KSG Grad Seeks Liberian Presidency

A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) and Liberian presidential candidate may become Africa’s first female head of state.

Liberia’s election commission announced yesterday that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will face former soccer star George Weah in a run-off election for the presidency on Nov. 8.

Former Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt said women have always been vital to African societies.

“It’s common wisdom that the women of Africa are the backbone of the continent, yet these presidential positions generally go to warriors,” said Hunt, who is also the director of the KSG’s Women and Public Policy Program, which brought Johnson-Sirleaf to campus in August.

Hunt also said Johnson-Sirleaf’s election would inspire African women to increase their political participation.

As a KSG Mason fellow, Johnson-Sirleaf earned a Masters in Public Administration in 1971. She then served as Liberia’s finance minister, where she worked to stem corruption in the Liberian government, according to Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Robert I. Rotberg. Johnson-Sirleaf later became a senior loan officer at the World Bank, and directed the Africa Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Rotberg, who is a former member of the Secretary of State’s advisory panel on Africa, said that while at the UNDP, Johnson-Sirleaf proved herself capable of managing an African bureaucracy.

Her opponent, Weah, is a former star of the AC Milan soccer team and the 1995 World Footballer of the Year.

Weah holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sports Management and has no previous government experience yet he is the current front-runner.

Weah presents himself as the voice of the people and emphasizes his poverty-stricken youth and his compassion for humanitarian causes.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s campaign must convince voters, especially the young, that her experience, education, and international connections make her better qualified for the presidency than Weah’s rise from humble beginnings to international celebrity, said Hunt.

According to the latest count from last Tuesday’s election, Weah led the polls with 28.9 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, while Johnson-Sirleaf came in second with 19.7 percent, the BBC reported.

The elections were the first since the former dictator Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in 2003.

Taylor first rose to power as a warlord during Liberia’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. After the war ended in 1996, he defeated Johnson-Sirleaf to become president. He was elected with the campaign slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa. I’ll vote for him!”

An interim government, which has been accused of corruption, has controlled the country since Taylor’s departure.

Hunt described Johnson-Sirleaf’s image as an anti-Taylor figure as one of the main strengths of her campaign.

In spite of Liberia’s poor infrastructure, the fairness of the elections was praised by international observers.

A delegation led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter reported on the Carter Center website that the campaigns were peaceful and competitive and the election was well administered and orderly. The delegation also emphasized the need for voter education about election procedures and the political positions of the candidates.