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Profile: Liberia's Landmark President-Elect

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Profile: Liberia's Landmark President-Elect

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Profile: Liberia's Landmark President-Elect

Profile: Liberia's Landmark President-Elect

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stands ready to become Liberia's — and Africa's — first-ever female elected president. The 67-year-old Harvard-trained economist won the country's runoff election earlier this month and faces the challenges of unifying a country recovering from a 14-year civil war.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The woman we're about to meet has swept floors and waited tables and eventually earned a Master's Degree from Harvard. She's been imprisoned at home and lived in exile abroad, and now she is poised to make history. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton profiles the woman who is about to become Liberia's next president.

OFEIBIA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

(Soundbite of campaign victory party)

Just a few weeks ago, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf electrified her supporters, dancing and singing during a victorious election campaign.

(Soundbite of campaign victory party)

Ms. ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: (Singing) We see our Freday(ph) coming. We see her coming. We see our...

QUIST-ARCTON: Today, the tireless 67-year-old looks set to become the first elected female head of state in Africa. Sitting in her spacious office at her home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, she's thoughtful about the challenges ahead.

Ms. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF (Presidential Candidate, Liberia): It's the last mile of a long road. I've paid the price. I've earned the stripes, and now I think the Liberian people just said, `She needs the opportunity to change Liberia so everybody will never again feel disadvantaged--that they have to resort to violence.'

QUIST-ARCTON: That's a tall order for any new leader of Liberia, man or woman, even with the backing of a 15,000-strong United Nations peace-keeping force. The presidential election was the nation's first after its 14-year civil war and insecurity remains a major problem. The conflict devastated Liberia's infrastructure and left thousands of young, largely-unschooled, former fighters jobless. But Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf says she's not afraid of hard work.

Ms. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I got married at 17 years old. I worked in places like garages. You know, I worked in restaurants in America tending tables to see myself through school after four children. So, you know, I've been through it all. I've been through the political struggles. Started early. I've gone to prison for this. I've been exiled for this.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Harvard Master's graduate was twice a political detainee and Liberian prison is not for the faint-hearted. Yet Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has served as a finance minister at the United Nations and at the World Bank, is perceived by many in and outside Liberia as a member of her country's privileged elite.

Ms. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: You know, I fit into any situation. I've lived in urban, elitist Liberia, so I fit that role, too. I'm at ease and at comfort in the company of market women as I am with presidents. And I'm not going to change because of this high office.

(Soundbite of campaign victory party)

Ms. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group (In Unison): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: The popular touch. And Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was not opposed to a little tinkering by an image maker as she crisscrossed Liberia campaigning in her quest for the presidency. That led to a debate about what she should wear in her official campaign portrait. The African head tie, or something more western? Larry S. Gibson, an African-American law professor at the University of Maryland with a long personal association with Liberia, was one of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's political campaign advisers. He chose the more Western business look.

Professor LARRY S. GIBSON (University of Maryland): It seemed to me that Ellen should send a signal that it is a new day for African women.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Johnson-Sirleaf still has to convince and win over many fellow Liberian voters who are supporters of her opponent, millionaire soccer icon George Weah.

(Soundbite of protest)

QUIST-ARCTON: They angrily protested against her apparent victory, and Weah has protested the presidential election outcome, alleging vote fraud.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Protester: My name is Helena. Helena Sai(ph). I'm 40 years old. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, we don't want her. We don't want her...(unintelligible) We don't want her. We don't want her today or not tomorrow.

Ms. JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I hope I can reconcile and unify all Liberians to make them all feel like they have a stake in the future, the country belongs to them and they can share equally in its benefits.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf says she has no illusions about the difficulties ahead at the helm and the uncertain future of Liberia as it struggles to shed the mantle of war and conflict and move forward. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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