Liberia’s ruling Unity Party had one aim for its flagship citywide rally held in the nation’s capital, Monrovia, last month. Before leaving for the event, its tracksuit-clad chairman, the renowned attorney Varney Sherman, said they wanted “to shut Monrovia down”.
As the day wore on, the party of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf did just that. A crowd estimated at 100,000 flooded the cramped streets of downtown Monrovia, wielding flags and vuvuzelas, brawling and even, at points, breaking into a mass conga.
Late in the afternoon, the petite septuagenarian Sirleaf – herself delayed because of traffic – took the stage at Antoinette Tubman Stadium and formally announced that she would seek a second term in office when Liberia goes to the polls next week.
The event, one of the largest Monrovia has seen since Sirleaf’s inauguration, was a watershed for Liberian politics. The country still carries the scars of a brutal civil war and the subsequent reign of the dictator Charles Taylor, whose tenure ended in 2003. Though democracy has flourished under Sirleaf, in the weeks leading to her announcement many in the country worried that the day would be marred by violence. Its success was met with relief and helped ease fears that the coming elections would delve into violence. Her top challenger is Winston Tubman, who lost to Sirleaf in 2005. In a canny move, his running mate on the opposition Congress for Democratic Change ticket is the wildly popular ex-footballer George Weah, himself a former presidential candidate, whose fame all but tied up the young male vote.
In the next two weeks, Sirleaf must work to dispel critics’ howls about the slow pace of economic development (only 15 per cent of Liberians work in legitimate jobs) and what they say is her too-soft stance on corruption, after a Transparency International ranked it the world’s most corrupt nation in 2010.
Even at 73, she has proved game for the physical rigors of campaigning. On a stop north of Monrovia last week, and with bodyguards forming a tight circle, Sirleaf perched herself on the shoulders of two car seats, stuck her head through her car’s sunroof, and, even as rain poured, greeted thousands of her supporters. Many were schoolgirls, some with “Ellen’s Girl Brigade” stenciled onto their mismatched white shirts.
The Harvard-educated leader’s celebrity and connections, including a kinship with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have secured Liberia a firm place in the global discourse. Without her, it also stands to lose its distinction as the only African country governed by a woman, which could affect the amount of aid and attention it receives from abroad.
“She’s personally been able to attract investment into Liberia that I don’t think her competition would,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations, who studies gender politics.
“Global fundraising would go away without her. I’m always hearing about this or that group that’s been to Liberia with this or that high-profile person. All of that would go away without Ellen in office.”