Nobel award adds to turmoil of vote in Liberia

Election rival accuses prize-winning president of partial responsibility for civil war

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MONROVIA, Liberia — Fresh from being named a joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf dismissed critics who have called the prize undeserved and said she is ready to take on all challengers in Tuesday’s election.

In an interview in the capital, Monrovia, on Friday, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, said she was “excited” and “humbled” by the Nobel announcement.

“Once again, I’ll be that person trying to meet the aspirations and expectations of women, particularly in Africa, even worldwide,” she said. “So that adds to a great responsibility on me.”

On Friday, the Nobel Committee in Oslo awarded the peace prize to three women — Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian peace advocate Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni human rights activist Tawakul Karman.

In recognizing Liberia’s president, the committee cited her contributions “to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women” — sparking controversy amid a divisive presidential campaign.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (front, right) waves to supporters during the final day of campaigning before Tuesday's presidential election. Africa's first democratically elected female president and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize faces stiff competition from a fiery opposition candidate and his soccer-star running mate. (Associated Press)

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Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (front, right) waves to supporters during the final ... more >

The leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), has argued that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf bears responsibility for Liberia’s 14-year civil war because of her early support of former President Charles Taylor, who is on trial at The Hague on charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone.

Ellen does not deserve that,” CDC presidential candidate Winston Tubman said in a phone interview shortly after the peace-prize announcement on Friday. “It’s the opposite. She contributed to the war in Liberia.”

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, has apologized for assisting Mr. Taylor — who launched a coup in 1989 that triggered the conflict — while pointing out that she later became one of his most vocal adversaries.

But she dismissed the criticism as misleading.

“I’ve been in this political struggle for three decades, and if the Nobel Peace Prize [panel] did their research, they concluded that I’ve been consistent in fighting for the rights of the individual, in fighting for democracy in this country,” she said. “I’ve paid the price for it. The one event of an institutional support for Taylor does not wipe out two decades of working for the rights of people in this country.”

Of her opponent, she said: “The entire manner in which counselor Tubman has run his campaign has been one of negatives and one of attacks and one of criticism, so I didn’t expect him to say anything different than what he’s been saying the past few days.

“But you know that’s his right to express his free speech. I disagree with him, and if he wants to even look at the facts regarding the war, he will know that what he’s saying is not true,” she said.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said that, as of Friday evening, she had not received any calls of congratulations from Liberia’s 15 other presidential candidates.

“I’m hoping that somebody out there will recognize that this is not just a recognition of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf,” she said. “This is something for Liberia, for Liberian women and for African women, and they should rise above the pettiness and recognize when something great happens to their country.”

A West African nation colonized by freed American slaves in the 1800s, Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries. At least 80 percent of its population survives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.

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