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Nobel award adds to turmoil of vote in Liberia

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

- - Sunday, October 9, 2011

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.

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.

Liberia's civil war, from 1980 to 2003, claimed more than 250,000 lives and wrecked the country's institutions and infrastructure. A 2003 peace deal ended the war, and a transitional government ruled until 2005, when democratic elections brought Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf to power.

Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday's election could be an important step in cementing Liberia's stability.

"Liberia has enjoyed a hard-won peace for over eight years and [Tuesday's] election, taking place in a largely peaceful environment, is but one of the important dividends of that gain," she said.

"While the Liberian institutions responsible for maintaining rule of law and security remain weak, I believe Liberians are committed to avoiding a return to the long and painful years of armed conflict."

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said she would make road construction a priority, if re-elected. "During the campaign, I went on all of the roads throughout the country, and so I felt the pain that our people feel traveling on those roads," she said.

She acknowledged Liberia's slow pace of development, but she suggested it is out of her control.

"Sometimes our people are so impatient they think there's a quick fix for everything — once you sign something, their lives will be changed immediately," she said. "Progress takes time, and our capacity to even implement things at the pace we want is limited.

"I wish we would've been two times more in our progress than where we are today, but I know the capacity limitations because I live it every day."

A Harvard-educated economist who worked for the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank before coming to power, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf routinely is accused by her political opponents of courting accolades abroad while failing to help ordinary Liberians.

Asked whether the Nobel Prize could be viewed as the international community's unofficial endorsement of her re-election bid, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said she thinks the timing "just happened to be coincidental."

"It comes this time of the year, every year," she said. "If it has good effects on my chances, I'm not going to apologize for that. But I don't think that was the intent."