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United Methodist is likely frontrunner in Liberia’s presidential race

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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*

MONROVIA, Liberia (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.

University faculty 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 university president.

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 said.

“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.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
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 Conference.
  • 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 the peace.

Strong presidential 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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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