Tale of Two (Women) Leaders

Voters in Liberia and Chile have said they are ready for a woman president.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former finance minister, was elected president of Liberia in a hotly contested vote on November 8 that will be decided in court on Friday. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, a former defense minister, finished first in last Sunday's election and will face moderate rightist candidate Sebastian Pinera in a January runoff.

Online media coverage is positive for both of these newcomers. Both triumphed against considerable odds in countries known for the macho ways of their male populations. Both countries have special relationships with the United States. Freed slaves from the United States declared Liberia a sovereign republic in 1847 and named their capital, Monrovia, for U.S. president James Monroe. Chile is among Washington's closest ideological and commercial partners in an increasingly leftist hemisphere.

When Sirleaf launched her campaign to become president of Liberia, "conventional wisdom rated her chances as slim to none," says allafrica.com. Her opponent was George Weah, perhaps the best African football/soccer player of his generation, and he entered the race as the presumed front runner.

"No African woman had ever won a presidential election. ... Weah was a charismatic political novice, three decades her junior, whose international soccer fame had made him a national hero and household name, especially among Liberia's largely unemployed youth," said allafrica.com.

Sirleaf had 35 years of public service, a master's from Harvard, stints as Liberia's finance minister and as a vice president for Citibank, plus two previous presidential bids. She won with 59 percent of the vote. Election observers declared the vote relatively fair, but Weah charged fraud and has been giving "rabble rousing" speeches claiming the presidency. Last weekend, his followers went on a rampage in which several policemen were injured and 40 people arrested.

Sirleaf, meanwhile, took a call from President Bush, lunched with World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz, and conducted a six nation tour of Liberia's neighbors in West Africa where she won praise and promises of international assistance.

In that timeless cliché of democracy, beloved by editorial writers of every nation and political persuasion, the Liberian Observer declared, "The People Have Spoken."

"Liberia's existence as one nation indivisible is linked not to political affiliations with parties, but rather to our responsibility as Africa's oldest Republic: we are heirs of the burden of disproving the age old adage that Africa is incapable of governing herself. That was the excuse of convenience used by the agents of imperialism as they colonized our continent and subjugated its peoples to blatant brutality and dehumanization. Today, the wounds inflicted on the pride of the African people remain largely unhealed."

But frontpageafrica.com, a U.S.-based Liberian news site, had a different view: "Ellen and Weah must dialog."

Tomorrow: Michelle Bachelet: single mom who could.

Kevin Dumouchelle provided research for this column

By Jefferson Morley |  December 15, 2005; 6:14 PM ET  | Category:  Africa
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