of dollars of the country's debt.

She has admitted providing food, supplies and financing to Charles Taylor, notorious for his child armies and now facing war crimes charges at the Hague, but said that she cut off her support once she understood more about what he was doing.

Johnson-Sirleaf will also face off against former warlord Prince Johnson, whose fighters captured and killed Doe.

"Once the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner, I will accept the result. We have only this country to protect," Prince Johnson told Reuters last week.

(Editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)

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