United Methodist is likely frontrunner in Liberia’s presidential race
|Photo by D. Snyder and J. Malone
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leads Liberia's presidential race, scholars say.
Aug. 11, 2005
By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone*
(UMNS) — It is likely a United Methodist will become the first woman
elected president of Liberia, according to interviews with faculty
members and students at Liberia’s United Methodist University.
members and students identified Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formerly an
official with the United Nations, the World Bank and Liberia’s finance
agency, as the frontrunner in Liberia’s presidential race during
impromptu conversations and interviews. The faculty members interviewed
included, among others, a political scientist, a theologian, and the
Johnson Sirleaf is a
“very strong, very focused leader,” said university President J. Oliver
Duncan. Many Liberians “are dreaming of bringing forth the first woman
president of Liberia,” he said.
Johnson Sirleaf, an
active member of First United Methodist Church of Monrovia, is one of
more than 50 aspirants who have announced their intention to run for the
nation’s highest office. Some will run as nominees of Liberia’s 30
political parties; others may run as independents. Campaigning
officially begins Aug. 11. The election will be Oct. 11.
The Rev. Julius Sarwolo
Nelson Jr., dean of the university’s Gbarnga School of Theology, said
only five or six of the many contenders will turn out to be viable
candidates. He predicted that during the final weeks of the campaign,
the number of candidates who have a chance of winning will drop to two
or three. Johnson Sirleaf will run as “the standard bearer” — a term
commonly used in Liberia for presidential candidates nominated by
political parties — of the recently formed Unity Party.
Support for Johnson
Sirleaf’s candidacy at Unity Party conventions — similar to state-level
party primaries in the United States — has been enthusiastic, observers
“Ellen is a capable
person; she is educated,” said Blessing Harris, a political scientist on
the university faculty. “She has had experience working in government
in Liberia, and she has worked in the U.N. for quite a while.”
But Harris warned that
the campaign could include some surprises. Because many of Liberia’s
schools could not function during the country’s 14-year civil war that
ended in 2003, the literacy rate in the nation is low, Harris said. Some
studies cited by university faculty suggest that only two out of 10
Liberians are literate, a drastic drop from pre-civil-war levels. Harris
was not sure the same qualities in candidates that are admired by more
educated voters will win the votes of less literate Liberians.
Harris also wondered
whether Liberia’s young adults might be attracted by the candidacy of
soccer superstar George Weah, who has returned to Liberia to be the
nominee of the Congress for Democratic Change Party. Weah recently
transferred his membership from First United Methodist Church of
Monrovia to George Patten United Methodist Church, a growing,
youth-oriented congregation in Monrovia’s market area.
Wyeatta Moore, a young
adult studying sociology at United Methodist University, agreed that
young adults, especially young men, are drawn to Weah because he is a
sports hero. But, she said, in a nation where many feel leaders have
been corrupt, some young adults look to Weah as an alternative to
“business as usual” in Liberian politics.
“They don’t see him as a
regular politician,” Moore said. “He is the one who is the outsider who
is not looking for money because he is already rich.”
Young adults, ages 18
to 30, make up half of Liberia’s 1.3 million registered voters and are
expected to have a significant impact on the election.
Moore believes most
young women will vote for Johnson Sirleaf. “Everybody is saying it is
time for a woman president,” she said. More than 50 percent of those
registered to vote in the October election are women, she added.
Ambassador T. Ernest
Eastman, dean of the university’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts, said
he was impressed by the response to Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, but
he was also cautious. “No one wants to bet completely on her, but she
may emerge as the central candidate,” the former Liberian secretary of
state said. “We don’t know how the election will go until the campaign.”
|Photo by D. Snyder and J. Malone
A poster celebrates Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's candidacy
The professors said
perceptions about the ethnic and religious affiliations of presidential
aspirants, and their vice-presidential candidates yet to be named, will
also affect the campaign. Most candidates are Christians from Monrovia,
Liberia’s largest urban center, yet many Liberians in rural counties are
suspicious of urban and Christian people. They identify more with
tribal affiliations and non-Christian traditions.
During a brief interview, Johnson Sirleaf said she is optimistic.
“We do not have as many
financial resources as some other parties,” she said, “but I am
reassuring the people that the money we are spending is money that has
been earned honestly. I tell them we have not mortgaged Liberia’s future
by taking money with strings attached, and people seem to be responding
to this message.”
According to university
faculty members, in addition to Johnson Sirleaf and Weah, others
expected to be strong presidential candidates include:
- Varney Sherman, nominee of the Liberian Action Party, the party currently in control of Liberia’s interim government.
- Togba Nah Tipoteh, an
economist and founder of the popular social change organization Justice
in Africa, who will run as the nominee of the Liberia People’s Party.
Tipoteh is also a United Methodist.
- Winston Tubman,
nominee of the National Democratic Party of Liberia, the party
established by former President Samuel Doe. Tubman is a former U.N.
secretary general representative to Somalia, and the nephew of the late
President William V. S. Tubman. The Tubman family has historically been
strongly identified with the United Methodist Church.
- Charles Brumskine, the
nominee of the Liberty Party, a lawyer who once was close to exiled
President Charles Taylor but who left the Taylor government and fled to
the United States due to philosophical differences. He attends a
nondenominational church, although his father was a highly respected
district superintendent in the United Methodist Church’s Liberia Annual
- Roland Massaquoi, secretary of agriculture in Taylor’s administration, the candidate of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party.
Faculty and students
agreed that, no matter who wins the election, the new president faces
daunting challenges. The war-torn country has been without centralized
electricity and operable water and sewage systems for 15 years, and
highways are in disrepair. The rural population fled to the city to
escape the rebels and lost their farming equipment to looters, so
agricultural production is limited and the cities are overcrowded. The
unemployment rate is estimated at 95 percent, and no one is paying
taxes. U.N. troops are still stationed throughout the country to keep
leadership is essential to maintain peace in Liberia, Eastman said. “Our
soldiers have still not surrendered all their weapons; they are
buried,” he said. “They (the combatants in Liberia’s civil war) are
untrained in anything else but fighting; the only thing they know of
family life is war.”
*Snyder and Malone are
communicators living in the Washington D.C. area. Snyder is senior
minister of Foundry United Methodist Church. Malone is an
affordable-housing advocate with the Alliance for Healthy Homes.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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