Troubled vote may tie Liberian leader’s hands

Nobel winner got backing of ex-warlord

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“If Prince Johnson came to the president and said, ‘The people of Nimba County asked me to support you,’ should the president say no?”

However, the image of the Nobel Peace laureate and ex-warlord waving in unison as supporters rushed to greet them communicated a different message.

They arrived on the same bus, then toured a dirt field together. She was wearing the traditional green color of the ruling Unity Party. He was waving a mini-Unity Party flag.

“It’s clear they are trying to send a signal, a not-too-subtle one in fact,” that they are now a team, said Africa expert Peter Pham, the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and author of a book on Liberia’s civil war.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf stands to benefit from Mr. Johnson’s support because his base includes many ex-combatants and unemployed youth, whereas Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is popular among women and the country’s educated elite, said Mr. Pham.

“I find it hard to believe that Prince Johnson would do anything without a Prince Johnson angle,” he said.

In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed Mr. Johnson at the top of its list of people most responsible for the atrocities including “killing, extortion, massacre, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, rape.”

Liberia has come a long way since the end of the 14-year war, a conflict that killed up to a quarter-of-a-million people in a country only slightly larger than Tennessee.

When the fighting finally stopped in 2003, 80 percent of the country’s schools were in ruins and nearly all the roads were impassable, according to a report by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs.

In the five years since Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf took office, the country has added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads. Children under the age of 5 are dying at half the rate they were before, and people are earning almost double what they made when she was first elected, according to figures cited in the report.

Still, the country remains one of the world’s poorest. Even after doubling their income, Liberians make on average only $260 a year, according to the report.

The administration’s gains are not always evident to voters, said Eric Werker, a development economist at the Harvard Business School who specializes in Liberia.

He said that jobs in the informal sector went from about 470,000 to 670,000, an increase of nearly 50 percent since Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf came into office.

But the increase amounted to just about 10 percent of the total number of 2 million eligible voters, Mr. Werker added, so the impact was not so widely felt.

The Nov. 8 runoff election was marred by opposition leader Mr. Tubman’s withdrawal, which forced Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf to run unopposed. Mr. Tubman had claimed fraud even though international observers said the process was transparent.

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