Ex-Liberian Warlord Backs Johnson Sirleaf In Runoff

The election pits Nobel Peace Prize winner and incumbent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, against fellow Harvard graduate Winston Tubman, who is a one-time justice minister and former U.N. diplomat. Prince Johnson, a rebel leader turned senator, is backing the incumbent because she's the lesser of two evils.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Liberia, a presidential race goes to a runoff. That runoff next month will pit the Nobel Peace Prize-winning incumbent against a one-time justice minister and former U.N. diplomat by the name of Winston Tubman. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first woman in Africa to be elected president and she hopes to retain the top job. But now it could be a former warlord-turned-senator who placed third in the election for president, who becomes an unlikely kingmaker. From the capital, Monrovia, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has more.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Feeding goats handfuls of greens in his backyard at his home in Liberia's capital, a chatty Prince Johnson consults his election campaign team and advisors. The former warlord, who was elected a senator for his populous northeastern Nimba County in 2005, holds court under what's called a palaver hut in Liberia; that's where you sit and talk.

He tells NPR laughingly that he's now in an enviable position politically, as kingmaker or queenmaker in the scheduled runoff next month. And last night, the mercurial Prince Johnson announces he's made his decision - he says he's backing 72-year-old President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. So, why?

SENATOR PRINCE JOHNSON: Well, the thing is that, if you got two evils, you choose the lesser one. She is the lesser of two evils and she has only six years to go. I would prefer six years than to support anyone for 12 years.

QUIST-ARCTON: What he means is that Johnson Sirleaf has already completed one presidential term and so should she win a runoff, would have only one six-year mandate left to serve. Senator Johnson, the now failed presidential candidate, who still has political ambitions is playing his cards close to his chest, but tells the BBC this is what he wants from the president.

JOHNSON: Well, she hasn't offered anything, but what we are most interested in is power-sharing. What percentage will be given to our people?

QUIST-ARCTON: Prince Johnson is likely better known outside Liberia for taking up arms in a rebellion in the late 1980s. He notoriously oversaw the torture and long, slow death of the late Liberian president and dictator Samuel Kanyon Doe. Johnson's name tops the list drawn up by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the TRC, in 2009, as the number one perpetrator of war crimes in Liberia. He was never prosecuted and shrugs off my questions about possible indictment by the International Criminal Court.

JOHNSON: No, they won't come after me. The Hague has its own lawyers. All of those writings you see in the TRC incrimination of Senator Johnson, it's all based on prejudice. It's all based on prejudice. No war criminal can win anyway. It's not possible. No, they won't come after me. I'm a liberator.

QUIST-ARCTON: Prince Johnson is the man both President Johnson Sirleaf and her second-round presidential challenger, Winston Tubman, will have to deal with. It's clear both sides are courting Johnson. Liberia's leader, who was recently jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, says his strong showing in the first round came as a surprise. But she's fine with the prospect of having to work with a former warlord.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I am not uncomfortable with that. After all, he was elected senator in 2005. We will talk to him. We will talk to everyone of them.

QUIST-ARCTON: Johnson Sirleaf, too, was named in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. Her critics argue that should exclude her from the top job as president. Her presidential challenger, Winston Tubman says he's the best man for the job.

WINSTON TUBMAN: What I think we need is not someone who broke the country down and destroyed the roads, and did all the destruction to the infrastructure and the social fabric of the country. I don't think that such a person is best qualified to heal the wounds of the country. All Liberians, we want to put the past behind us. When we take power, if God is willing, that'll be our focus - that for all Liberians can live together. Those who did terrible things, show remorse and say, well, let's start a new beginning.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's unclear whether the kingmaker Prince Johnson and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have cut a deal or whether any such an agreement would work.

Liberians have until November 8th to decide who they'll vote in as their new president in the runoff, the incumbent or Winston Tubman.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Monrovia.

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