Jonathan Paye-layleh  /  AP
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a candidate aspiring to be Liberia's first woman president, is seen at a rally in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 8. Johnson-Sirleaf is among 22 candidates vying in Oct. 11 elections to replace a caretaker administration set up to govern Liberia after 14 years of nearly uninterrupted civil war. 
updated 9/22/2005 8:09:09 AM ET 2005-09-22T12:09:09

Canvassing for votes among a crowd of young men who make their living washing cars, Liberia’s most famous woman wondered aloud why no females were among them. “Because this is a very hard job,” shouted one man. “Women are not able to do it.”

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s response was to wheel on a group of girls watching from afar and deliver what could well be her campaign slogan: “Women, don’t sit there! Do something positive together with men!”

Johnson-Sirleaf’s resume runs from Harvard and the World Bank to house arrest and exile by a military dictatorship. But at 66 she soldiers on, running among 22 candidates for president in an Oct. 11 election that Liberia hopes will cement the peace after 14 years of civil war.

Battle hardened by Liberian politics
Strong-willed, imperious and toughened by long exposure to Liberia’s violent politics, Johnson-Sirleaf is one of two female candidates, but she’s the only one with any real chance.

She hopes to put lessons learned as a World Bank and U.N. official to work in a once-prosperous West African country founded by freed American slaves and wrecked 150 years later by warlords and despots — all male.

Elected women in high office are rare across Africa. South African President Thabo Mbeki has a woman deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Mozambican President Armando Guebuza appointed a woman, Luisa Diogo, as his prime minister in February. Liberia briefly had an unelected woman president, Ruth Perry.

Most Liberian voters say gender matters little; they’ll vote for whoever can get electricity and water running again and dent the 85 percent unemployment rate.

While stressing her management skills, Johnson-Sirleaf hopes her gender will help her stand out.

“I have operated, succeeded and excelled in a men’s world — in every area or profession that I have been in,” she told The Associated Press in an interview.

Political elite versus soccer stardom
Her supporters call her “The Iron lady,” borrowing the nickname of Margaret Thatcher. Johnson-Sirleaf includes the former British prime minister among women who “have brought equal competence, strength and courage to everything that they do.”

No reliable opinion polls exist, but among those considered to be Johnson-Sirleaf’s main rivals are international soccer star George Weah, who bills himself as the populist candidate, and Sekou Conneh, whose rebel force besieged Monrovia in 2003 and helped drive former President Charles Taylor into exile.

Weah learned his game in Monrovia’s slums and booted himself to world stardom with top European teams. He has little formal education and says Liberia needs national unity rather than the finely honed managerial skills offered by Johnson-Sirleaf, a full-fledged member of Liberia’s political elite.

Johnson-Sirleaf was a senior minister in the Cabinet ousted by Master Sgt. Samuel Doe in a 1980 military coup. She was sentenced to prison for treason, had her house ransacked and was driven into exile.

For many Liberians, her greatest drawback may be the brief support she gave to Charles Taylor in 1989. She saw his insurgency as the only way to end Doe’s dictatorship.

Taylor’s war killed tens of thousands — some say as many as 200,000 — and left Liberia in tatters. He won a 1997 election in which Johnson-Sirleaf placed a distant second, but fled Liberia two years later. For the past two years a caretaker administration has run the country.

Many looking for a change
Many Liberians value Johnson-Sirleaf’s devotion to the country and her experience in development and international banking. Others associate her with years of failed leadership.

“Mrs. Sirleaf, Taylor and others chose the path of war and destruction as a way of addressing the political crisis that had developed in Liberia,” said Fatu Massaquoi, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of a top Johnson-Sirleaf rival.

“She can’t boast of being a clean-handed person and the right one to lead.”

Johnson-Sirleaf said she would steer Liberia away from violence.

“I am going to be a leader and a president who happens to be a woman. But I am glad to be a woman because I think I will bring an extra dimension to the task,” said the widowed mother of four.

“That’s the dimension of sensitivity, respect for human beings — which is something that comes from motherhood.”

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