"Iron Lady" is Africa's first elected woman president


  • World
  • Thursday, 24 Nov 2005

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's "Iron Lady", former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, became Africa's first elected woman head of state on Wednesday, promising to stamp out corruption and rebuild her shattered country. 

Liberia's electoral commission declared the Harvard-trained economist winner of a Nov. 8 presidential run-off after she took almost 60 percent of the valid votes, beating soccer millionaire George Weah's 40 percent. 

President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, leader of the Unity Party, sings a victory song at her private residence in Monrovia November 23, 2005. (REUTERS/Luc Gnago)

"The election of Africa's first democratically elected female president is historic... I promise that I will conduct myself and the affairs of the country in a manner that brings pride to the women of Liberia, Africa and even the world," Johnson-Sirleaf said in comments broadcast live on radio. 

"The election marks the end of an era. An era of political and social exclusion. We will create and formulate an inclusive government, I promise you that," said the 67-year-old president-elect, dressed in a maroon African robe and headcloth. 

Hundreds of cheering, singing and dancing supporters of the woman Liberians call "Iron Lady" and "Mama Ellen" celebrated outside Johnson-Sirleaf's home and the headquarters of her Unity Party, bringing traffic to a standstill. 

"Mama Ellen ... is now the President. I'm happy," said 58-year-old Amos Nangde, wearing a paper hat made from one of her campaign posters. 

Liberia's electoral authorities confirmed Johnson-Sirleaf's win by a wide margin even though they were still investigating a formal complaint from Weah, 39, that the polls were fraudulent. 

Supporters of the former AC Milan striker, who has a strong following among mostly young Liberians, staged street protests last week, some of which turned into clashes with police. 

International observers had praised the elections, the first since the end of a 14-year civil war in the West African state, as free, fair and peaceful. Foreign observers and 15,000 United Nations troops and police supervised the polls. 

Weah's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party said it would continue to contest the election result. "We have asked all our supporters to remain calm as we pursue the legal channel," CDC chairman Cole Bangaloe told Reuters. 

U.N. peacekeepers backed by armoured vehicles guarded checkpoints in Monrovia around the Centennial Pavilion building where the final election results were announced. 

CONGRATULATIONS 

French President Jacques Chirac sent a letter of congratulation to Johnson-Sirleaf. 

"Liberia is today embarking on a new page in its political history ... I am certain that under your leadership, it will find the path to national reconciliation, institutional consolidation and prosperity," Chirac said. 

Johnson-Sirleaf's supporters celebrated with chants of "Go to school, go to school, don't play football!" a reference to her blue-chip professional qualifications, which include past jobs with the United Nations, World Bank and Citigroup. 

This compares with Weah's rags-to-riches career in which he rose to be FIFA's World Player of the Year after being brought up in a Monrovia shantytown and dropping out of high school. 

Alan Doss, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia, described Johnson-Sirleaf's election win as "a historic moment not only for Liberia, but for the continent as a whole". 

"The road ahead will not be an easy one but she begins her journey with the support of the Liberian people and the goodwill of the international community," Doss added. 

He also praised Weah's "participation in the democratic process". 

Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged she will use her technocratic skills to rebuild Liberia and reconcile its people after the devastating civil war that killed a quarter of a million people and left its infrastructure in tatters. 

Although the conflict ended two years ago when former warlord and President Charles Taylor went into exile, Monrovia and other cities do not have running water or mains electricity. 

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Monrovia and Sophie Louet in Paris) 

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