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Harvard-schooled banker claims win in Liberia

Former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took a 15-point lead on Thursday in Liberia’s presidential run-off as electoral authorities reported votes counted from more than three-quarters of the polling stations.
Unity Party presidential candidate Ellen
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Dosso Zoom / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf claimed victory on Thursday in Liberia’s presidential run-off and looked set to become Africa’s first elected female head of state.

Announcing what seemed an unbeatable lead for the Harvard-educated banker, the National Elections Commission said that with ballots tallied from nearly 90 percent of polling stations, Johnson-Sirleaf had 59.2 percent of the votes from Tuesday’s election.

Her rival, millionaire soccer star George Weah, had 40.8 percent.

“I think the trend is now irreversible,” 67-year-old Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters.

Former AC Milan striker Weah, 39, whose rags-to-riches career is widely admired by Liberia’s poor youth, had earlier filed a formal complaint of fraud with the electoral commission and international observers who monitored Tuesday’s voting.

He said the poll, the first since a 14-year civil war that devastated the West African state and killed a quarter of a million people, was riddled with irregularities, including doctored ballots.

“I hope that ... Mr Weah will see reason, will accept the result, which I believe reflects the choice of the Liberian people,” Johnson-Sirleaf said. She added she was ready to offer him a post in her government.

The presidential election run-off was given a generally clean bill of health by international monitors.

The electoral commission said it was checking Weah’s complaint but continued to issue the voting results, which pointed to an historic victory for Johnson-Sirleaf, who is popularly known as the “Iron Lady”.

“The preliminary conclusion ... is that the elections were generally peaceful, free, fair and transparent,” Ambassador E. M. Debrah, head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) observer mission, said.

Other observers from the United States and Europe said the same, adding it was up to the local election commission to investigate any complaints.

Weah, who had placed first in an inconclusive first round of voting a month ago, said he was consulting with the international community about his allegations of fraud.

Chanting “No George, no peace”, some of his fans had staged minor protests against the alleged fraud.

Although the capital Monrovia was calm on Thursday, U.N. peacekeepers had used batons on Wednesday night to break up a crowd of dozens of angry Weah supporters.

“I am telling my people to be very calm because this is a democratic process,”  Weah told reporters on Thursday.

“If there is no new election, there will be no peace at all,” said 19-year-old Emmanuel Thomas, lounging at a cafe with other Weah supporters

Tuesday’s run-off pitted footballing great and political novice Weah, who is idolized as “King George” by fans, against one of Liberia’s most qualified technocrats, who has held jobs at the United Nations, the World Bank and Citibank.

Weah topped the Oct. 11 first round vote with 28 percent, ahead of Johnson-Sirleaf with 20 percent in an original field of more than 20 candidates.

The soccer star’s opponents said the former FIFA World Player of the Year -- a high school drop-out -- lacked the experience to reconstruct the country, still without running water or mains electricity two years after the civil war.

But his supporters, who include former warlords from the war that ended in 2003, said he was untainted by politicians’ responsibility for the conflict, which created a generation of child soldiers.

Former warlord Prince Yormi Johnson, who had campaigned for Weah, called the elections free and fair and appealed for calm.

“The common interest here is Liberia. The peace and stability of this country is our goal and we will support the winner of this election,” he told reporters.