Peace Prize Winner Faces Tough Re-Election Bid

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was one of three women who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. She is the first democratically elected female president on the African continent. While Johnson-Sirleaf enjoys broad global support, she faces growing criticism and a tough re-election campaign at home. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with foreign policy expert Emira Woods about the upcoming elections in Liberia and Johnson-Sirleaf's chances to hold onto power.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, living in foster care can have a dramatic effect on children's lives. Now, scientists argue that the system actually pushes young people out on their own before they are mature enough to take care of themselves. More on that in just a moment.

But first, to Liberia, where presidential elections will take place tomorrow, to one safety incumbent, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She is also one of two women from the African nation to win this year's Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the importance of women's rights in the spread of global peace. She shares the honor with women's rights activist, Leymah Gbowee, who campaigned against the tyranny of former president Charles Taylor and the mistreatment of Liberian women.

Awarding the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize on Friday was quite an honor for Liberia, which has endured its share of national tragedy on the global political stage. Everything from the illegal trade of blood diamonds to Taylor's agonizing trial at the International Criminal Court.

But that all changed in 2005 when Liberians chose their first democratically elected female president in modern history. Her election drew strong international support and leaders worldwide praised her victory as a huge leap forward for that country after years of civil war. Tomorrow, Liberians will head to the polls yet again and the big question remains, will Johnson-Sirleaf remain in power?

Joining us right now to talk about this is Emira Woods, co-director of foreign policy and focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Emira, nice to see you.

EMIRA WOODS: It's a joy to be with you, Tony.

COX: This is great news, I think.

WOODS: Well, as a Liberian woman, let me tell you, we are jumping for joy, you know, for a country to have been connected with all the ills of Taylor and his cohorts, to now be elevated to the recognition of the Nobel Peace Prize is extraordinary.

COX: And we should mention, I think, that the two Liberian women will be sharing that award with another woman who is from Yemen, democracy activist, Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman to win the prize. What do you think the significance of the Peace Prize winning for Johnson-Sirleaf will be in terms of, Emira, the election tomorrow?

WOODS: Well, I think that's a really complicated situation. Clearly, the announcement of the prize so close to the election is something the opposition parties are not happy with, while many of us are overjoyed, right? It is seen as giving yet further international recognition, perhaps the highest international recognition, for someone who, as an incumbent candidate, is in the elections and to do it so close to the elections. Yes, it's raised a few eyebrows within the opposition.

But, clearly, the award not only going to a head of state, but also going to extraordinary women activists for peace, both from Yemen and from Liberia, shows a level really of sophistication of the Nobel Committee. And I think it has to be acknowledged and applauded that they chose Leymah, who is a longtime community activist and organizer who led women peace movements, started organizing in church halls and then moved to mosques and kept organizing.

You know, women marching every single day in opposition to Charles Taylor, in spite of the risks of violence. They brought their children with them in the hot sun and the pouring rain. Their children were with them. They were there every day. And to have that recognition at long last, I think, is extraordinary to also hold up the Yemen community of activists, you know, in their push for greater democratic rights. I think it is to be applauded that the Nobel Committee chose them at this time.

COX: I'd like to focus in more on the election and to do that, I want to go back a little bit. Six years ago, Liberia made international headlines with the election, as we said, of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Here she is in 2007 talking on this program about the state of Liberia at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Today, people are out on the streets even in the night, no longer fearful. You can see intimidation has gone. Children are back in their uniforms, on the streets, going to school. And more importantly, you look in people's faces and no longer you see despair and disappointment and dismay.

What you do see, you see smiles on the faces of the children. Laughter is back and in the younger people, you just see in their eyes that maybe there is a future.

COX: The question is, having heard her then, have things changed now and is there a sense of hope still?

WOODS: Well, I think there's exhilaration that peace has been maintained for the last six years. But I think there's a sense, also, that that peace is still fragile. You have still tremendous problems. There is, of course, a global economic recession that has also hit Liberia hard. You have high unemployment, according to the World Bank. The figure is still somewhere close to 80 percent unemployment rate in Liberia.

You have remittances, you know, the money coming from folks in the (unintelligible) for like myself, you know, that has sustained the economy. As people have lost their jobs and homes in the U.S., those remittances have declined steadily. There have been tremendous challenges in terms of the economy. And, quite frankly, now you have new players on the scene.

Chevron just opened up their offices in Liberia just this year, this past February. So the whole notion of an economy that now includes oil, potentially offshore oil drilling in Liberia and all the challenges that that may bring, both for governance and also for the environment. All of those challenges will be met by whomever comes out the victor of these elections, right? So the stakes are high.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are looking ahead to the presidential elections in Liberia with foreign policy expert, Emira Woods. Before we talk about who the challengers to Johnson-Sirleaf are, there have been several controversies swirling around her presidency, her relationship with Charles Taylor being one of them. She was a former supporter of his. The other is a reported alarming rate of corruption in the country and an alarming increase in rape crimes in the capital in particular. These are serious issues. They could hurt her, could they not?

WOODS: Well, I think there has, for some time, been the impression that there was a lot of support in the international community, but that support is not as large internally because of some of these questions of accountability. Clearly, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been an extraordinary president with the nickname, Iron Lady, and yet many see that that nickname has not really played out in terms of accountability.

So, the questions internally are really around. You know, can there truly be a commitment to democracy that seeks the interests of the people above and beyond all else, that puts aside short term personal gain for the true benefit of the entire country.

COX: The larger issue besides her credibility is the challenger or challengers, as the case may be, who they are and how likely they are to upset her or to unseat her tomorrow. Who are the main challengers and do they have lean or the gravitas that would be needed to unseat someone who now, as we know, has just won the Nobel Peace Prize?

WOODS: Absolutely. I think, you know, some of them are really concerned now with this huge international recognition of the incumbent president. But to be frank, it was, you know, it was a checkered list even before this announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize. So there are about 15 opposition parties that have now put forward candidates.

Probably the most formidable is the candidate of the opponent last go-round, George Weah, who is an internationally recognized soccer player, actually still is the only African to have won the Player of the Year Award, international prize in terms of the sports world. Huge. Also has a lot of support internally, especially with young people. He was the opposition the last election six years ago and is still probably the most formidable opposition now. This time around, he's...

COX: His running mate is also well known, correct?

WOODS: Absolutely. This time around, he's the number two on the ticket and the number one on the ticket is Winston Tubman, who is the nephew of a former president, a well revered former president of Liberia. And, you know, he's a human rights lawyer and they seem to have a bit of a base, you know, particularly outside of the capital city.

COX: And both of them were Harvard education, correct?

WOODS: Well, both Winston Tubman and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf? Yes.

COX: Yes.

WOODS: But I think the key issue is that, you know, to what extent they will have a machinery as the opposition to be able to withstand the power of the incumbency, right? And I think, you know, the question will be can there be a full victory with one candidate winning outright 50 percent on October 11th or does it go to a runoff election now, then it would be only two candidates.

COX: One final question is this. Is there any reason for the international community and for those in Liberia, quite frankly, to be concerned about whether the election tomorrow will be free and fair?

WOODS: Well, I think there's always room for concern. The opposition has long claimed that the incumbent president and her party has used the power of the office, you know, in terms of resources, for visibility, for actually financing the campaign. And so, there are these reports out there.

I think, overall, the issue of Liberians after 26 years of war and now, you know, a six-year period of peace, Liberians are really demanding a say in determining the future of their country. And I think the open space for debate, the open space for dialogue among all of the candidates, I think that's essential now.

COX: Emira Woods is the co-director of foreign policy and focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. She joined us here in our Washington studios. Emira, thank you, as always.

WOODS: A joy to be with you. Thanks, Tony.

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